Life in plastic

Barbie has long been the must-have doll of pre-pubescent girls, but, as Nick Smurthwaite discovers, the fascination in her traverses all ages and sexes

Forget Mozambique. Never mind the mortgage interest rate. Take a well-earned rest from the real world and experience The Art of Barbie.

This lavish celebration of the fashion-friendly all-American plastic babe – 40 this year, but looking half her age – is jointly sponsored by her maker, Mattel, and the Elton John Foundation, which might explain why so many big names from the fashion and art worlds have been persuaded to reinvent Barbie in their own images.

It’s pushing it a bit to claim, as it does in the accompanying book (published by Vision-On, £25), that she is “an eternal source of fascination for artists and fashion designers,” but there is no doubt that Barbie’s tireless quest for outfits must have inspired many a couturier in his or her formative years.

That said, I’m glad I didn’t encounter the adolescent Andrew Logan. His surreal tribute, Swim Barbie Swim, finds her cut in two. Neither does she look too healthy in a Jonathan Parsons’ painting, Dream of the Future Palaeontologist, in which he imagines a Barbie skeleton. Nice one, Jon.

But it’s not all so pretentious. The fashion people – Agnès b, Nicole Farhi et al – have mostly done a 12-inch version of what they do best, with a few witty embellishments here and there. You can visualise each and every one on the catwalk.

Agnès b’s Lizard Barbie has our girly in full-length black silk number, with a shimmering white lizard clinging to her midriff. Predictably, Jean Paul Gaultier has added some rings and studs and kinky boots, while Antony and Paloma Gormley’s Camden Girl Barbie sports black, thigh-length PVC boots, a black skirt and bra.

But it’s not half as sexy as Jasper Conran’s plain, ankle-length black dress with a split up the side, or Rifat Ozbek’s sequinned, low-cut mini-dress, black beauty spot and heavy mascara. It takes real talent to make Barbie look like a tart.

The exhibition, designed in-house at the Proud Galleries features some clever superimposition of famous heads (notably the Blairs and the Clintons) on doll-style outfits, though I couldn’t really tell if it was Claudia Schiffer or Barbie with teeth. Since the whole idea of the show, I presume, is to provide the viewer with half an hour’s mild amusement, I’m surprised the organisers didn’t approach a few public figures known for their wit. For instance, I’d love to have seen what Jo Brand, Graham Norton and Germaine Greer made of the Barbie challenge.

And why no ethnic representation? According to the book, of the 150 new models produced each year there are “numerous multi-cultural incarnations”. But perhaps this refers to her wardrobe rather than her skin colour. My personal favourite – the only one I’d want on display – is Chris Levine’s Pulse of Barbie, a gleaming chrome statuette, clearly female, with a flashing blue light in the middle of its forehead. It’s got bugger all to do with Barbie, but isn’t that what makes it so appealing?

The Art of Barbie is at the Proud Galleries, 5 Buckingham Street, off The Strand, London WC2, until 2 April

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