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May 25 2012

The Saturday interview: Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin, who opens one of the biggest shows of her career today, talks about swapping sex for stargazing, why she likes David Cameron, and wanting her art to make people feel better

Demanding artist, selfish (her words) seeks an intelligent man with good sense of humour, probably not for sex because she's going through the menopause and has lost the urge, but definitely for laughs and companionship.

"I want love," says Tracey Emin. "I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again."

Emin is approaching 50 and she is worried about the possibility of a lonely, gentle descent to death. "I am going through the menopause and I have been for ages," she says. "It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It's horrible. And I don't look like that kind of person; you don't put menopause on top of my head, it doesn't associate with me."

Emin is talking as she finishes the installation of a show that she regards as one of the most important of her career, because it is in her home town of Margate.

The works going on public display from today are almost all new or never previously exhibited. They explore themes of love and eroticism, but overwhelmingly, they mark a farewell to the old Emin – the wild child, the one that got drunk all the time, the sex, the bed, the tent. Her "animal" lust has gone. Now there is the new Emin.

"People don't talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead, so you have to start using the other things – using your mind more, read more, you have to be more enlightened, you have to take on new things, think of new ideas, discover new things, start looking at the stars, understand astronomy … just wake yourself up, otherwise it's a gentle decline.

"For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I've got to start using my brain more – I've got to be more ethereal and more enlightened."

Emin is 48. In 2008 she told Piers Morgan she wanted to adopt children – an idea she scoffs at now. "I have friends who have adopted, and they had to radically change their life, their homes, the way they dressed – everything, to get through the adoption agencies. I am not going to change anything."

She's not even sure she'd make a good mother. "I'd make a good friend, not mother. I'm too selfish. I think a lot of mothers are selfish and they end up having children, but I don't want to put some small tiny person through that. I don't want to be Joan Crawford.

"I would really like the idea of someone small and cute to dress up, we all do, but that's not what it's about, is it? I don't want a mini-me."

The truth is she has now made a conscious decision not to have children, and finds herself something of a role model for other similarly minded women. "I'm never going to have children, I'm never going to be a grandmother, I'm probably never going to get married. I'm nearly 50, and it is not happening. I've got too much on the other side now, and I understand that."

But being childless can be difficult. "You're treated like a witch. And I'm not a witch, it is just that I have chosen to do things in another way. It is not by accident."

There are some stunningly beautiful works in her latest show, and much to get hearts singing, especially in the first room, which features a series of blue drawings bathed in exceptional light. "This room is about not being alone, and there's a nice feeling in this room. It's uplifting."

We look at some drawings of her in bed with a friend reading Daphne du Maurier short stories to her. "It was such a nice, cosy thing. No sex, just a really good story." Emin suddenly seems downbeat. "I've thought I experienced love, and now I'm nearly 50 I'm saying, have I? Maybe I haven't. Maybe I don't know what love is. Maybe what I thought was love was a kind of greed, or desire, or something? I think there's different kinds of love – that's where I'm at at the moment. But I don't think I've experienced love."

Emin came closest in her five-year relationship with fellow YBA (the so-called Young British Artists who emerged in the late 1980s) Mat Collishaw, which ended 10 years ago (they are still good friends). In 2010 she split up with boyfriend Scott Douglas, and her closest relationship now, she says, is with her cat, Docket.

"When you have a really good friend and they're reading you a book in bed and it's all cosy and all snuggly, that can be love, too. It doesn't have to be hardcore. There's different kinds of love, and I'd never experienced that kind of totally platonic love. All the love I've experienced has always been a kind of deal, and now, as I get older, I realise that there's this other love out there."

At the other side of the room we look at some works she has never shown before, from when she was in Australia in 2007. "I was in Sydney on my own for two months, trying to work out why I felt so ill. I went on this complete health thing – I stopped drinking, I cycled every day, I walked about 10km every day, I swam every day, went on a really strict diet. My legs and arms went completely skinny, but my stomach was just getting bigger and bigger, because I was ill, and didn't understand why. What I was trying to do with these drawings was try and make myself feel sexy again, but it was difficult. It was almost there, but wasn't."

What was her illness? "I had a tapeworm."

We move on to works she did in Carrara, Tuscany, when she was looking at marble with a friend. "It was the first time I'd been really happy in a long time. You know when you wake up and you feel good? I realised then I'd been low for a long time."

