Plastic Religious Art: Playful to Some, Offensive to Others

What better tactic for grabbing headlines than to crucify a Ken doll?

By Spencer Dew|October 9, 2014

Punk-inspired Argentine artists Marianela Perelli and Pool Paolini attracted international media attention for the show, “Barbie, The Plastic Religion,” that would have featured thirty-three dolls of various characters from religious traditions, primarily Christianity. The collection—made from the iconic Mattel dolls and packaged to look like mass-produced objects in the Barbie line—struck many as cheap provocation. What better tactic for grabbing headlines than to crucify a Ken doll?

The show was set to open October 11, 2014, in Buenos Aires. However in an apologetic public statement released last week, the artists, who go by the collective title, Pool and Marianela, announced that they were removing the dolls from the show declaring “We never wanted to hurt the feelings of people of faith.” The host gallery cancelled the show altogether, citing, even in the absence of the dolls, “threats of destruction” to the gallery space.
Never shying from the controversial, Pool and Marianela have made dolls and paintings of “villains” of history like Charles Manson, Al Capone, and Margaret Thatcher.  They have crucified before, too, depicting famed Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona nailed to a cross, his legs severed and standing at its base, rendered in gold.
The pair claims to be shocked at the offense caused by “Plastic Religion” because they never meant the dolls to be read as criticism of religion, but, rather, as engagement, motivated out of “love,” with “our religion”—that “our” explicitly a marker of cultural and national identity.
“Plastic Religion” was an exploration of Argentine religion and so included sculptures of Catholic and folk saints. Guided by “respect” for religious diversity, the show was, according to the artists, conceived as a tribute to and manifestation of a distinctly Argentine “melting pot of races and religions living together in harmony.” Hindu and Buddhist friends requested the inclusion of figures from their own traditions (Barbie as Kali; Ken as Siddhartha), further highlighting the range of religious identities in Buenos Aires.
The title, “Plastic Religion,” surely generated some of the outrage. “Plastic,” as historian of religion David Chidester reminds us, is a term with two valences. On the one hand, “plastic” can signify “the cheap, the tawdry”—that which “is almost immediately disposable.” On the other hand, “plastic” also means malleable, fluid, protean—after the Greek god Proteus, who shape-shifted. When we speak of the “plastic,” we are speaking of something with which we can engage in infinite and creative ways. 
When Chidester, in Authentic Fakes, discusses “plastic religion,” he is noting the “transformative capacity for unlimited shape shifting” characteristic of certain religious stories, practices, and beliefs. The veneration of an Argentine folk saint like Gauchito Gil is a textbook example of this “transformative capacity.” Narratives surrounding this figure vary: some involve romance, some focus on his criminal activities in defense of the poor, some valorize his military career, but all emphasize his healing of a sick child before his murder by police. Veneration of this figure likewise varies, hinging upon individual expressions of creativity as devotees construct shrines using doll-like figures, red crosses, and pieces of red cloth.
It is Chidester’s valence of “ongoing experiment in the making” that Pool and Marianela explore in their sculptures: not throw-away religion but living, creatively vibrant, distinctly Argentine religion. For “Plastic Religion,” Pool and Marianela fashioned a doll of Gauchito Gil by taking the traditionally blonde Ken and adding long hair, a mustache, and stubble, along with the bolas of a gaucho and Gil’s characteristic red shawl. On the packaging are the words “pidele tu milagro” (“ask him for your miracle”). 
Many of the other figures intended for the show are of New World origin. Among them is Santo Niño Doctor, a Mexican tradition, popular throughout Argentina, of the Christ child as a medical doctor, complete with stethoscope. Ekeko is another—a pre-Columbian god of prosperity, popular throughout the lower half of the South American continent, garlanded here, in typical fashion, with objects reflecting wealth and abundance.
Also featured is Difunta Correa, here depicted dead in her grave, her child still miraculously feeding from a bare breast; she is a folk saint linked to legends about gauchos discovering such a baby still alive in the arms of a woman who died during the Argentine civil wars. The box for Difunta Correa, in standard Barbie pink, includes a fringe of bottles and roses along the bottom edge of the package’s window similar to the accoutrements of veneration seen at any of the hundreds of roadside shrines to this figure.
Locals of San Juan, Argentina, joined the protests over “Plastic Religion,” specifically citing Pool and Marianeli’s depiction of Difunta Correa. One citizen quoted in several international news stories claimed that their rendition of the saint was “out of place, [because] this is a figure of faith which we care for very much and it is why we patented her image and name years ago.” 
But part of what Pool and Marianela are saying, quite rightly, is that there is no possibility of patent on popular religious practices. Argentine religion as plastic religion is what the artists are celebrating here. Engagement in stories and images of folk saints such as Gauchito Gil, Santo Niño Doctor, Ekeko, and Difunta Correa are ever changing, personalized. Moreover, material objects—dolls and statues and artwork—are central to the practices of interacting with these figures.
As the artists say “It is difficult to apologize when our goal was never hurt, but on the contrary, to build a message of unity and love of/for religions, framed in the existing social and cultural context.”  They also speak of “Plastic Religion” as being, instead of cancelled, “suspended.”  Perhaps, if and when the show finds a new home, it can lead, not to offense, but rather to appreciation of the dynamic of plasticity of Argentine religious practice.


For images of additional art by Pool & Marianela:

Pool & Marienal's artist statement:

Chidester, David. Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.


Author, Spencer Dew, (Ph.D. UChicago 2009) is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Centenary College Research Professor in the Humanities at Centenary College of Louisiana. Dew recently published a novel, Here is How it Happens, as well as a study of religious dynamics in literature, Learning for Revolution.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.