Barbie Death Camp

I’m not sure what I think about this installation at Burning Man 2007, “Barbie Death Camp,” but since this blog is one of the few places on the non-peer reviewed internets where you can find deep, intellectual discussions of Barbies and dismembered doll parts, I suppose I have to cowgirl up.  (Be sure to click on the link above to see the whole slide show–this still photo is just one of many.  Thanks to Historiann’s newly tenured friend G.S. for the tip.) 

This blog says that “Barbie Death Camp” is clearly anti-consumerist, anti-corporate satire, but I’m not so sure it can be viewed only or primarily through this lens.  Looking at the slide show is disturbing–is it a feminist commentary on the  commodification and dismemberment of women’s bodies?  Is it a commentary on the ambivalent relationship girls have with their Barbies, since they frequently train their aggression on the dolls, cutting their hair and frequently removing their arms, legs, and heads?  Or is it just another example of female bodies being dismembered for our pleasure and entertainment?  (You can’t see it in this photograph, but the yellow school bus near the lower right corner has “DIE BITCH” scrawled on the side, so it’s not accidental that it’s a Barbie and not a Ken or G.I. Joe Death Camp.  I’m not sure how I feel about the appropriation (complete with toy ovens) of a specific historical event, the Holocaust.  Does it trivialize the attempted genocide of Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Poles, and disabled people in the twentieth century?  Is there an implicit commentary of the uniform perfection of Barbie bodies being destroyed in the same manner as the “racially inferior” or otherwise imperfect victims of the Holocaust?  Is it an accident that the Barbies in BDC look like they’re all white and are overwhelmingly blond, too?  What if it had been called “Middle Passage Barbie,” “Barbie Trail of Tears,” or “Killing Fields Barbie?” 

Reflecting on Historiann’s recent foray into contemporary feminist art, this project seems like it could have been included in the recent The Way that we Rhyme:  Women, Art, & Politics exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  It shares many of the same features:  the use of found objects in particular, but also the “outsider art” fetish that many “insider artists” have affected lately, an aesthetic of amateurism and bad taste.  (Actually, in many ways, “Barbie Death Camp” is more compelling and provoking than many of the installations at the YBCA, which seemed to labor rather humorlessly under a different kind of historical weight.)

For those of you interested in pursuing some of these issues in a more serious forum, at the 2008 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, we’ve got a panel on “Gender, Torture, and Memory,” which features papers on American POW’s in Korea, Femicide in Guatemala in the Cold War to the twenty-first century, and women in Stalin’s Gulags.  (Unfortunately, our roundtable on “Women and the Holocaust:  Reshaping the Field in the 21st Century through Oral History and Personal Narratives,” was cancelled.)  We also have a roundtable on “What (if anything) Can Women’s History and the History of Sexuality Teach Us about Genocide and Extreme Violence,” and a Sunday morning seminar on “Historicizing Sexual Violence,” led by Estelle Freedman of Stanford University, which features many papers about rape and sexual violence in wartime and in occupied or colonized countries:  colonial and postcolonial India, Nazi-occupied territories, 17th century Ireland, 1950s and 1960s Argentina, and 19th and 20th century Kenya, South Africa, and Costa Rica.  (You can find the full program here.) 

What do you think?  Is “Barbie Death Camp” funny?  Horrifying?  Feminist, or anti-feminist?  Too clever by half?  Or just really good bad art?

33 thoughts on “Barbie Death Camp

  1. One version of the sign says, “Arbeit Macht Plastique Frei,” a play on “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work will set you free), which was a sign on the entrance to Dachau. But another version of the sign looks like, “We put the Barbie in the Bar-b-q.” The “wine bistro” contributes a dig at middle-class consumption, but for me the “Burning Man” tag adds up to a heavy dose of bad-taste holocaust metaphors. The Black Rock City setting, which appears to be some type of psychedelic gathering in the desert, speaks to a privileged decadence. Not sure it deserves too much attention but it reflects a culture of dismembered and discarded toys and a disregard for pain.


  2. I found it very feminist in a “woman is the nigger of the world” sort of way (though in this case, I guess that should be Jew rather than nigger). From what I’ve heard about Burning Man, it didn’t look that over the top. Seemed to me the installer(s) were trying to make some global statements about genocides and other forms of execution. I’ll admit that I did chuckle at the sign “we put the Barbie in barb-e-cue” (but then again, I *am* the mother of a girl who, at age 5, hung her Barbie doll by the neck from the second floor landing in our house. At the time, I didn’t know whether to be horrified or a little proud….). I will also say that I have some very fond memories of playing with my own Barbie doll in the ’60s, so I do have some personal ambivalence about Barbie as a symbol (either positive or negative).


  3. Hi Rad and Laurie9–although your interpretations differ, I can see each of your points. Rad, I think you picked up on something I wasn’t able to articulate–the disregard for pain, specifically, that I found disturbing. But I also like Laurie9’s point about the ambivalence (and violence) that characterizes many girls’ relationships with their Barbies.