One is a simple drawing of a heart, which Emin now wants to make in pink alabaster. "I'm sure the first alabaster heart will be a disaster, I'd have to keep working at it, but it's about me being driven by myself," she says. "Whether people like my work or not, I want to show people I can do things. I look at this show and I'm enthusiastic. It makes me want to do things."

Emin's path to art superstardom began when she opened The Shop in Bethnal Green with YBA Sarah Lucas in 1993, cashing in on Damien Hirst's new fame by selling ashtrays with his face on. People began to sit up and take notice with works such as her tent (Everyone I Ever Slept With, from 1963 to 1995) that was bought by Charles Saatchi and shown at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997 – the same year that she so memorably appeared on a late-night Channel 4 discussion show completely hammered. Two years later, Emin was shortlisted for the Turner prize, exhibiting her unmade bed complete with stains, condoms and dirty underwear.

Unlike some other YBAs, her success has endured. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007, staged an enormously successful mid-career retrospective at London's Hayward gallery last year, and not long after that was voted by her peers as Eranda professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, the first woman to occupy the role.

Critics generally warm to her these days. Reviewing the Hayward show, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times wrote: "I would love to hate Tracey Emin," but she left "a convert". The Guardian's Adrian Searle called her art touching and surprising and said "the cumulative effect is extremely powerful".

She may shake her head at the suggestion, but Emin, once "Mad Trace from Margate", is now firmly part of the establishment. She's even a Tory. "I like David Cameron because I think he is fair compared to a lot of politicians in history," she says. "He's in the centre. Probably more centre than someone in Labour, not mentioning any names, who's actually Opus Dei – that is extreme right-wing thinking."

She is baffled by all the political fighting that goes on. One work in the show, The Vanishing Lake, is a rusting metal bath with a scrunched-up union flag in it, and is a comment on Britain – "politically, socially, morally". The flag is a scar. "I don't understand why people don't pull together. I don't understand why there's so much disunity. I don't understand why people can't just say: 'It's a mess, let's pull together.' Why is everyone so angry with each other on everything? It's so easy – if everyone relaxed and said we should work together, rather than against each other."

The Margate show is at Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery that opened in April last year and is helping to spearhead the town's desperately needed regeneration. Emin has been a staunch supporter, and she was the obvious choice for a major show in Olympic year (the exhibition is part of the London 2012 festival). It is clearly a big deal for her, and she's written an open letter to Margate, asking people to come. "I do feel really positive about this show, because even if people don't like it, I like it. And that is the most important thing. I didn't know that I would, because there's so much new work, and I thought I was setting myself up for a fall, but I've done it. I wanted to do something exceptional because it is Margate.

"I'm always anxious with a show, but more so with this one. I've been tearing myself to pieces … chronic nerves."

Reassuringly, there is a bed in the show. Or a Heal's mattress at least – quite astonishingly stained – on which Emin has placed a bronzed dead branch. The mattress saw service between 2000 and 2003, and is called Dead Sea. But how did it get into such a state? "I'm not going to go into the gory details. Believe me, it was all naturally made. It wasn't all on my own, I can assure you.

"It goes back to that thing of being over." She's talking about sex again. "It's over. This explains it very well. It was there, but it's gone."

And though she's one of the most successful and feted artists of her generation, is rich and has beautiful houses in east London and the south of France, where she spends around four months a year, it's still not easy finding a man. "I don't think it helps," Emin says. "Any woman who is successful and top of their game will tell you that it is not attractive to men."

She says she has not had many close relationships in recent years, and her friends "have seriously stopped" any attempts at matchmaking. "I say to them, 'Would you give him a blow job? No you wouldn't, so don't expect me to.'"

A flash of the old Emin – full-on, confrontational, up yours. Now she simply wants people to come to her show and enjoy it. "A lot of my shows generally make people feel worse," she says. "I'd like it if people came and left feeling better."

