Lyon: Tom Sachs – “Barbie Slave Ship” at the Lyon Biennale Through January 5th, 2014

September 18th, 2013

Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist's Website
Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist’s Website

The opening of the Lyon Biennale last week has garnished a considerable spotlight in the art world so far, thanks in part to artist Tom Sach’s challenging, monumental new sculpture, Barbie Slave Ship, which takes the iconic brand American dolls for a sinister twist.  Examining structures of control and exploitation, the enormous, scale-model ship is a chillingly bizarre “playset” of sorts, complete with pink flags and an onboard “grog” bar, complete with full-size liquor bottles.

Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist's Website
Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist’s WebsiteThe sculpture, created specifically for the Lyon Biennale, is exhibited alongside 5 other sculptures, as well as 2 of Sachs’ paintings, and is on view at Sachs’ work will be exhibited in Saint-Just Church, a national monument located near the remains of Lyon’s Gallo-Roman settlements on Fourvière Hill.  Once again addressing Sachs’ interest in the shifting meanings and conceptions of consumer products, the Barbie Slave Ship signals perhaps one of the artist’s most meticulous works.  Gone are the rough hewn edges and jagged wooden forms of his earlier pieces, instead favoring painstaking detail and copious accompanying material, including a ledger of captive passengers on the ship, perhaps the darkest moment of the show, where the artist abandons playful preaching for a truly jarring moment of pause.

Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist's Website
Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist’s Website

Taking a child’s willful incorporation of its surroundings, and inherited history as a starting point, Sachs places Barbie at the center of America’s dark history of slave trading, underlining tacit links between advertising, which he classifies as a manipulation of the mind, with physical capture and forced labor.  Sach’s sculpture seems a warped take on both sides, welcoming a narrative bent that joins them together.  It’s difficult to tell who is remaking who in the sculpture, whether the child’s environment is overshadowed by the dark history of human trafficking, or if the youthful, empty idealism of the Barbie is bending the slave ship through its own lens.

The exhibition runs through January 5th, 2014.

Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist's Website
Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist’s Website

Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist's Website
Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist’s Website

Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist's Website
Tom Sachs, Barbie Slave Ship (2013), via Artist’s Website

—D. Creahan

Artist’s Website [Tom Sachs]
Lyon Biennale [Website]