For the artist Annette Thas, Barbie is a disturbingly bittersweet symbol of childhood nostalgia and longing; for installation piece “Wave I,” she uses between 3,000 and 5,000 barbie dolls to build a sculptural wave, re-appropriating the doll as a means of translating her earliest memories, scenes which now flood her after returning to Belgium to care for her ill sister.
For the artist, the wave is meant to convey her own relationship to overwhelming memories; it is 4 meters wide and stands at 3 meters tall, forcing viewers to be encased completely within its depths. The piece seems to swell with cascading blond hair, forever caught at the terrifying moment before its breaking. Adding to its realism, Thas chose to exhibit it on the beach as part of 2014’s Sculpture by the Sea amidst the sounds and smells of real waves.
The barbies in the piece, wild hair tangled and stripped of their clothing, do indeed seem ominous, but they are also startlingly sympathetic. They are second-hand toys, once loved but eventually discarded. They have endured a sort of violence, having been scarred by knives and bite marks. Each one has a poignant narrative all her own; one doll simply bears the words “please love me” on her chest. The plastic toys, symbolic of the scores of children who once owned them, are somehow lonesome now, robbed of childhood’s affections. Their demanding presence is urgent and desperate, their blue eyed faces pressing us to remember both the magical and painful bits of our youths.
The work also serves as a startling critique of Western beauty ideals; though the dolls doubtless belonged to a diverse group of children, they are frighteningly identical: long blond hair, full nipple-free breasts, tiny waists. In her ongoing work, Thas hopes to expand her use of Barbie as a symbol of body image, including a series-in-progress that features dolls covered in the words of men, women, and children expressing their own difficult feelings about the plastic icon.
Thanks to Annette Thas
A shorter version of this post appears on Beautiful/Decay