She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea: Tracey Emin at Turner Contemporary opens today, until 23 September. Details: © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 24 2012

Li Tianbing: My imaginary siblings

Growing up in China with its strict one-child policy, Li Tianbing never fully knew the meaning of the words 'brother' and 'sister'. By Jon Henley

The only memento Li Tianbing has of his childhood is five photographs. Tattered now, black and white, slightly out of focus. He's lucky, he says, to have even those: cameras weren't plentiful in Guilin, southern China, when he was a small boy in the 1970s, a three-day, four-night train journey from Beijing. He saw one only rarely, when his father – a soldier in the People's Army propaganda unit – managed to borrow one. As Li's dad could come home for only one or two days each month, and as he didn't often manage to borrow a camera, five photos is what there are.

But stacked against the walls in his studio, a cavernous former garage in a grimy Paris suburb, are some of the works those photographs inspired: huge, compelling canvases that have made Li one of the most critically acclaimed Chinese-born artists of his generation.

Rendered in the stark, monochrome detail of an old photograph, some splashed blue, red or green, others clutching unnaturally bright toys, books or bags, are children. Staring wide-eyed, deadpan they appear detached, waif-like. And above all – though each picture may contain several children – they seem alone.

These paintings are part of a semi-biographical series that has occupied Li for the best part of five years. They are an artist's attempt to recapture and reimagine what he can of his own childhood, and to explore the human consequences of perhaps the most controversial and far-reaching social policy China has decreed: the one-child rule. "My generation," says Li, serving green tea in a porcelain cup the size of a large thimble, "is unique, in China and in the world. We were the first not to fully know the meaning of the words 'brother' and 'sister'."

The one-child policy was introduced in 1979, when Li was five years old, and is expected to continue for at least another decade. Li's father, in the army, and mother, a high-school literature teacher, were both part of the state apparatus, so did not dare contravene it. "My mother was studying when I was born, so they waited to have their second child," Li says. "By the time they were ready, it was too late."

The policy formally restricts married couples living in urban areas to having only one child, and is reported to have prevented as many as 400m births. For Li, it mainly meant a lonely childhood. "I had just one toy," he says, "a wooden pistol. When I lost it, my father was upset. I read what I could, but it was difficult to get books. I spent a lot of time dreaming, imagining, but always on my own. Or with imaginary friends. That's why I started painting, I think, because I was bored. I painted everywhere. In the neighbourhood, they used to say to my mother: 'If you can't find your son, follow the graffiti!'"

It wasn't, though, necessarily a sad childhood: "Sadness is something you feel for other people. Children adapt very easily. They have their reality and that's it; they don't look beyond. And they usually find some way to amuse themselves. For me, that was art. Art was my lifeline."

And he was good at it; his paintings, in traditional Chinese ink-on-paper, were selected by the authorities for exhibition abroad, in Japan and Europe. When he was 10, his mother gave him a book by a celebrated Chinese artist, Xu Beihong, who studied in Paris in the early 20th century and returned to Beijing to found the city's Academy of Fine Arts.

Li dreamed of studying in Paris too, but it seemed "a surreal idea. China in the mid-80s was like North Korea now. You couldn't get out." Barely a decade later, though, he did: after spending four years studying international relations and languages in Beijing and refusing a government job back in Guilin welcoming foreign visitors, Li applied to study art in France.

Li spent barely six months studying art theory at the University of Paris XIII before being accepted into the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, from where he graduated in 2002 with the highest possible honours. Then for a while, he says, he was "a bit lost. I didn't really have a direction. I tried lots of different styles."

In 2006, he began working on a self-portrait from his childhood. Like his five photographs, it was in black and white, and Li was all alone. "Slowly," he says, "I began to add other children. The brothers and sisters and friends I never had. My invented friends."

Looking back now, it's clear he was searching for his roots. "Perhaps because I was very far from home. And because my memories were fading; all I had were those photographs. And because not just the memories, but also the real, concrete world of my childhood in China was disappearing, being rubbed out by the unbelievable pace of construction."

But Li's paintings of children were not just a recreation of his own childhood identity, but an exploration of what was happening in China. The one-child policy, he says, has had unimagined consequences. "There are the hidden children," he says.

"They can't go to school, because they don't officially exist. In the big cities, there's a market. Children can be bought and sold. They disappear."

Li still finds it surprising in France, he says, "when a child goes missing, and it's in the newspapers and a poster goes up, and stays for months! In China, nothing like that happens."

Fines and punishments for having a second child are harsh: "You will be denied promotion. You may have a 20% pay cut. Your apartment can be taken away from you, your benefits cut. In the private sector, the fines can go up to six years of salary."

