Barbie Death Camp: Bad Taste As Art

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A gross-out art installation at Burning Man finally causes outrage after 20 years.

Photo via Flickr

Nothing sums up how increasingly delicate and offence-hungry society has become than when something that has been around long enough to almost qualify as an institution suddenly causes outrage. This week, it has been the Barbie Death Camp and Bistro at Burning Man, a one time haven of free expression and rebellion, now increasingly an American Glastonbury where middle class people with money to burn can play at being hippies for the weekend.

Burning Man is (allegedly) home to ‘radical self-expression’ and edgy art, and nothing seems edgier than James Jacoby’s Barbie Death Camp, an art installation in which naked Barbie dolls are hearded into full size ovens by Nazi Action Man figures. A poster declares the adjacent camp as being “the friendliest concentration camp at Burning Man” and has the slogan “arbeit macht plastik frei“. The camp claims to be sponsored by “Auschwitz Inc and The Mattel Co.” Clearly, we should point out that this is not an official Mattel display.

Now, this is certainly the height of bad taste. Extremely gleeful bad taste, we might say, in the grand tradition of pushing boundaries and generally being outrageously gross. A bit John Watersish, maybe. It’s not the only camp at Burning Man – in fact, there are over a thousand themed camps at the event. But it’s probably the most confrontational. But it’s not new – the display has been mounted every year for the last twenty. Jacoby – who we probably have to point out is Jewish – has been putting on this unique artwork throughout that time without incident. As he stated to the Jewish News, “Burning Man is not a safe space. It’s not Yale University. You don’t get to run and hide from something you don’t like.

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Indeed, some 220 people paid upwards of $200 (on top of their festival entry fee of $425 – hippy capitalism at full tilt) this year to stay in the Barbie Death Village, as the camp is called. It might be a bit much to suggest that it has gone entirely without complaint, but most people either seem to get the ghoulish joke or simply move on – Jacoby even claims that it has acted as an aphrodisiac at times, which we should perhaps move swiftly on from. But this year, some two decades in, the display has caused belated outrage. The Anti-Defamation League has been tipped off, and are aghast, saying that “individuals have a right to free expression, but using that free expression to trivialise the Holocaust for the sake of political, social or artistic ends is still deeply offensive and inappropriate.” But surely no subject is out of bounds for satire or artistic interpretation, and who is to say that the display actually trivialises anything? Perhaps the best way of showing the true horror of something is to present it in an unexpected way, turning the familiar and wholesome – and what is more familiar and wholesome than a Barbie doll – into something subversive? many a serious point has been made through humour – even gross-out humour.

As it is, this year things turned nasty for Jacoby, who was accused of being “a fucking Trump supporter” and a “white supremicist” – the go-to insults to hurl at just about anyone who upsets you these days, though surely white supremicists are more likely to deny the Holocaust ever took place than to recreate it in toy form. Property was smashed. Threats were made. It got as aggressive as a gathering of stoned weekend hippies was ever likely to.

The unrepentant Jacoby perhaps summed things up best: “Burning Man is not vanilla, Disneyland, pro-family. There’s a lot of nudity. A lot of sex. A lot of drugs. It’s not a family-friendly environment. And our camp isn’t either.” While people might rightly complain that Burning Man has become too corporate (and at $600 plus just to attend and have somewhere to stay, that sems a pretty sound argument), it still remains a place where free expression – even childishly offensive expression – has free reign. Take that away, and the event really will be dead.

DAVID FLINT