Once upon a time there was a photographer. He had lost his parents when he was eight, and he missed them as well as who he had been before they died, because you seen when someone you love dies, a part of you dies with them. You probably know this already, and are thinking to yourself “oh my god how horrible, I couldn’t stand that, so I guess I have to make sure NOONE dies so I don’t have to die in little bits and then rebirth myself in little bits for my whole life long because that is going to be very hard work and probably painful.”
Well, good luck with that.
The boy became a man and the man became a photographer, which is the perfect thing to become because photography is all about showing you what isn’t there any longer as a very smart man named Roland Barthes once noticed. But even with making photographs for money, and even with making those cutesy photographs of kids that one can do as a profession for money in the 1950’s, the man missed his family and he missed – he continued to miss his dead little self.
So he did what artists always do – he found a secret way to express this loss and to also restore it.
That’s when he started to make the dolls.
15 in all. 12 girls – like the 12 dancing princesses of legend – and 3 boys. Ranging in age from 8-18. And he dressed them up in different sorts of outfits. And he took photographs of them.
The girls look various. The boys all look like him.
You can see some of the photographs if you live in Los Angeles.
“Ew” said my friend, the filmmaker. “This is really gross.”
“Aren’t they fascinating?” said my friend the performance artist. “They love him in Germany.”
Which goes to show that people can react very differently to the same art work, and both people could be right. It also goes to show that sometimes you need to make a secret art form – one that you don’t show to anybody. And it’s fine to do that, as long as you don’t hurt anybody, including yourself. Finally, it goes to show that – to quote Barbe Hammer — “people are really pretty weird.”
They are. We are.
I looked at the photographs and I thought about the secret plays I put on as a child, and the time I did a whole dance routine to Royksopp alone in the bathroom in the metrolink going from Riverside to LA. Because I’d had a tough day at the office. Or the ways I used to play ALL the parts of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance because – I felt like it, and it made me feel better.
Sometimes secret art helps us.
I wonder how Mr. Bartlett would feel about his secret art being revealed in Los Angeles. I hope he’s ok with it. I for one am grateful, because the next time I feel the urge to sing Gilbert and Sullivan with myself in a closet, I don’t have to feel bad.
And when I sing I can think about Barbe Hammer, who is dead, and Leonard Hammer, who is dead and all the people I love who are dead too. And I will have to suffer that loss, and that little personal death that happens all the times bits of me have expired too. At the same moment, I will have to look for the small part that is new and that says in quiet voice “now it is my turn to be born.”
To see Bartlett’s dolls in Los Angeles, visit LACMA:Morton Bartlett’s Uncanny Playthings