November 1, 2007

Tear off your own head, its a doll revolution!

So yesterday I was upset by a post on a feminist blog that I read called Feministing. I mean I am often upset by the posts there, but usually because they bring up real important issues for women that are troubling and disturbing, in terms of civil rights and violence and such. But yesterday I was upset because there was a post that was highly critical of a jeweler whose work I love, Margaux Lange. She is a silversmith who uses doll parts in her work, and apparently this pushes many buttons for people.
The blog was critical because it said these jewelry pieces are examples of the representation of dismembered women. The blog has recently been showing disturbing images of products made to resemble women's parts, designed mostly for men (as one might think the most base and stereotypical "guy" man), and in a way that is really blatantly crass and objectifying. Like bathroom elements such as urinals resembling scantily clad female lower torsos. I agree witht eh blog writers there, that is pretty disturbing. But I don't think that compares to this jewelry at all.

I don't know, I think the reaction was pretty knee-jerk and overly sensitive. I am disappointed in the post and some of the comments, but with such sensitive issues, I guess there can't always be total agreement. I think my experiences as a female artist, and a jeweler of sorts, just took over and I went straight to the defense of the artist and her work.
I mean, these pieces are crafted from doll parts, which can be shocking in different ways. Barbies are very iconic. And they are icons of different things to different people. To some they are the ideal toy, to some the ideal woman. To others, they are hated... a symbol of something stereotypical, unattainable, and sexist. Some find them beautiful, some find them ugly. They are designed to resemble real flesh and features, but are in proportions that are surreal (also without defined genitals which makes a statement too). And to some, they are just dolls, frivolous and beautiful objects to adorn and admire.

I have never really been a Barbie person. I had some as a kid but was much more likely to play with my art supplies. When I did play with them, we made elaborate adventures or set them in scenes that fulfilled our own fantasies, with Barbie as the teacher, or singer, or president..whatever career we were entertaining at the time. I was not all about adorning them with all the latest Barbie fashions available at the store. If I did accessorize them, I would make wonderful little costumes or jewelry for them of my own design.

Lange keeps the meanings behind her work pretty open on her website and artist statement, which may be some of the issue for people who are challenged by this jewelry. It's not all laid out in a neat tidy statement what she means with this work. But to be honest, not everything has to be all Guerrilla Girl in Art to make a statement about something. That's one of the criticisms I read in the comments of the post. That these pieces are offensive because they are not in the context of a feminist art gallery showing of some sort, so it is unclear what they mean. That really bothers me, because it brings up the high art/low art question. Why can't something well crafted and personal, like jewelry, be a statement. Why does something have to hand in a gallery with a statement of purpose to be declared art, or to be activist art? To me jewelry is a personal statement, and in some ways it is more powerful than a big activist museum show.

I think these pieces are saying things about our throwaway society. Becuase they are found objects, they are recycled. It makes you think of the history of each part. Discarded playthings which find new life. They were once collected, played with, and have been abandoned. I think by taking their parts and making them into jewelry, it makes them sacred. It becomes a little altar or amulet, both powerful spiritual tools of adornment. Barbie is a toy that is meant to be accessorized, good or bad. Clothing and jewelry can can be all about glamour and beauty, or it can be about wealth and status. It can also be about meaning and revolution. I love the idea of jewelry that tells a story or makes a statement in a social or political way. The jewelry and gold/diamond/gemstone industry is enormous, and not without human suffering, so I think that using discarded dolls as raw materials makes a big statement about the industry itself.

Mostly I think the pieces are beautiful, and that the use of particular doll body parts is not representing disembodied women and people, but is in fact drawing attention to the parts in a surprising way, so that one is left to think about a number of different issues. In particular, if you look at Lange's site, I am drawn to the use of multi colored "fleshtones" of the dolls, and I think many of those pieces make some interesting statements about unity and racial equality, and the beauty of all skin colors. I think there are some pieces that use Ken dolls with Barbie dolls, and I think those pieces present some nice visual representations of male/female relations. And most of all, the use of a singular body part makes you think about that part, weather it is a hand, a mouth, an eye, or ear. It makes you explore that anatomical part, its function, its beauty, its iconography. And the use of a familiar material in an unfamiliar way is a brilliant way that Lange makes us think about these things.

Margaux Lange's pieces can be purchased in her Etsy Shop

Today's song is one that I knew from Elvis Costello, "Tear off your own head (it's a doll revolution) Here is the Bangle's cover of it, set to some art video, with the Doors and Floyd at the end for no reason I understand... It was the best quality song I could find on You Tube today.



  1. Thank you for introducing me to this artist (can you tell I'm getting caught up on my blog reading tonight?). I like the ear earrings and the lips brooch a great deal. The controversy is interesting, but given that the dolls themselves send mixed messages as far as feminism is concerned, the issue seems hardly straightforward. I don't really find them objectifying, personally. I actually find them witty, more than anything else.

  2. I think they are witty too. The earrings, for example, are titled hEARrings.

    I have emailed a little bit with Margaux since I wrote this and she seems really great.

    I would love a pair of earrings with hands as the dangles, kind of like the ones Picasso gave to Frieda Kahlo

  3. I think people take things (at times) too seriously. And let's face it. SHE'S PLAYING WITH DOLLS!!! They are so fun and witty and beautiful! People need to find something better to do with their time than creating controversy! I sometimes get "feminists" asking questions about my "headless/armless" (misogynistic?!?) mermaid... Don't like, don't buy! A friend has been sending me links to Margaux's work... LOVE IT!

  4. Gaea,
    I agree that people take things too seriously sometimes. I identify as a feminist, but there is a lot of feminist thought I do not agree with. Mostly older stuff. To me Feministing is pretty contemporary, and I often agree, so this surprised me. I just don't think they got it at all.

    I am surprised people ask about your designs in that way! I have had more people who are challenged by the goddesses and the devils/demons in my work from a religious point of view, rather than a feminist point. Hmmm,