Since 1996, international artist Deborah Coletti has been creating subversive art with Barbie. Through Acne Barb, Tampon Barb and more, Deborah has distorted Barbie’s image to more truly reflect the world we live in…
Your approach to using Barb is richly inventive:
- You truss Barbies together with bones and copper wire.
- You draw Barbie silhouettes on a wall and invite women to draw their own silhouette on top of Barbie’s impossible figure to show how the dolls offer an unattainable distortion of human reality.
In what other ways have you distorted Barbie’s image to reflect the real world?
Early on, actually twenty years ago now, I created an ensemble for the doll titled “South of the Border Kit” which included everything one needed to perform an abortion on Barbie, except the doll. That was quickly followed by “Bag Lady Kit”, “The Other Doll Kit”, and other such costume/accessory constructions mimicking the format of the corporate theme kits.
From those early works sprang the inspiration to work in a more minimalistic manner, yet still capture something real and honest. eg. Acne Barb, Union Yes! Barb, Amputee Barb, Japanese Barb with Freckles, Lactating Barb, and, no surprise, Censored Barb. I could keep going, but… there are too many!
In fact, during exhibits of these artworks, I like to have a notebook for comments from viewers. Extracted from these notebooks, and from conversations with people, I collect titles of works that others would like me to create. Sometimes they are difficult concepts, but great titles. Sometimes they are simply personal to the one suggesting it. Mainly, I hope that I have inspired them to go and make such dolls themselves. It does not have to be difficult or complex, especially if one is inspired by the theme, and motivated to have the concept realized.
Your art is visually witty… are words also important in your art?
Yes, I do like titles, as I think they help people find some direction in considering the perspective of the artwork. Like you mention, the titles add an extra layer, and a bit of wit. Humor can be a helpful factor when people are approaching difficult subject matter. Not all of my works are ‘difficult’, but humor is still a pretty consistent aspect.
Could you expand a little on ‘double consciousness’, or American women’s traditionally relegated dual role as household domestic and beauty queen?
The title of that installation referred to the contradictory elements in the artwork. Real bones of dead mammals, combined with plastic representations of the human mammal, all beautifully bound up in lovely shimmery appealing copper wire, dangling and bouncing from the ceiling installation. All the elements contradicted one another: Life & Death, Plastic & Bones, and Decoration & Work. As one walked through the installation, especially as installed in my studio, all of the elements lightly swayed, like seaweed fronds in a kelp bed. Later for their first public exhibition the fire department required a more up-and-out-of-the-way installation than I would have preferred. In a less-trafficked area I would install this work to my desired effect.
Your work appears to be focused in three main areas: textiles, assemblages, and the Barbs. In your assemblages of obsolete and broken found objects, or cast-offs from around the home, like clotheslines and napkins, it feels like you have a great respect for the objects you are working with…?
Truly! I hardly ever need to buy art supplies, as my friends, family, neighbors, (and luck – whatever that is) constantly deliver art elements to my door. Sometimes too many. A large portion of materials that come to me are not incorporated into my artwork, but filtered and recycled. If the items are intact, and entirely reusable, I will make sure they go to a good home, or a thrift store, or an art student, or somewhere other than into the trashbin.
Many children go through a stage of mutating Barbies when they’re around twelve, punking up their hair and colouring their face purple. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that, although suggestible, children will ultimately always be more creative than the toys around them?
I hope so! Actually, I believe so, especially based on the many Barbie stories people feel compelled to tell me. Nowadays, the range of fashion dolls made available to little girls is quite broad-ranging. Fashion dolls now do laundry and vacuum carpets. Wow. Whenever I meet a child playing with any type of doll, I try to expand their range. Recently a 6-year-old boy was playing with a family of hard-headed, soft-bodied Simpson dolls (from the t.v. show). Having just received a box of Barbie doll bodies, mostly without heads, from another adult in the group, I couldn’t resist showing this boy how good the Simpson heads would look on the barbie bodies. Somehow I think this child will never forget that expanding the boundaries of imagination is good and fun, and actually encouraged by many adults.
