7. 5. 2021

English Version | Parallel Universe

by Ana Murcho


Mariel Clayton creates post-apocalyptic scenarios where the protagonist, eight times out of seven (pun intended) is a doll that we have become accustomed to idealizing as a helpless and girly damsel. Her photographs, small-large works of art full of details, are not for girls.

The interesting thing about Mariel Clayton's work is that it cannot be summed up in one sentence. Subversive? Yes. Wild? No doubt. Provocative? By all means. But the work of this photographer based in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, is above all original. She was one of the first artists to have the courage - that's what courage all this is about - to take an icon of popular culture and destroy it, we mean, deconstruct it. Who, until a decade ago, imagined seeing Barbie, that little girls’ doll that never served for more than games with happy endings, decapitating her eternal fiancé, Ken, bathing in the blood of her lovers, showing off her children at a lunch where there are more weapons than food, or masturbating in front of an invisible camera? Let's be honest, nobody. All of this exists because of Clayton, because her imagination has no limits and because, above all, what she wants to do is to subvert stereotypes that have long been ingrained in our society. “She was not abused as a child. She doesn't hate men… some of them she finds rather useful”, reads the biographical note on her personal website. With a career acclaimed by all who applaud a black and refined humor, Mariel has already exhibited in New York, Paris, Berlin, and now lands on the pages of Vogue. It's just that sometimes pink needs a little bit of black to be spicier.

You define yourself as a photographer specialized “in the macabre and the subversive.” How did it all started? Did you always want to take pictures? It started officially when I began collecting Japanese miniatures. That is what triggered the idea to create a darkly humorous world for Barbie to inhabit that felt eerily realistic. I've always enjoyed constructing images and scenes, even as a child. Whether it was setting up toy environments to play in, or arranging things to paint or draw or working on theatrical sets in high school. I like the act of creating worlds and pictures for viewers to immerse themselves in - and especially enjoy small details. When I first found the miniatures, it just seemed like the obvious next step was to take scene-building to the next level. Being an adult meant putting a whole new twisted spin on the idea of 'playing with dolls' - and at first I had only planned to keep each completed set as a centerpiece... but there were so many possibilities, it seemed like a much better idea to photograph each one, and then tear down and start another, sharing each picture with friends along the way. I had always enjoyed photography, so being able to combine both hobbies, passions in one, really started an incredible creative outlet for me, that I'm still exploring. 

As a child, did you use to play with Barbies? Why did you choose this specific doll as the central focus of your work? I was a spoiled child, and had tons of toys - Barbie and her accessories especially. Funnily enough, I didn't play with the doll itself, I would just 'set up' a Barbie world for her to exist in, but when it came time to play with her… it was boring, she was empty. It was that idea that made me realize later on, Barbie as an icon, is the perfect toy to convey multiple meanings. She 'can be' anything… and yet was always stereotyped as an empty, beauty-obsessed 'Bimbo'. I wanted to turn that around and flesh her out a little as something darker, with more layers, more possibilities. The idea of banal sweetness coupled with a murderous sociopathy is not that far-fetched, as any girl in any high school could tell you.  

The settings you create have impressive details. Do you build them yourself? How is the process of photographing them? I build every set myself, yes - it's a very simple construction, but it becomes more immersive with the more props I put in there. The miniatures are made primarily by two Japanese companies, ReMent and Megahouse and I buy those from online collectors, Ebay etc.The set starts off quite simply, with a backdrop of Bristol board, some scrapbooking paper and then a few pieces of wood and furniture I've picked up and repainted over the years. Usually there is always a very solid image in my mind when I start, and I build it based on that - once I have the basic pieces set up, I'll check the perspective in the viewfinder of the camera to make sure it's all well composed, then start adding the details. As I go along, I keep checking through the camera to see how it's showing up. Things like blood, water, bubbles etc. are always added last. Sometimes I change direction completely halfway through, tear most of it down and start again. Each diorama is constantly evolving - and most of the smaller detailed gags I only come up with as the pieces are being placed together. It can be a really interesting process between the initial idea, and the final picture. 

Where do you find inspiration for your work? Everywhere. I can't really pinpoint any specific means of inspiration - because anything can spark an idea, which warps itself. I've had ideas emerge from the patterns on paper, from song lyrics, from a bad joke, from a random phrase heard in passing. I don't think there's really any way to explain or quantify inspiration. 

Some people might find your art as shocking. What do you respond to that? Good. It should be shocking… I can't think of anything worse than an apathetic response to one of my pictures. Shock galvanizes the viewer. My pictures, for the most part are meant to elicit a strong response. There's no good or bad, it's just how each individual interprets what they're seeing… to me that is absolutely fascinating. 

This edition is dedicated to pink. Is it a color that you like? What does it mean to you? Pink to me means a sort of forced femininity. As I was growing up, everything was colored pink for girls. The color and the 'girly' message behind it was inescapable. Everything female existed only in shades of pink, and it was infuriating, because it was a color I found really jarring and because I hated being forced to adopt a color I didn't like, simply by the default of being a girl. Fortunately, the 'pink-washing' of objects aimed at girls has abated a lot, but it's still annoyingly conspicuous. I am slowly accepting the color... slowly, but haven't yet grown to love pink, so that is why it shows up in some of my pictures when I want to drive home the point of overt, saccharine 'girlishness'. 

Translated from the original on the "Pink Issue", from may 2021.
Full credits and story on the print version.