    The slide show is mezmerizing, isn’t it? It will just keep running on your computer all day, if you let it.


  4. I’ve been to Burning Man twice (will attend again this year) and I recall biking past Barbie Death Camp on a few occasions. I’ve never been interested in visiting, though. In my view, BDC taps into a particular strain of Burning Man culture that I just don’t find very interesting: the “let’s be as shocking and as politically incorrect as possible, because we’re too lazy to design an artwork that actually requires effort of thought, and that is, as a result, conceptually sophisticated.” It’s a puerile shortcut that mistakes provocation for anarchic counterculturalism.

    While I think many effective artworks provoke the sensibilities of their audience, this one is more boring than anything else. I picture the genesis of the project this way:

    Scene: Three stoners passing around a bong while staring at a TV. A documentary on the Holocaust is playing.

    Stoner 1: Hey, man, listen to that: this guy’s name is Klaus Barbie!

    Stoner 2: Barbie! heh-heh-heh. Barbie!

    Stoner 1: Yeah, like my little sister’s Barbies! That’s fucked up, man, a guy named Barbie. Hey, we should, like, make a death camp for Barbies.

    Stoner 2: heh-heh-heh. Barbie Death Camp. heh-heh-heh

    Stoner 1: We could, like, put the Barbies in the easy-bake oven. And, like, dismember ’em and stuff.

    Stoner 3: We’ll do it at Burning Man, dude!

    For me, there are far preferable ways to spend one’s time on the playa.


  5. Hah! Yours is an excellent theory of the origins of “Barbie Death Camp,” Sq. And thanks for stopping by to comment–I remember that you had done Burning Man, so your insights are especially interesting.


  6. Ugh. As a historical non-consumer of the genre (and I don’t think my sister even had any, ‘though I could be wrong) I found the image pretty disturbing. I suppose it IS criticism, of SOMEthing, and you can pretty much fill in what enters your imagination. In this vein, see also the brief piece in the I guess it was Saturday New York Times business section, titled “Blogging Against Barbie,” I think. It activist discussed parents turning to consumer blogs to critique Mattel’s apparent claims to have “greened-up” Barbie, by clothing her in all sorts of remnants and scraps of fabric that would otherwise be landfilled, and/or to be using sustainable synthetics.

    Relevance is as relevance does, I guess, has always been a subtext for this toy. The economic strains on Mattel, especially in the “mature” U.S. marketplace, have been discussed recently in the Times. I s’pose it’s more fun to ride on this skein of threads (on Historiann, I mean) from an “outsider” perspective than that of a remembering–and perhaps an ambivalently remembering–fan or user?


  7. I don’t think this is particularly feminist — it strikes me as trying to hit as many bases as possible, indiscriminately. I don’t think there is a coherent point of view. After all, there are the ovens, but also crucifixions, hangings, heads on poles, etc. So I buy Squadrato’s analysis. . .


  8. is it just another example of female bodies being dismembered for our pleasure and entertainment?
    Does it trivialize the attempted genocide of Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Poles, and disabled people in the twentieth century?

    Yes and yes. Mel Brooks’ slightly obsessive spoofs of Nazis in “The Producers” and his remake of “To Be or Not to Be” were his way of exorcising his childhood terrors, as a Jewish kid in the US during World War 2; he resorted freely to misogyny and homophobia along the way, but it’s still possible to sympathize with his original impulse, if you’re feeling generous. But what are these schmucks exorcising? Pfui.


  9. For me the crucifixion, hanging, and dismemberment shots were more disturbing than the crowds going to the ovens, because the shots of the naked crowds themselves had this ambivalence: they’re all marching towards death, but the dolls themselves can’t really perform unhappiness, so they look like they’re having a smashing block party, or dancing naked at Woodstock like a bunch of hippies. The idea that these icons of perfect femininity could be cheerfully dancing their way to their own deaths is kinda interesting in a way that simply dismembering them isn’t

    But the winner for disturbing for me was the pic of the smiling girl with the hanged barbie. What is she thinking, I wonder?


  10. Great observations. It looks like the balance has tipped away from feminist art to stupid bonghead project? Interesting observations from Indyanna that “you can pretty much fill in what enters your imagination,” and Susan, “trying to hit as many bases as possible, indiscriminately. I don’t think there is a coherent point of view,” and Rootlesscosmo’s concise review, “schmucks.” I also liked Sisyphus’s point about the dolls not being able to “perform unhappiness.”


  11. “What do you think? Is “Barbie Death Camp” funny? Horrifying? Feminist, or anti-feminist? Too clever by half? Or just really good bad art?”

    Basically, yes. I don’t think that slamming Barbie could be taken as antifeminist. This is not a male fantasy here.



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  13. Hi Susie–thanks for stopping by to comment, and for your link. The great thing is that with digital photography, embedded videos, and blogs, we don’t ever need to put ourselves through the ordeal of Burning Man to see some of the most interesting installations and performances. (I’m with you on the sand, the heat, and from what I understand, the lack of amenities like showers and running water, etc.)


