It was the discovery of Hatsune Miku, a fictional Japanese pop star whose voice stems from a Vocaloid, a singing voice synthesizer, during a trip to Japan last year that was the starting point for the latest body of work by artist Laurie Simmons. Over the course of researching the phenomenon, Simmons stumbled upon the bizarre world of Japanese cosplay. “We just went down this rabbit hole of people who dress up and fetishes, and the girls that surgically enhance themselves to look like dolls,” says Simmons.
Simmons, whose daughter is actress Lena Dunham, finally found a cosplayer from Russia who makes giant masks of cute, anime-eyed women for Kigurumi, a subset of cosplay that involves costumed performers who dress as dolls or animals. “We don’t know who he is or what he is, but we ordered the masks, we customized them, and we just crossed our fingers and hoped they would arrive in the mail,” says Simmons, whose large scale photographs of costumed models wearing the masks are the focus of her latest exhibition, Kigurumi, Dollers and How We See, which runs through April 28 at Salon 94 Bowery in New York.
The series is a departure from the 64-year-old artist’s usual work, which involves fantastical and dreamlike images of inanimate dolls and dollhouses. Simmons selected real people from her life to take on the roles of the masks. “I tried to find people that were really enthusiastic about dressing up and masking,” she says. Her subjects put on flesh-colored zentai, a tight body suit, before slipping on outfits that often involved latex fetishwear. “I felt like they related so much to the whole idea of the doll, and also really related to my first pictures where dolls are made out of plastic,” says Simmons. “It just made their bodies seem like they were plastic or encased in plastic.” An abandoned house in Washington, Connecticut served as the backdrop for much of the series. “It’s like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” describes Simmons.
The exhibition begins with a photo of two mermaids posed side-by-side on their stomachs with their tails sticking up in the air. It was inspired by the short story “Mermaid in a Jar” by writer Sheila Heti, who spoke with Simmons for Interview magazine. On the left is a set of selfies taken by her subjects. “The last time I had a show, I don’t think there were selfies happening,” says Simmons.
On the bottom floor of the exhibition, a section of the show called “How We See” features two portraits of models sitting before a red backdrop, eyes closed, with trompe l'oeil anime eyes painted on their eyelids. “I just thought the metaphor was so rich and complex given the fact that my other characters are wearing masks out of which they can barely see, and these are real girls who are also looking right at you, but they can’t really see, and I wanted to go for realism in this as much as I could in these pictures,” says Simmons.
Once fully costumed, each model just happened to take on a new character. “It was instantaneous that a new persona or personality or character emerged once a person put a mask on, and usually the person modeling didn’t remind me of their unmasked self at all,” says Simmons. “So obviously masking gives people permission or an excuse or like wearing a costume, just to be someone different.”
And what was it like actually being inside one of the masks? “You can’t see,” explains Danielle Bartholomew, Simmons’s studio manager, who posed for the artist in the Nora mask. “You can talk but nobody can understand you, so you’re walking around half blind, half deaf. They kept your head pretty warm. The poses I would get into later on. You learn how to see in this new way.”
Kigurumi, Dollers and How We See is on display at Salon 94 Bowery through April 28.