I was recently asked to write about an exhibition here in London entitled ‘The Science of Imaginary Solutions’ at a gallery called Breese Little. Central to the work on show was the way that object-led narratives are malleable, prone to the changing modes of thinking across multiple disciplines from science to philosophy, archelogy to sociology and so on. We recognise the power of objects to act as both placeholders and objects in themselves, and the myriad ways in which we can ‘read’ them and extrapolate upon different ideas and conceptions of the world.
As an example, (also discussed briefly in my article for thisistomorrow),  consider the series of photographic images by Stephen Thompson entitled ‘Antiquities in Britain.’ These images, dating back to 1872, formed part of a portfolio that meticulously documented objects held in the British Museum. These included helmets, artisanal glass, earthenware and shoes among other things, many of which were found at the bottom of the River Thames. The assorted objects speak to combined histories of trade, migration and cultural ethnography, while also revealing something about both London as a city and the wider United Kingdom (as well as the foreign lands from which many of these pieces originally came). At the same time, the photographs themselves, their framing and the documentary/museum contexts in which they were made speak to changing attitudes to the archive, a certain kind of reverence for the past and the specific Victorian ‘gaze’ through which they were taken.
In short, a simple photograph taken in 1872 of a Flemish drinking glass dated between the 16th and 17th Century contains an almost dizzying spectrum of perspectives and signs. At base however, there is arguably a fundamental duality at play between the object as it was (i.e.: the object in its own context) and the object as it could be (which we could broadly interpret as including the various different considerations attached to it beyond itself). When talking about antiquities or other items which one might readily associate with a museum context, this seems fairly innocuous. What happens however when we take an object that is generally perceived as being much more contemporary and straight forward, and then introduce a host of modern contextual baggage to it as well?
In Bologna right now, a unique example of this baseline duality is currently being explored at Palazzo Albergati. Entitled Barbie. The Icon, the exhibition is a seven section behemoth dedicated to the children’s doll first released in 1959. The proceedings are every bit the garish extravaganza one might anticipate. Collections of the doll in various guises, outfits and models stand proudly in brightly lit glass vitrines, while neon pink wall texts trace the development of the doll from its reasonably humble (although interestingly, always rather ambitious beginnings) through to its present status as one of the most enduring and recognisable children’s brands (and indeed, commercial brands) of all time.
What is noticeable about the exhibition is the way the organisers have sought to frame the character of the doll throughout the course of the latter half of the 20th century and into the new millennium. While much emphasis is placed on the physical development of the doll, in particular its face and predominantly its fashion, arguably more significant is the timeline running through the entire show which ties the development of the doll with significant moments like the assassination of JFK and the attacks on 9/11. In doing so, an agenda begins to emerge, linking the character to emerging social movements towards equality and changing social attitudes. In 1965, as America became fascinated by the space race, Barbie was released with full astronaut’s uniform, a mere two years after Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. In 1998, Barbie was released with her very own Nascar uniform, a full ten years prior to Danica Patrick’s Indy Japan 300 win in 2008. Subtler but no less significant variations also appeared in the character’s day-to-day wardrobe and accessories, with a marked emphasis on occupational and business attire (the word ‘busy’ is prominently used several times to differentiate between models and outfits).
Perhaps amusingly there is very much a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ effect at play. For every new business suit, there is a new member of ‘Barbie’s’ extended family and entourage who is produced to look purposefully mousey and ‘girl-next-door’ so as not to overshadow the main character. For every new skin tone produced there is a cringe-worthy example of cultural appropriation, from ‘Amazon Barbie’ to ‘Aztec Queen Barbie,’ and the less said about the line produced to portray nationalities the better (‘Polish,’ ‘Norwegian,’ ‘Swedish’ and ‘Irish Barbie’ all look alarmingly similar, and my partner wryly suggested that by those standards, a Barbie from her native Romania would have been largely redundant.)
What is clear here is that intentionally or not, the dolls on display in Bologna reveal very much the base duality that I discussed in relation to ‘The Science of Imaginary Solutions.’ These objects both reflect the world around them and the views inherent in the society for which they are produced, and speak to the aspirational notions existing in the ether; the unrealised potential and unspoken rituals we encounter every day. While the exhibition makes much of the intentional side of this paradigm, arguably it is what is not discussed which makes the collection interesting to look at, such as the problematic cultural issues and the warm embrace of neoliberal economics. Even the idea of ‘accessorising’ as a woefully shallow and commercially manipulative activity was practically birthed and very much legitimised by a simple child’s toy such as this one (something which is uncomfortably close to the big-money art world for some people’s comfort).
A highly commercial brand attached to some questionably notions of gender and society might be enough to make someone bulk, but there is a value here that may be lost on some people. From the increasingly ethnically diverse presentations and the subtle politics of the dolls wardrobe, to the celebration of vacuous celebrity movie culture and the references to noted fashion designers and contemporary art figures like Warhol, these objects are cultural and social placeholders worthy of consideration.
The exact extent to which their creators realised this of course, is very much open to debate.
The Science of Imaginary Solutions is currently showing at Breese Little in London until September 17. Barbie. The Icon is showing at Palazzo Albergati in Bologna until October 2.
By Will Gresson