In your mission statement on your website, you say:
“Barb does not grow up to live in a pink palace, with scads of furniture, clothing, and accessories – rather she is a down-and-out Bag Lady. Or a Battered Wife. Or an angry Spitting Nails Barb. Perhaps she is a Molested Barb haunted by ghosts. Or an Alcoholic Barb drowned in her champagne glass. She’s pinched, and squeezed, and ripped, and peeled. Like real people, she has acne, gets fat, and becomes old and wrinkled. Finally, this corporate image of unattainable and undesirable womanhood is tarred, feathered, and exiled.”
Why do you feel Barbie and her pink palace and accessories are an ‘undesirable womanhood’?
Pink Palace?! Endless Accessories?! Are those the meaning of life? Hmmm. Sounds like too much work to me!
I would rather that our role models portray an earth-friendly and balanced life. Life is not just shopping and partying with buddies. How about “Barbie at the Voting Booth”; she could encourage everyone to be an active participant in our so-called democratic society.
Barbie working with the homeless, or Barbie shopping in the discount store. Barbie paying her bills. Barbie without health insurance! (OK, these are not ideal) During Remodel Barbie workshops participants have created Kali Barbie (with 6 extra arms!); Women in Black dolls (political activists for the ‘disappeared’); and a Barbara Jordan doll, first black Congresswoman; among other inspirational images.
Barbie has for generations been society’s ideal female template. But now we have a new generation of doll – the Bratz doll. Would you consider doing any Bratz doll art in response to the emerging social values for women it seems to represent?
I have not yet done anything with the Bratz dolls. Overall, from my point of view, they are the contemporary version of the Barbie doll, but more overtly sexed up. (Barbie used to be much sexier than she is now.) By the way, Mattel now markets to the same age range as the Bratz dolls. Unsurprisingly, with each generation marketing has targeted a younger and younger audience.
In the past you’ve done workshops to involve people directly with your art. Do you still do interactive art with the public?
As much as possible. As a guest artist in the schools, I teach short workshops for students ages 9-17. These classes can be for one session or for a few sessions, from an hour to four hours each. Or they can be an hour a week for 15 weeks. Occasionally I teach half-day workshops to university level students.
What sort of pieces have you created in the last year? Have you got anything in the pipeline that you’re looking forward to?
The night before leaving on a recent solo trip to Italy, I created several text-based handkerchief and linen clothesline artworks. As I travelled I asked people I met, whether they be a shopkeeper, another traveller, a relative, or a new friend to hold up a hanky while I photographed them. If it was a group of people I pulled out the clothesline. Alone, sometimes I strung up the clothesline in unusual settings… for example, in cemetaries, where there just weren’t so many hands to help… Overall, people enjoyed being included in an art project, rather than just looking at it. I am working on putting these images together, but don’t yet know where or how they will be shown.
I am in the process of putting together a few public works project proposals. These require a great deal of work, and great flexibility if selected. I have put together public works proposals before with limited success, but I now have a fabrication team with experience dealing with beauracratic entities and details.
For February, I am curating a small show of assemblage work, by Deborah Hayner and Lenny Bove, in San Francisco.
During June and July, I will have an exhibition of some of my small assemblage artworks in a large local community center. This busy public venue has a massive glassed-in and lockable display case. Of course, being a community center, appropriate care must be taken to respect the art understanding of the general public. This is the USA, afterall. Home of mixed messages: SEXY+PRUDISH Therefore, I will not have any naked dolls. Perhaps my Italy clothesline/hankies and photos will have their first public showing?
Some of the most basic themes I try to instill in my art classes are:
Experiment! Try This! Try That! OR… OR… OR…
GO OUT & BE CREATIVE – it is our best human asset!
Gaining skills is a very good thing.
Allowing yourself to explore and experiment are very very good too!!!
Four Barbs in a Car