Fardou Louise Keuning and I were seated at a long dinner table at La Neomudejar, an experimental art museum in Madrid, Spain. The lighting was dim, like a séance in a bad horror film, and the six guests seated around the table weren't too lively either. In fact, they didn't move or speak at all. Their bones were made of chicken wire, their skin papier-mâché. The food was fake, too: insulation-foam cakes, uncooked noodles, and toy chicken legs.
Keuning, a 31-year-old artist from the Netherlands, calls these sculptures her "creatures," and it's not difficult to understand why. Some have deformed limbs; others have burnt skin. Their facial expressions range from Buddha-like tranquility to utter terror. She doesn't just call them "creatures"—nearly human, but not quite—because of their unusual aesthetic. It's because, to her, they are almost alive.
Before starting the dinner parties at La Neomudejar, Keuning had already forged a successful art career. She trained in sculpture and installation at the Amsterdam University of the Arts, and after graduating in 2008, she took on artistic residencies in Africa and Brazil."I got really inspired by these African animistic beliefs that material can have senses," she told me. "In voodoo, the sculptures come alive. You have to bring them food, you have to bring them drinks. You have to actually play with them."For Keuning, sculpting wasn't just about making a perfectly symmetrical face or realistic skin—that was only the beginning. "When the sculpture itself says, 'Hey, now I'm finished, now I'm someone—then we can start to meet."She called the process of bringing her creatures to life "play," like an adult version of a childhood tea party. "I play with them like when I was a little girl. You have these fake teacups and fake food, you're playing like there's a little party and your friends are coming over."
Keuning's "tea party" doesn't stop when an exhibition ends. In fact, when her show at La Neomudejar closed at the end of April, she propped her creatures up in chairs, at a table, to live out their days at her father's country house in Ontinyent, Spain, at least until her next exhibition. "They will never be packed up in plastic."
It's hard to understand Keuning's relationship to her "creatures," until you've seen Gigo. Unlike the rest of Keuning's creatures, Gigo isn't deformed or burnt. He has a rounded chin and thin lips, and his eyes are closed in relaxation. You might even call him handsome. Even still, it took me by surprise when Keuning called him her boyfriend.Gigo's face and hands were created from a silicone mold of Keuning's husband, which was then filled with urethane foam. One of Keuning's friends, the artist Mareke Geraedts, clarified that Gigo was more like a personification of a boyfriend than an actual lover. "She made Gigo into a more universal concept—love, coming home, trusting the one you love," Geraedts explained via email.But that doesn't quite capture the way Keuning behaves around the sculpture. Shortly after he was created, Keuning took Gigo with her on an artistic residency in Spain. "I was living with him day in and day out, trying to figure out if he could become more than just a papier-mâché doll because of all the energy I put into it," she said. "I thought, 'I'm going to make a boyfriend, and do everything you do with a partner.'"
Keuning documented their burgeoning relationship on social media. The photos are startlingly normal, despite the fact that Gigo is inanimate. On her Facebook page, there are pictures of the pair drinking together on a sunny day; on YouTube, she's posted videos of them cuddling on a couch. In one video, labeled "just chatting," Keuning sits next to Gigo for more than five minutes, just smoking and talking. He doesn't talk back."They can never live completely like we do," Keuning told me. And as convincing as Keuning's world is, the woman is an artist, and this is her livelihood.Still, it doesn't seem like the vacation was just for show. Her attention to Gigo was too meticulous, the theatre taken too far for just a couple clicks on YouTube. She took him to restaurants and to the beach. She celebrated his birthday with candles and a cake. She ordered him meals and bought him drinks at clubs. Geraedts said she even took him swimming.If you had seen them out, you wouldn't just wonder why this woman was with a doll—you might wonder if she thought he was real. One night, Keuning recalled, she and Gigo were eating in the back of a restaurant when an older woman sat down with them in silencesilently touched Keuning's hand, and said, "I wish you so much strength in your process."Keuning was taken aback by the comment; Gigo sat there in silence, same as always. "She said, 'I think that your husband died from a terrible accident with fire or something.' She thought it was kind of a therapy," Keuning explained.
Sitting with Keuning and Gigo, it's hard not to wonder if the stranger was right. Was there something the artist was trying to work through with her "creatures"?"A very close friend said, 'Wow, I grew up with you, and it seemed like you had a normal youth," Keuning admitted. "These kinds of creatures… It seems to me like it would come out of the hands of somebody who had lived a really traumatic situation."But, she says, that's not the case. She hasn't suffered any trauma, and she insists she's had a perfectly normal life. Maybe she's just a sensitive person, more affected by all of the sadness in the world then most people. Or maybe, she says, the sculptures came out of the people-watching trips she took as a child, when she would study each person's unique features, wanting to examine each individual, deformities and all.
The first creature I met at La Neomudejar was short, her mouth open, revealing tiny teeth. Her arm looked like it had healed wrong after a bad break. According to Keuning, the creature was inspired by a real woman she met in China. "She was deformed like that," Keuning said. "When I met her she was trying to sell me a tourist card."She remembered talking to the small woman and focusing on her nicely pleated pants. "I thought, 'Wow, if you are already so deformed, why would you even [put in] the effort?'" A look of guilt passed over Keuning's face. "Then I thought, 'Wow, what a horrible thought. A thought to be extremely embarrassed about.'"
She decided to make a sculpture of the woman as a sort of redemptive act. "It's going to be part of my family," she said. "This deformed person is going to be apart of my family now."Each of the sculptures has a story like that. At the back of the dinner table sat a gray-haired woman called "Grandma," whose peaceful expression made me feel calm. On the ground lay a dead animal, inspired by a dog Keuning saw trampled on the street in India.Then I saw Gigo. Keuning was running her hands through his black hair affectionately, like you would a lover.We all imbue objects with our own personal magic: faded photographs of relatives that have passed on, or a relic of an ex that you just can't throw away. Perhaps Keuning is just a bit more honest about that process.As I left the darkened exhibit, I accidentally stepped on one of her creature's feet. The words "I'm sorry" almost escaped my lips. I only stopped myself because I didn't know to whom I should apologize.Follow Matt St. John on Twitter.