The longer-term economic consequences, Li says, are dramatic. "Traditionally, the Chinese have at least two children to provide for them in old age. But by 2030 in China – the third generation of the one-child policy – every young couple will have 12 old people to provide for. The whole thing will just explode."

Emotionally, too, it's difficult, even in families that manage to obey the rule. "I can't talk about it with my parents," says Li. "They know my work is about this, they see it; I've taken them to exhibitions of my paintings in Shanghai, Hong Kong. But we can't address the topic. It's really very sensitive, very painful, for lots of people."

Li, though, is fortunate. He has a son of 18 months with his partner, a sculptor – and a second child on the way. "Having just one child changed everything for me already," he says. "My son resembles me – he's like a living model, he's in constant movement. Compared to those five frozen, out-of-focus photos of my own childhood … It's miraculous."

Being able to choose to have a second is, he says, a huge privilege. "My parents couldn't choose. In China, that choice is not open. There are a few exemptions, like if both parents are themselves only children. But for most people, the possibility is just not there. I feel like I have won a prize, being able to have a second child."

Of late, a whole industry has grown up, particularly in the US, to cater for Chinese couples who want a second child. "People can go abroad, have their baby, and come back to China with American papers for their child," Li says. "That's OK; the rule doesn't apply to foreigners. The baby is American; it doesn't count. But that's obviously only for the rich."

He considers himself fortunate, too, to be able to spend time with his son. "When I think of my father, he never had that choice either. He saw me so rarely. I see it now, whenever I visit. I feel his emotion. It's in the little things he does: he makes my bed. He's compensating for the lack of time together, before."

Indeed the whole notion of family, as lived and understood in the west, means something rather different in China. "For so long now," says Li, "the collectivity has been more important than the family, than the needs of parents and children.

"It's completely normal for parents to live miles apart most of the time, as mine did; to see each other one or two days a month, for 20 years. Lots of my friends at school were in that same situation. My grandfather was an architect; he was sent to a faraway town to build bridges for 30 years. When he came back, he was retired."

Still, he would have loved a brother or sister. "You always regret what you've never had," he says. "As a child, of course it would have been lovely. But now my father is not well; I am thousands of miles away. In our culture, it is important to look after one's parents when they are elderly. I can't, and there's no other child to do it."

But having children of his own – a family with whom he actually lives – is, gradually, starting to influence his work. His sad, wide-eyed childhood self may still take centre-stage in many paintings, but the imaginary children are starting to look happier, less lost. There is the occasional smile. And other themes are emerging: modern issues in China like galloping commercialisation, the increasing difficulty of finding factory workers.

"Increasingly now, I think I'm using the children more as a symbol, as a medium to explore and talk about what else is happening in China today," he says. "My work is perhaps less, now, about the one-child policy. But it will always be there. An artist must, after all, speak of his own experience."

• An exhibition of Li Tianbing's work can be seen at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington Street, London W1, until 21 April,

China's old-child policy

China's one-child policy was introduced in 1979 in an effort to alleviate the problems caused by having the world's biggest population. It applies to urban couples but exempts rural families and also parents who don't have any siblings themselves.

Official figures state that 35.9% of China's population is subject to the restriction with fines imposed on those who ignore it.

Since its inception, it has been estimated that the policy has prevented 400 million births, but a cultural bias towards male children means that it has also been implicated in an increase in female infanticide, forced abortions and under-reporting of births. The resulting gender imbalance means that 117 boys are born for every 100 girls.

It was reported in 2010 that since 1985, Yicheng County in Shanxi Province has been experimenting with a two-child policy, resulting in no excessive population growth and a gender ratio within international norms (103-107 boys for every 100 girls).

Those who have a second child often register them as someone else's, or simply don't register tham at all, leading to a whole class of people who don't officially exist.

The 1990s saw the emergence of the "little emperor" syndrome – mainly a product of Chinese media fearful that single children have been pampered and over-indulged. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 25 2011

Reborns: dolls so lifelike you could mistake them for real infants

Some people buy them because they can't conceive; others just like the idea of having a baby around… Zoe Williams on a new phenomenon

In the National Portrait Gallery in London at the start of this month, at the awards ceremony for the Taylor Wessing prize, a woman was standing with a tiny baby. That in itself was not unusual – there were probably three or four babies dotted around, and she was cradling it in the normal way, as if to support its head and not wake it. But it somehow didn't look right; it looked, in my peripheral vision, as if it wasn't moving enough. Anyway, while I Englishly darted looks at it without approaching, my friend did approach, and it wasn't real. Phew. Not ill, just inanimate.

