I heard about it before I even saw it, but when I finally did see it, what I thought was: “Now that is weird.” And when I say weird, I say it with ardent affection.
Behind the cast iron gate at 16 North Street in Mattapoisett, surrounded by ivy and vinca and tangled vines of invasive inspiration, is our very own local, little, plastic world of Barbie.
It’s where a hundred Barbies stay smiling, rain or shine, oblivious to the imminent threat of the creatures that surround them, ever ready to take a bite out those dainty little doll arms, poised for attack in suspended animation.
It’s where hygiene-conscious dinosaurs still roam, and where Ken, Ken, a dozen other Kens, and another dozen male action figures are banished to the gazebo while the Barbies enjoy an unabashed wild and unrestrained hedonistic existence all of their own.
It’s a scene that straddles a thin boundary between the reflective and the reactive; equanimity and madness; nostalgia and ‘dystalgia’.
It’s also pretty much exactly what the floor of my girlhood bedroom would look on any given day between age 6-13 when it was Barbie meets He-Man. Jane Austen meets Franz Kafka.
Teresa Dall might not have been a ‘Barbie girl’ when she was young, but I sure was. Yet I couldn’t say that it was the conventional Barbie childhood one would automatically think off, what with the cookie cutter body standard, gender role assignment allusions, and, perhaps, the white supremacy undertones of Barbie’s seemingly imposed standard of beauty.
To much of the world, Barbie set the standard for impossible beauty. For this once young person, Barbie was a tool to explore the puzzling nature of the aspects and perplexities of adulthood.
And my Barbies weren’t perfect at all. They had haircuts that resulted from the life situations I explored through them. Buzz cuts from brain tumor therapy. Short haircuts stemming from drought-induced water shortages that made hair care impossible for the survival-minded woman. Permanent marker bruises and black eyes from when a drunk Ken beat up an insubordinate Barbie. As imperfect as Dall’s Barbies with the splashes of post-rain mud on their faces and disheveled hair, but still smiling as if all were perfect, despite reality.
Needless to say, I had a lot of Barbies and a lot of questions about life.
And Barbie helped resolve some of those at a young age. And when you look at Dall’s “Barbie Garden,” it’s an existential free-for-all where two generations now have been touched by the debatable determinism displayed in Dall’s garden where Barbie rules, despite her imminent demise as dinosaur jaws stay still, about to clamp down on her head.
Dall, a retired English teacher at Old Rochester Regional High School, said she was inspired to plant her Barbie garden about 20 years ago while in Provincetown with her husband Mark. They saw an interesting display of Barbies and dolls at a guest house they passed and Dall thought it was “well-done”, “edgy”, and interesting. “And it fascinated us,” she said.
“We thought it was so clever,” Dall said. And when they started their own display in 1998, people who knew them encouraged them with gifts of Barbies, Barbie clothes, and accessories, some of which are still on display today.
“And then it just started to grow – like a garden,” said Dall.
Dall loves how neighborhood kids will stop by – some every day or so – to peer through the gate with their eye-level attention to detail that taller, more distracted adults tend to lack. And, the young girls moved by the monument of muñecas, (that’s Spanish for dolls), started giving their Barbies to Dall to ‘plant’ in her Barbie garden for all to enjoy.
Dall said, after the garden’s appearance on the TV show Chronicle, people from farther away started pilgriming to her place – from Denmark, California, and even just a few days ago, Alaska.
For me, the most endearing quality of Dall’s garden is the slightly unnerving nuance penetrating the soil, so to speak, of the garden, of which Dall described in no uncertain terms.
“They’re completely oblivious,” said Dall. “They don’t know what’s happening to them.”
Dinosaurs are about to bite them; snakes are about to squeeze the life out of them … King Kong has one of them in his grasp and just might be about to pulverize her – yet, Barbie smiles as if it’s all okay, saying nothing, doing nothing. Just smiling in a zenful way that, as long as I’ve been consciously aware and witnessed, only Dall’s Barbies do.
“They just keep waving and smiling,” said Dall.
And the Barbies in Dall’s garden, they don’t like the Kens, Dall said. Another “theme”, as she put it, that reoccurs every summer.
The Kens are banished to the gazebo in the back, cooking and congregating with the shirtless wrestling action figures, trying not to appear overtly homoerotic as they stand there, a crew that appears to be enjoying themselves while perhaps wishing they could be riding that dinosaur themselves or sitting next to Marge Simpson driving that convertible beneath the “flying Barbie” that Dall said is up there every year.
It’s a garden full of whimsy and terror at every turn, which isn’t that far from average existence, really. What’s more whimsical yet terrifying than a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a brush in his mouth unable to brush the hair he hasn’t got on his head with his un-reaching arms?
“It’s just a fun thing to do,” said Dall. And it doesn’t matter that it takes her three days to set up the garden. The divinity lies in the detail Dall takes in the placement of her dolls, the accessories they possess. That’s where the love is most evident.
“I couldn’t imagine not doing it. It’s a part of the neighborhood,” said Dall as she adjusts the Barbie that sits holding her own head on the end of her arm.
“That’s headless Barbie,” says Dall. “She has her purse and that’s all that matters.”
If you haven’t had the surreal experience of visiting Dall’s Barbie garden in Mattapoisett, don’t wait too much longer. In trying times like these, Dall’s garden offers us a harvest of playful produce and that elusive opportunity to be a voyeur of the chaos instead of immersed in it. A plasticatastophe to smile through.
This Imperfect Life
By Jean Perry