Desirée Holman’s exhibition “Reborn” at Silverman Gallery includes colored pencil drawings and one projected video also titled “Reborn.” Each drawing might be a straightforward portrait of mother and child were it not for cream dripping or burbling from some women’s mouths, certain babies that look not quite right (one obese, two others conjoined), and renderings of hair that threaten to become a maelstrom of pure line. Oddness is more overt in the video. It begins, innocuously, with a shot of a woman and a child seated outside in a park-like setting and the sound of the lullaby “Hush Little Baby” being hummed.
Scenes change; a group of women--each wearing a combination of, by the artist’s description, a niqab, a ninja mask and a super hero cape--dance to upbeat dance music. Though faces are veiled, bodies are not covered with jilbab. Some of the women wear tights and others bikini underwear. All carry a baby in some kind of sling that bounces around a bit as the women dance without inhibition or apparent concern for the children. A game of musical chairs is shown. The number of seats is finally reduced to one and the action gets a little rough. Here the women hold babies in their arms, but, like with the dancing, the women’s attention seems more focused on the game than the children. In another scene women twirl at a moderate speed and each holds up a balancing pole. Hanging from one side of the poles are babies in baskets and from the other side books.
The music switches to a more guitar heavy sound and the screen shows an aggressive woman facing off with the camera. In yet another scene women are lined up passing babies as if engaged in a bucket brigade or a game of hot potato. Finally, as in the drawings, interspersed throughout the video are shots of women with cream coming out of their mouths. The video ends once again with the hummed lullaby and the image of one woman sitting with a child. Despite the sense of unease Holman creates by juxtaposing non-child-care-oriented action with the babies’ presence, Holman’s videos are obviously not a discussion of child endangerment. Per the exhibition title all the babies are in the likeness of reborn dolls. A reborn is an ultra-realistic baby doll, often of a newborn, that can be purchased from a variety of reborn artists or manufacturers. A reborner is a person who participates in the reborn culture where, as the artist explains, the vernacular around the dolls is that of a mother addressing her live child. Holman has made her own reborn dolls as sculptures and props and does not show them in the exhibition or spend extended time in the video exploring their features.
The reborn doll sculpture as an entry into a discussion of motherhood and a peek into the psychology of the members of the reborn subculture is an obvious trope. But as a nature morte is rarely only about objects, meat and vegetation, Holman’s project has much broader concerns. In less than ten minutes the video, without seeming for a moment overburdened or overwrought, opens numerous paths of inquiry.
Babies are pressed to breasts, cream is spilled, young lives are cradled-- yet the exhibition contains no depictions of actual mothers or babies or even of actual reborn dolls or reborners. Everything is artifice. Without knowing or investigating the title one might miss that Holman’s sculptures are fictions representing another very specific, formalized type of fiction and that the actors and models are playing women involved in even deeper fantasy play. Once this apple has been eaten, though, the viewer becomes aware that Holman is tacitly directing the audience to explore outside the context of the gallery. The world has been pointed out to us so that we may investigate.
In discussion with SF MoMA curator Alison Gass at the Silverman Gallery, Holman described looking at Busby Berkeley’s films and realizing that this type of fantastic imagery, this perfection in fantasy, was not possible to capture live. It is only possible in artifice. She also explained that her first awareness of the transformative power of art, one that “rocked her world,” was while viewing the 1991 film “Silence of the Lambs” and getting what Buffalo Bill was up to. The grotesque aspects aside, he was making the suit of human skins, and using the performative, to transcend, or fulfill, his reality.
Holman speaks of the reborn project as being a “fantasyscape of motherhood.” For the viewer this fantasyscape readily expands. The background images in the video’s dancing scenes change. At one moment books will be seen, then a forest, then a glacier and then in another a Mary Cassatt painting of a woman and child. One can imagine a 24 hour dance party with good music and love of all kinds between Muslims and non-Muslims and super-hero-roll-play where children are never a burden and where one can be a fun-loving mother and an academic and revel in both the continuum of the practice of art and the continued relevance of the fine art object and, to boot, save the ice caps by arresting global warming. Holman says she never tries to be funny. But in the face of the world’s innumerable real travesties that such things as she suggests are even suggested is at once humorous and cathartic and, to this argument, armament.