It belonged to the photographer Rebecca Martinez, who had used it, and many others like it, for her project preTenders. And while I went over to look at it, and laughed, I felt resentful at being tricked. It had stirred some panic in me, something similar to that impotent distress you experience when you hear about a child being killed by an act of violence. Later, when telling me about the four years she has spent photographing people with these dolls, their collectors, their creators, her friends, a whole variety of subjects, Martinez said, "If I go out and I hold this doll in any way other than you would a real baby, people get mad. I cannot just hold it casually, like by one arm or whatever, because people will go, 'It's not right, you can't do that.' They go crazy. Even though the rational self knows it's a doll." But I'm with the mad people, because you don't start off knowing it's a doll; you start off thinking it's a baby. You can be disabused of your mistake but you can't, immediately, be disabused of your anger.

Reborns occupy a place that I think is unique in culture: to the artists who make them, they are works of art, and the artistry is undeniable. To some collectors, they are dolls, and to other collectors, they are something else altogether, a memory of a child or a substitute for a child. But it's possible to fall into neither of those categories, to be neither appreciating them as art, nor finding them cute as dolls, but nevertheless to respond to them in some profound way.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, springing up over the past six to seven years and spawning in its wake an entire industry that goes way beyond the making and selling of the dolls themselves into web forums, conferences, global export; generating ancillary industries, such as the provision of bespoke babywear. The dolls arrive as kits: vinyl "sculpts" made by specific people – some of them, such as Donna Rubert and Denise Pratt, are now big names in the business. Individual artists will then build on the basic structure, using layers of oil paint and various methods for the hair (a doll with painted hair will take a week to make, whereas a doll with real hair will take a month, since each strand needs to be individually rooted). They are weighted so they feel exactly like holding a baby, except that they're not warm. You can get quite crude ones on eBay for £100 but at their most expensive they can stretch to thousands of pounds (one was sold recently in the UK for around £11,000).

Martinez is full of stories about the way people react to a Reborn doll – the people who get freaked out and won't touch them, the people who seem to feel neutral towards them and yet start rocking them as if they were real, the men who play pranks with them. But before we consider the reactions of bystanders, the experiences of people who make and buy them are fascinating.

Claire Hughes and Min Li, two UK-based Reborn creators, are very upbeat and straightforward that this is an act of craft, with a burgeoning and busy market. Hughes remarks on the power of the dolls, but the vignettes she describes seem to underscore the fact that it's illusory: "My mum works in a care home with old people. If I take one of the dolls in, they love it. They think it's real, it calms them right down. The manager can't even look at them." She likens it to eccentric male hobbies – playing with train sets, or sitting for three hours by a riverbank, waiting to catch a fish.

Min Li has three boys, real ones, and started making baby girl dolls for her own enjoyment; she has since built up a market in China. "Most western babies have very thin hair and Chinese babies have lots of hair. They like that [thick-haired] kind of baby. So that's why I started doing it. Most people favour boys in their actual families," a hangover from the one-child policy, she says, "but," she adds feelingly, "people love girls."

The American artists I speak to, Cher Simnitt, Diana Mosquera and Gia Heath, seem less abashed, less inclined to forge an ironic distance. They describe the people who buy their dolls as more emotionally involved. Some people want a doll because what they really want is more children, but for practical or physical reasons can't have them; some want a doll made of their toddler, as the real child grows up, and they miss that physical sensation of the newborn; a family might commission a doll of their newborn to give to a grandparent, then, when the grandparent dies, it will pass back to the family "as a beautiful heirloom", Simnitt says. One woman who couldn't have children came to Heath and said, "Here's a picture of me, here's a picture of my husband, do you think you could make a baby that would look like us?" There's a story I find inexplicably moving about a wife who commissioned a doll of her husband, as a baby, then gave it to her mother-in-law. (What's the female for "uxorious"? And is there even a word for loving your mother-in-law that much?)

