I’m not sure what I think about this installation at Burning Man 2007, “Barbie Death Camp,” but since this blog is one of the few places on the non-peer reviewed internets where you can find deep, intellectual discussions of Barbies and dismembered doll parts, I suppose I have to cowgirl up. (Be sure to click on the link above to see the whole slide show–this still photo is just one of many. Thanks to Historiann’s newly tenured friend G.S. for the tip.)
This blog says that “Barbie Death Camp” is clearly anti-consumerist, anti-corporate satire, but I’m not so sure it can be viewed only or primarily through this lens. Looking at the slide show is disturbing–is it a feminist commentary on the commodification and dismemberment of women’s bodies? Is it a commentary on the ambivalent relationship girls have with their Barbies, since they frequently train their aggression on the dolls, cutting their hair and frequently removing their arms, legs, and heads? Or is it just another example of female bodies being dismembered for our pleasure and entertainment? (You can’t see it in this photograph, but the yellow school bus near the lower right corner has “DIE BITCH” scrawled on the side, so it’s not accidental that it’s a Barbie and not a Ken or G.I. Joe Death Camp. I’m not sure how I feel about the appropriation (complete with toy ovens) of a specific historical event, the Holocaust. Does it trivialize the attempted genocide of Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Poles, and disabled people in the twentieth century? Is there an implicit commentary of the uniform perfection of Barbie bodies being destroyed in the same manner as the “racially inferior” or otherwise imperfect victims of the Holocaust? Is it an accident that the Barbies in BDC look like they’re all white and are overwhelmingly blond, too? What if it had been called “Middle Passage Barbie,” “Barbie Trail of Tears,” or “Killing Fields Barbie?”
Reflecting on Historiann’s recent foray into contemporary feminist art, this project seems like it could have been included in the recent The Way that we Rhyme: Women, Art, & Politics exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It shares many of the same features: the use of found objects in particular, but also the ”outsider art” fetish that many “insider artists” have affected lately, an aesthetic of amateurism and bad taste. (Actually, in many ways, “Barbie Death Camp” is more compelling and provoking than many of the installations at the YBCA, which seemed to labor rather humorlessly under a different kind of historical weight.)
For those of you interested in pursuing some of these issues in a more serious forum, at the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, we’ve got a panel on “Gender, Torture, and Memory,” which features papers on American POW’s in Korea, Femicide in Guatemala in the Cold War to the twenty-first century, and women in Stalin’s Gulags. (Unfortunately, our roundtable on “Women and the Holocaust: Reshaping the Field in the 21st Century through Oral History and Personal Narratives,” was cancelled.) We also have a roundtable on “What (if anything) Can Women’s History and the History of Sexuality Teach Us about Genocide and Extreme Violence,” and a Sunday morning seminar on “Historicizing Sexual Violence,” led by Estelle Freedman of Stanford University, which features many papers about rape and sexual violence in wartime and in occupied or colonized countries: colonial and postcolonial India, Nazi-occupied territories, 17th century Ireland, 1950s and 1960s Argentina, and 19th and 20th century Kenya, South Africa, and Costa Rica. (You can find the full program here.)
What do you think? Is “Barbie Death Camp” funny? Horrifying? Feminist, or anti-feminist? Too clever by half? Or just really good bad art?