What It's Like to Live Like a Doll

"My Life as a Doll," a new exhibition at DiverseWorks, bills itself as an "immersive art encounter." But you don't really get a sense of what that means until you're stretching blue booties over your shoes and stepping on the pink mat that, instead of the usual "Welcome," warns, "Telling the truth in an imaginary place."

This place may be "imaginary," but sculptor Tara Conley and writer Tria Wood have created a life-size -- albeit a bit claustrophobic, thanks to the big crowd during Friday night's opening -- house, complete with a bedroom, garden and walk-in closet. The bright, bold colors are an unexpected treat, given the muted gray that covers the outside of this house in a dull vinyl siding.

Its occupants are one Guy and his companion, a woman who is "living her life as a doll," Conley told Art Attack. What does that mean? In children's book fashion, each room unfolds like a page out of a book, with the woman narrating her day in rhyme -- mornings spent in a breakfast nook; tending to her garden of flowers, here made out of steel and ragged cotton; getting dressed, from "shoes to mask," the text says; attending a cocktail party in a room that Conley has filled with reflective, blank people; and the bedroom, where a pair of handcuffs with the words "I need you to be with me" hang creepily on the wall. This woman has no life beyond the confines of this house and spends her days waiting to be played with, in a sense -- yes, a living doll.

You never see this doll, but she's there in the rhymes and the tiniest of details, most prominently in the closet, where each dress is labeled with a phrase, such as "I Only Eat on Tuesdays Dress" for an especially skinny specimen. The shoes are also similarly distinguished with names such as "Nervous Breakdown Boots" and "The First Thing You Should Do Is Talk To Him Trainers."

It's certainly a pretty installation to stroll through, thanks to the vibrant pinks, yellows and blues that would suit Barbie's Dreamhouse. But it's a place full of subtext at every turn if you pay close attention. There are the names of the dresses and shoes, of course, as well as those rhyming verses. In one of the first pieces of text, written in a dreamy script on pieces of plastic nailed to the walls, the woman introduces us to her home: "From the lock on the door to the ceiling and floor, [Guy] says all of it's made just for me." Sure, she sounds quite pleased, but she's describing a prison, confined by unequal gender roles, impossible beauty standards and, even, unrealistic expectations learned from rhyming children's books.

Once you take your booties off, there's still more to take in. One wall is full of multicolored index cards that visitors are welcome to take. On each card there's a statistic ("Between 2000 and 2010, the number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed in the US increased by 77%" is one, "42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner" another) or a phrase ("I have pitched my tent in the land of hope" and "Is as if we are all rebelling against ourselves" were two memorable ones). On the opposite side of the space, the exhibition's theme of reflection continues as mirrors line two walls. There are more curious phrases etched onto each one in a deceptively innocent script: "Perfect is expensive," "His identity is not associated with my haircut," "Can you believe I eat almost every day?," "It's nice to be seen" and, our favorite, "Aw, it's okay. You're really pretty."

These phrases, and others scattered throughout the piece, are based off of snippets of overheard conversation Conley has been storing for the past 15 years. Once you know that, sadly, this place is not so imaginary after all.

"My Life as a Doll" is on view through December 17 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. The artists will lead a talk and tour at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. November 19. For information, visit www.diverseworks.org or call 713-223-8346. Free.

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