  14. I’ve just discovered your blog and love it. You may already have seen this; I find Chris Jordan’s Barbies to be more interesting social comment than Burning Man’s. They can be found under “Running the Numbers” at his website:

    I’d be interested in knowing what anyone else thinks of them.


  15. Hi hysperia–thanks for stopping by to comment, and thanks for the Chris Jordan link. I’ve read about his photography–the repetition of common objects is really beautiful and mysterious (although it seems like his schtick is wearing a little thin.)

    To find the Barbies, go to, then click on the top exhibition, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, then scroll down to “Barbie Dolls, 2008.” Thanks for the tip, hysperia!


  16. I came up with the idea of Barbie Death Camp in 2000. It was never meant to have any symbolism whatsoever. We were trying to attract women to our camp, because let’s face it, every American woman has a Barbie story of one stripe or another. There is no anti-anything with our modest little camp. I am Jewish so it’s a lot like only Nixon could go to China. You need to get over your petty feelings and learn to laugh at yourselves once in awhile. I can assure, the rest of us do.


  17. Hi, Dr. Pyro–thanks for stopping by to comment. I think your exhibition is successful in that 1) it has attracted a lot of attention, and 2) provoked some strong feelings in people! It’s helpful to have some background from the artist on the project, so thanks.


  18. My wife and were married by ol’ Doc Pyro, and the BDC&WB was one of the reasons I decided to “brave” the playa to attend BM. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made. A friend showed me her picture of the installation and I started making plans to go. The second year I ran something called the Gender Blender Bar, which was a barter bar. “Do” something with gender and I’d make you a drink. It was fascinating to see what people did and the transformations that resulted. This is by way of sharing what some of my prejudices and biases might be.

    I’m interested in what ways squadratomagico might have participated in the event other then consuming other people’s art and passing rather sophomoric judgments on it.

    I must take exception to the notion that the internet can replace “being there”. The internet is mediated, even an excellent blog cannot involve the senses to the degree that being there can. Without that effort, the impact is minimal.

    Also I find it funny and very typical that the installation, like most good art; is actually an excellent blank canvass for other people to project their bias, preconceived notions and prejudices upon. The fact that the installation still sparks passionate conversation is a great thing.

    Thank you.


  19. Well all that said and done It’s nice to know the minds of our peers can still be so easily twisted. I guess the depths of our own lifes lack so much it is alot more entertaining to find some in somebody elses whether it be there or NOT. Kepp up the good work Doc.


  20. Dr. Pyro’s Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro is a GREAT camp! There’s always good friendly people and good wine. There is ZERO “symbolism” with the Barbies. It’s just a gag, and the sheer number of Barbies happened when lots of people started donating their old Barbies after having a great time at Doc Pyros’ place. We all beat up Barbies as kids, and this is just big people playing like they did when they were little. The Barbies themselves aren’t the whole of Dr. Pyro’s considerable effort to contribute to the experience of the lucky folks who stop by.
    This whole discussion is a perfect example of why the statement “with digital photography, embedded videos, and blogs, we don’t ever need to put ourselves through the ordeal of Burning Man to see some of the most interesting installations and performances. (I’m with you on the sand, the heat, and from what I understand, the lack of amenities like showers and running water, etc.)” isn’t correct.

    You can’t see the most interesting parts of Burning Man, or get their meaning, by reading or looking at pictures.
    Most of what is there is intended in humor, taking anything you see seriously will cause all sorts of false alarm in your reaction.

    “Putting yourself through the ordeal” doesn’t describe my experience there at all. It’s some of the most fun I ever have. Anyone who wants amenities, like running water, showers, A/C, etc. is welcome to bring an RV to stay in, and a large number of people (like me) do just that.


  21. ” We all beat up Barbies as kids, ”

    I must protest! I did not beat up or dismember barbies as as kid. I pretended they were having sex with each other.


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  24. Doctor Pyro and his BDC were one of my favorites last year! I love women (and men…) and find nothing wrong with the installation. He hosts a meet and greet for members of the Eplaya forum which draws together over a hundred of us forum members for a potluck and sing along using the pianos he brings to the desert.
    Doc also hosts many newcomers to the festival, people who’ve never been to the burn and who’ve never been to the desert before. He’s about as good a person as you’ll ever meet and he’s quite literally given the shirt off his back to more than one individual.

    Contrary to popular opinion, Burning Man is not a drug fueled hippie orgy. Remember, hippies don’t do too well outside of forests and hookah lounges. In the desert they tend to dry up and blow away like tumbleweeds. “Normal” folks outnumber hippies 100 to 1 out there.

    I loved this article. Nice job!


  25. I made a jacket and went on to the playa to find its owner..long evening I have given up for the night, long walk back. “Hug my girlfriend it’s her birthday” I hear.. I give hug and set her down. “Your a perfect size 16” . .the jacket fit perfect.. she said she was from Barbie death camp.


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