Then there are "portrait" or "memorial" babies, in which someone who has lost a child gets a doll commissioned in its image. Simnitt was, at one point, a midwife and a doll creator, and remembers, "I helped a woman who was 16 weeks pregnant. She came in and we got no heartbeat and she went on to miscarry. And she wanted to know what the baby looked like, but she was afraid to see it. So I had a model and I said, 'This is exactly what your baby looked like.' She carried that model for three weeks. And she said to me, 'I needed to grieve and hold something physical, and just work through it, and now I can let it go.' That's kind of drastic, I realise, but whatever gets you through."

What is more striking than these commemorative dolls, which are very rare, is the similarities between the artists. Before they started Reborn-creating full-time, they were often engaged in an intensely nurturing business, whether that was midwifery or art teaching for home-schooled kids; they had all been intensely nurturing people from a very young age – Simnitt cared for her mother, who was disabled by childhood polio, then went on to foster 125 drug-addicted babies and toddlers. Heath has adopted children; Mosquera had a typical experience as the oldest child of a large family: "I always took care of my sisters. When we had pets, I used to help with the breeding of the pets – there was always something being birthed around me." More importantly, both Simnitt and Heath suffered a tremendous loss just before they started making the dolls – Simnitt lost her mother, to whom she had been so close that, "literally, for 12 years, I was her body. When we ate, we had one plate, I took a bite, she took a bite, we bathed together. When someone passes away after having had a relationship like that, it's like something has been amputated from you. I would look at my hands and go, 'I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do with myself.' "

Heath, meanwhile, lost her baby daughter who was two months old, and says in a straightforward manner, "If I were to have a real daughter, I would love to have a daughter with green eyes and dark red hair and alabaster skin and freckles. I have my ideas, but when you go and put that on a doll, that's too much." It's almost as if they achieved this uncanny attention to detail as a product of their grief; that concentrating on something is a salve, but the focus of your concentration has to be a tightrope act, between reality and fantasy.

Martinez has observed the reactions these dolls get in many different scenarios, with friends and strangers, in different countries and cultures. "People say they want to hold the baby, then they get surprised, because the baby is made to feel as real as possible. Often, they'll start rocking the baby and cooing at it. And they'll realise what they're doing and they'll get embarrassed. They know on one level it's not real, and sometimes they're ashamed that they feel like that, that they've been fooled. It's something very deep and biological in people, something instinctive we have, that they're automatically comforting their baby. Some people are just delighted; they'll kiss the baby and not want to give it back. One time I had a man and he grabbed it and his body just tensed up, and he threw it on the ground. And I was upset, I said, 'Hey, that's a very expensive item, how dare you do that?' And he was so into what he was doing, he was so stiff, he wouldn't move for several minutes. He was trembling."

Martinez has observed wryly the stark differences between men's reactions in America and in Mexico – where American men will try to play some prank, to get a shocking reaction, Mexican men are much more nurturing and will kiss it and tend it, openly. She tells an extraordinary story about a time when she was burgled, in San Francisco: the boot of her car had been forced open, but nothing was stolen – she and the police surmised that the criminals had taken one look at the Reborns she had in there, concluded that they were real dead babies, and taken off. What was interesting was what happened next. "One of the officers said, 'I want you to photograph me with the baby.' So I said, 'What's your idea?' And he said, 'I want you to photograph me pointing a gun to the baby's head.' Even though it scared me a little – I'm afraid of guns – I thought, what a great photo this would be. I went to get a baby and in the couple of minutes I was gone, he was obviously talked out of it by his partner. So instead I have a photograph of him nurturing the baby. A few months later I was in New York and I walked past two police officers posing with tourists. So I went up and started talking, and one of the officers said, 'I have an idea' and said exactly the same thing, 'I want to be pointing a gun at the baby's head.' It was fascinating to me that these two police officers, 3,000 miles apart, both had the same idea."

It's funny because it's the grand impact images, the ones that fuel revulsion, that shock me the least; I can imagine how someone could look at a perfect simulacrum of a newborn and say, "I know, I'll pretend to eat it, or blow smoke on it, or smash its head against a wall." The Reborn-as-art is provocative, and you feel as if you should meet the provocation, that otherwise you're not up to its subversive standards. What I find compellingly mysterious, but simultaneously totally understandable, is the way people love them. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Maybe baby – in pictures

Rebecca Martinez photographs these lifelike dolls, their makers and their owners

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