by Liberty Finch
If Kat Surth’s provocative Bad Bambi show at Niche 3708 doesn’t ignite conversations of a socio-political nature, it may evoke some interesting childhood reflections. The mere mention of this unusual Barbie-themed photography exhibit to girlfriends recently elicited the following responses: “I used to tie up my Barbies all the time!”; “I’d dress up my Barbie dolls and then have Ken ‘do it’ with the maid.”; “Right after my friend got the new Barbie convertible, her older brother super-glued Barbie and Ken ‘69-ing’ in back seat.”
I don’t recall this nefarious kind of pseudo-sexual-sadist role-playing
amongst my gaggle of plastic, long-legged beauties … and even if I did,
I’d never whip and tell. But what I do remember is schlepping cases and
cases of gear—dolls, clothes, assorted props and mini paraphernalia—across
manicured lawns and knee-deep in snow, to my friend Molly’s house, where
we’d hunker down for 48-hour Barbie marathons in the vast orange-shag-carpeted
basement that her mother used as a yoga studio, surfacing only for slices of
Oscar Mayer bologna, PBJs or Fresca with ice cubes that dropped from the front
door of her refrigerator.
It’s no surprise that “playing Barbies” means more than just
pretend shopping and tea parties. After all, what would you expect from a toy
that as a real-life, anatomically correct female would be more than 7-feet tall
and have measurements of
39-21-33? That’s freakish even in today’s world, where extreme nips
and tucks have enhanced real-life wanna-bes like Pamela Anderson and Anna Nicole.
For millions of kids with any sense of imaginiation, Barbie, Skipper and the
gang are the gateway to limitless fantasy worlds ranging from banal to carnal.
In Bad Bambi, Surth as adult artist manipulates Barbie in reality based situations
to highlight contemporary social dysfunctions.
Surth is a 20-something-year-old student majoring in English and German language.
She has done some modeling and says she’s been “playing around with
cameras” since she was a kid. (“I still have photos I took when
I was 8 or nine 9 old.”) She says that playing Barbies as a girl, she
“never dreamed of hurting her. When all my friends were chopping off hair
and painting her face with brick-red fingernail polish, my Barbies were tucked
away safely in their original boxes.”
Fast forward to adulthood, when one day Surth realized that all of the images
shared among photographers in a local camera club were “pretty.”
When a member’s submission of tasteful, artistic nudes riled up the conservative
shutterbugs, Surth decided to push the envelope even further with a nude shot
of Barbie, complete with black hairy legs and … well, let’s just
say hairy in all places female. “Many of the members were shocked,”
she recalls, “But I did that because there’s more to photography
than pretty pictures,” adding that “pretty” is often “forgettable.”
images in Bad Bambi are far from forgettable. Surth’s pithy approach
tackles tough issues, including death (“Just Hanging Around” and
“Forget the Cheese”), violence (“Bambi on Safari”),
abortion (“Cradle and All”), human rights and abuse (“Give
a Dog a Bone”) and homosexuality (“Two Become One”). Staging
Barbie—an American icon of alleged innocence and beauty—in ugly
or suggestive situations also adds a comedic twist that is likely to produce
nervous giggles or outright guffaws.
I mean, here’s Barbie: bound and gagged, being burned alive at the stake
on a pyre of burning twigs. Her blonde hair is disheveled and singed; her cupped
hands and ivory dress are charred black; but her doe-eyed radiance remains,
along with a plastic perma-grin behind her twiney gag.
“I am making political and social statements about the society we live
in,” confirms Surth. “There’s so much stuff going on that
people don’t see because they are conditioned not to see it … I
have the dolls act out things in their world to show what is wrong in ours.
Some people will look, say it's disturbing and then walk away, not thinking
about the meaning of it. Those are the people I worry about.” ||
Bad Bambi runs through Feb. 14 at Niche 3708, 3708 E. 34th St., Mpls.,
612-804-4472. Gallery hours are Tue.& Thu. 6–9 p.m.; Sat.–Sun.