In October of 2002, Pamela So traveled from Scotland to start her Light Work residency in Syracuse, NY. It was her intent to examine American identity from the vantage point of being an outsider looking in. She decided to focus on using the representational power of the popular doll, Barbie. The result, embodied in the photographic series Barbie as Tatiana, explores the transgressive, recuperative possibility inherent in this most commodified of exports.
For over forty years, Barbie has perpetuated the myth of the American dream, sold to girls all around the world. Today, for young global consumers, she represents the single, unified, perfect image of American beauty. It is her white, anatomically impossible body and brash consumerism that they aspire to. Previous feminist critiques of Barbie being a global homogenizing force that commercially exploits a sexist body image must be re-evaluated.
Barbie as Tatiana toys with the tension between a globally recognized American icon and a distinctive local identity. The idea for Tatiana, the Russian waitress, originates from Little Odessa in Brooklyn, NY. The artist wishes to describe the unreality of this immigrant enclave and the contrary power it presents in what it means to be American today. She uses bright light and highly saturated colors to create photographs that resemble film stills from classic Hollywood cinema, the most seen and exported images of America.
Employing the advanced technology and equipment at Light Work, So produces a collection of photographs depicting an almost unreal suburban landscape in New York: sidewalk tables of the Tatiana Cafe, Brighton Beach and the Ferris wheel in the harsh autumn sun. Everywhere, Barbie's toothsome smile prevails and graces her milieu like a star. Stumbling upon a film set, the artist recreates the fantasy of Tatiana walking confidently into the technicolored mise-en-scene, probably into the making of another television or cinematic product bound for global consumption. The immigrant's identity is signified through stereotypical Russian decors, eclipsed by the all encompassing and perfect surroundings. The photographs force the viewers to question whether a working class immigrant waitress can be just as representative as the all-American girl, Barbie, and what an area like Little Odessa means in today's world order.
The series reveals something paradoxical in the hyper-real quality of the American urban landscape and of Barbie as a twentieth century icon. Barbie's perfect, unachievable beauty is the epitome of the unreal. Her body is so out of proportion that someone with the same physicality would not be able to stand up. As such, Barbie, seemingly oozing bodily perfection, is in fact devoid of sexuality - a plastic mould. Part of So's inspiration for the photographic series comes from the many images of women in the media who look like Barbie dolls. Thus, she begins to search for the real women behind the masks of mediated pictures of physical perfection. Barbie is shown to be no more, and no less, a masquerade than the hyper-reality that has permeated our world today. As Burgin asks, "How, unconsciously, is a sense of history and identity derived from the environment of media images?" (1) So's views of America have been those derived almost entirely from global media. Hence, through Barbie as Tatiana, she questions the contemporary image of the United States to the rest of the world, veiled behind media representation and commodities.
So's creative search for her own place as a resident artist in Syracuse, and as a Scottish-Chinese woman in the United States, is displaced onto the most commodified of all artifacts. The use of dress-up dolls as metaphors for contemporary identity ambiguity has always been a source of inspiration for the artist. In her previous art work, Love and Abuse (2000) and Role Play (2001), a Chinese doll performs the many facets of her mixed cultural references, focusing on the experiences in traversing identity boundaries. In this series, Barbie's consistent, timeless American self is employed to contrast with today's elusive and fluid subject positions. Barbie as Tatiana challenges the binary conditions: childhood/adulthood, American/non-American, global/local, and reality/unreality.
The series highlights the transgressive and redemptive quality in Barbie dressing down and passing for a menial worker. This all-American glamour girl, who is usually so devoid of political concerns, is forced to connect with class and identity politics. This may well be the most successful interventional tactic yet. Barbie as Tatiana whets an appetite for greater artistic truth, a process of rediscovering what lies behind contemporary global media and consumption.
Wing-Fai Leung (c)2003
(1) Burgin, Victor, In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture (University of California Press, 1996), p. 211.
Images by Pamela So may be viewed at her website at http://www.pamelaso.co.uk/