Amber Hawk Swanson met Amber Doll on January 25 and the two were married the next day in matching rented gowns at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Swanson noted a few gawkers as she wheeled her bride through the casino and into the chapel, “but people who are in Vegas are already ready to sort of have something wild come at them,” she says. “I only got one real look of disgust.” Swanson, a video and performance artist, had ordered her bride online: Amber Doll, a lifelike sex doll, was specially made to look just like her. Their wedding video and other footage documenting their relationship will screen for the public this week.
Swanson, who’s 26, earned two BFAs at Iowa State University and an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She studied printmaking, drawing, and painting, but never video. The doll project grew out of a response to a job she had before grad school designing for Stride Rite. Disturbed by the elongated figures of fashion sketches, Swanson wanted to caption them with the words of real women and began videotaping her sorority sisters to generate quotes. She ended each interview with the same question: “How do you define feminism?”
Intrigued by their responses, Swanson began talking to more women and by 2005 she herself was in front of the camera. “Feminism?” consists of ten shorts in which she quotes from interview transcripts while participating in her own objectification. One short, Not a Feminist Way of Thinking: Daddy’s Little Girl, recreates a scene from Lolita; in it Swanson’s real-life father paints her toenails. Two others, That’s Deep and That’s Deep Again, show Swanson being penetrated from behind—in one video by a man, in the other by a woman—while repeating “That’s deep,” one woman’s answer to her final question. “I was interested in the cultural phenomenon of young women rejecting feminism,” Swanson says. “In some ways I took on the character of a young woman doing so—either rejecting feminism or being naive about it.”
“Feminism?” toured colleges and film festivals and is now part of the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Reaction was understandably intense. “I put myself in my own mock porns. I was not only sexualized but I was also hyperfeminized,” Swanson says. “People conflated the persona of the work with me. There was so much attention, positive and negative. I was excited to get attention but also overwhelmed by it.”
That’s when Swanson began researching Realdolls—whose scale, molded features, silicone skin, and adjustable joints make them eerily realistic—as a tool for exploring the boundary between the real and the fantasy. “I was looking for a receptacle for the onslaught of attention and negative feedback—a stand-in for myself,” Swanson explains. “It was just
the right amount of crazy to
order a $12,000 doll.”
It took some convincing to get the San Diego-based company to go along with her vision. Customers can dictate everything from the style and color of their Realdoll’s hair to his or her shoe size, but making a doll in a particular person’s image is considerably more costly. Last July 4, after several weeks of negotiation, Swanson put $6,000 down on a doll that would be four inches shorter than her, with a waist six inches smaller, but have a face identical to her own. (A full body replica would’ve doubled the cost.) She set the date for her 3-D facial scan—executed by Burbank-based Cyber F/X, which caters to Hollywood—to coincide with her birthday so she and Amber Doll would share the same one.
In the months before the doll’s arrival, Swanson prepared her home, buying the doll gifts of jewelry and clothing that often matched her own. “I increasingly began thinking about her as my ideal woman and eventual wife,” she says. “I would lie in bed and rub my hand on the sheets where I knew she’d be lying soon.”
Swanson began to recognize herself in the people who detailed their relationships with their sex dolls online. “I identify with the other owners in a real genuine way,” she says. “Whether it’s dating related—not being able to have romantic relationships or whatever—or that desire for companionship as well as to enact violent fantasy.” She had her wrist tattooed with the word “Bully” and had Realdoll paint the word “Prey” in the same font on the doll’s wrist.
In January she got word that her doll was nearly finished. “The total time from the beginning of my discussions with them to eventually picking her up to be mine was nine months,” Swanson says. “Which of course cracks me up, thinking about her as my twin, my wife, and a baby of sorts.” She flew out to the Realdoll warehouse in California to film the final four days of production and then packed Amber Doll in a car and drove her to Vegas, shooting the entire way. Footage from the warehouse and the wedding ceremony are included in the video To Have, To Hold, To Violate: The Making of Amber Doll, which screens Saturday at “Diamonds at Dusk,” an outdoor showing of films by local queer artists.
Since the wedding Swanson has put Amber Doll to use in a project exploring the interplay between fantasy and reality in sexual relationships. The finished work, which is still untitled, will contrast stills of intimate “partnership” scenes with video reenactments of rape scenes from movies such as Irreversible and The Accused. Unlike “Feminism?” which spoofed sexualized depictions of women in popular culture, Swanson’s latest videos are meant to mimic them as closely as possible—with one main departure. In the rape scene reenactments, both Swanson and Amber Doll will be dressed as the victim in the film. She gets most of her costumes from Forever 21 and H&M, including dresses similar to the one worn by Monica Bellucci in Irreversible. “These places had the majority of the ‘asking for it’ outfits I was looking for,” she explains.
She aims to wrap up the project by May, when she’ll have a solo show at Locust Projects in Miami. After that, it seems like she might need a break from Amber Doll. “In so many ways she’s a huge hassle,” Swanson says. “I already spend so much time taking care of my own body, and it takes triple that to care for the doll.”
Taking the doll, which weighs 135 pounds, off her wheeled metal stand is a trick in itself. “It’s beyond a hassle,” says Swanson. “It’s so difficult just to lift her off. Or to even put her face back on; it velcros on and falls off all the time.” And since Amber Doll’s skin is made of silicone rubber, “everything sticks to it. I use tape and rubbing alcohol to clean it.
It just gets so dirty.”
The honeymoon, however, is not entirely over. Later this month Swanson and Amber Doll will host a joint birthday party and belated wedding reception for friends. A tent will be set up and there’ll be wedding cake.
Swanson is still toying with ideas for what to do with Amber Doll once the project is finished. “I’ve thought a lot about it,” she says. “It does seem like there needs to be an end to the body. I had a dream where I shot her in the face and it ricocheted and killed me.