Plastic Lives

Plastic Lives Show Statement

Modeled after Bild Lilli, the saucy German cartoon and novelty doll for men, Barbie was launched in 1959 and quickly gained icon status. She is sold in 150 countries at a rate of 100 dolls a minute, totaling 58 million Barbies sold per year. Because she is molded from a variety of plastics, Barbie is designated as non-recyclable or “other.” Experts believe she will not begin to degrade for at least 1,000 years.

We—as makers, marketers, and consumers—have created a modern human icon. She is cast in our own image though not of our own biological or even organic material. Yet, given predictions of impending environmental collapse and human extinction, Barbie may outlive us all.

As a future artifact of human civilization Barbie may relay a wish that we, too, could be made artificially eternal. Where we once desired gods with human origins, we now prefer object-icons. Barbie can be read as a symbol of our desire to shed the biological burdens of breathing, eating, sleeping, defecating, and dying. We continue to make and worship a humanlike object that cannot die precisely because we know that we will…likely as a result of manufacturing plastic.

Plastic is more than unsustainable; if we agree with Roland Barthes, plastic is without the pleasure and humanity of touch. I posit that Barbies are not truly meant to be fondled but used for their narrative capacity. That is, for the stories we can tell with them about ourselves.

Plastic Lives imagines the post-human Barbie. Here, she is stripped of her familiar environments (collectors’ shelves, childhood bedrooms) and manufactured accessories (houses, cars, clothing). The doll floats in water or crude oil to reiterate her petrochemical origins. The seven figures are abstracted to highlight that which is “other.” Finally, each plastic-coated image is lit by LED lights shifting through seven colors within seven reclaimed wooden frames. The light pulses through the icon in an artificial echo of human life.