It is precisely her creations’ unreality that has value. Holman’s fantasyscapes bring to mind Slovoj Zizek’s discussion of sex in his 1997 work “The Plague of Fantasies,” “(In his recently discovered secret diaries, Wittgenstein reports that while masturbating at the Front during World War I, he was thinking about mathematical problems...) And our key point is that it is also the same in reality, with so-called ‘real sex’: it also needs some phantasmic screen--as we have already seen, any contact with a ‘real’, flesh-and-blood other, any sexual pleasure that we find in touching another human being, is not something evident but something inherently traumatic, and can be sustained only in so far as this other enters the subject’s fantasy-frame.” Whether the subject of sex includes motherhood and whether genes or chemicals or thoughts fuel the fantasy-frame or fantasyscape or not, of most import is that for successful mediation between ourselves and any number of realities we must engage the situation with our imagination. The important difference between a reborner and a mother is not the differing psychological profiles of the adults. It is exactly the pulses of their babies.
Similarly, Holman’s investigation of the reborn phenomenon is not an exposé on a cultural practice but a labor intensive, and highly successful, sleight-of-hand distraction that allows her to confront numerous issues and their interrelations at the start of the long day of today’s future. If, as per Hegel, the Owl of Minerva (philosophy) may only spread its wings with the falling of the dusk, gray in gray, then successful art is the cock’s crow, a vibrant annunciation at the outset of events yet unfolded.
To the question of how games figure into the work Holman says, “Play is a big part of my process, so the games are a natural extension of that.” A finished art work, a painting or sculpture, does not have to be time based, but play does. This brings us to an aside on the time based form of music. Holman uses music to great effect both in setting the tone of the video and as a conceptual link. The dance music is by MEN and the “darker” more “labored,” Holman’s adjectives, song is by T.I.T.S. Given ongoing discussions about women’s representation in art institutions Holman’s choices resonate, “On another note, I am very proud that both MEN and T.I.T.S. are all female bands.” The lullaby "Hush Little Baby" is hummed by Dia Felix and heard notably at the video’s beginning and end. The set-up creates a juxtaposition in the viewer’s mind between the realization of the hummed tune’s title and the awareness that a lullaby is never needed for a baby that cannot cry. Further, the unsung words point to how the reborner’s involvement starts with a purchase--the buying of a reborn baby. In the lullaby one purchase after another is promised in the course of assuaging a child. “Hush, little baby, don't say a word, Mama's going to buy you a mockingbird. If that mockingbird won't sing, Mama's going to buy you a diamond ring.”
Holman’s research on the Web led to both the discovery of the world of the reborns and her decision to use it as a topic. Holman has elaborated on the extent of her research which included reading up on the psychology of doll collectors, investigating the roles of the FosB and FOSB genes in mothering, contemplating “natalist policy, anti-natalist policy, environmental issues, assisted reproduction, gay marriage, the changing of family structure, and single moms,” and, among other research, delving into the work of the influential theorist and child psychologist Donald Winnicott.
Winnicott’s “good-enough” mother is one that caters to a child’s every need early on in development and then gradually becomes less responsive as the child grows. This withdrawal helps the child adjust to the real world. Winnicott further developed this idea in his discussion of the transitional experience which includes the transitional object--a teddy bear or blanket that gives security.
Holman’s ostensible subject matter is a transitional object for adults--the reborn doll. In the course of addressing this subject she has created transitional objects of her own which we can call sculptures--her studio-made reborn dolls. The viewer, though, is left without this key transitional object.
This missing element can be taken as sign of Holman’s particular agenda. Holman seems to be offering certain types of advanced, adult transitional objects that will allow viewers to confront realities perhaps hither to not fully considered--contemporary motherhood, the trauma of lack, the violent imbalances between differing cultures and differing viewpoints, the antagonism between self and body, the decaying relationship between homo sapiens and earth.
There is no one antediluvian security blanket in Holman’s project for the viewer to grasp. The highly considered drawings do not include the time based movement and play and music of the video, and the video does not offer the tangible result of the artist’s hand-crafted approach. The fantasy objects that seem to be the link between Holman’s project and reality provide just enough comfort or context to help us prepare for the next step into a larger real. Here we are required to be, perhaps, more adult than we find comfortable.
So, included with the ease that the viewer can enter into various manifestations of Holman’s sensual, fantastic aesthetic is the realization that, as in the works of earlier generations of artists of the likes of Mary Kelly or Lorraine O’Grady, what is confronted physically is a remnant of a far-reaching and demanding conceptual project.