Barbie dolls are no strangers to controversy. Still, it is unusual when they attract plainclothes policemen and workers from Streets and Sanitation, as the Barbies hanging out in front of 1874 N. Bissell are doing. Whatever are those naughty Barbies up to?
The Barbies are part of an ongoing, ever-changing artistic installation by Richard Stasewich, 40, a CPA who lives and works at that address. It all started about six weeks ago when someone stole a plant out of the rock garden filling Stasewich's tiny parkway.
"I pounded four stakes into the ground, got some string with these little yellow and black plastic ribbons attached, and put up little signs that said Crime Scene. Do Not Enter," Stasewich recalls, sitting in his disastrously messy first-floor office, which is strewn with Barbie artifacts. He's probably the only accountant in town who has a long black ponytail and smokes lilac Sobranie cocktail cigarettes.
The crime scene, he says, was fun. Neighbors began talking among themselves, and soon it became apparent that others had suffered similar plant losses. A pattern emerged.
"One of the neighbors had been bitching about dogs peeing on his plants, and all this stuff just started to--hmmm--ruminate," says Stasewich. The second installation was born, with more small explanatory signs. The crime scene now included a life-size statuesque female mannequin in a black velvet suit walking a small stuffed beagle.
"And the doggie had his little leg up and he was peeing," Stasewich explains. "So I ran a hose up his leg and catheterized him, dug a hole in the ground and lined it with plastic, put a pump down there and covered it with rocks and dead branches to be the plants that he killed with his pee. That was the main thing."
This installation also included a male mannequin modeled after a neighbor named Timm. As a sign explained, an accountant working in Stasewich's office observed the unusual number of people ensconced on nearby front porches all summer and asked, "Doesn't anyone in your neighborhood ever work?" The sign detailed why particular neighbors lead lives of leisure. Timm recently retired from the railroad and now, by Stasewich's account, spends a good deal of time sitting around drinking beer and gaining weight. The obviously good-natured Timm lent his railroad overalls, denim jacket, official cap, and signal flares to his alter ego, whose shirt was stuffed to simulate weight gain.
Timm "laughed his head off," says Stasewich, and neighbors clamored for more mannequin action. So he imagined a scene in which Timm, upset over Stasewich's "cutting remarks," begins cutting down the garden with a huge scythe. The now Evil Timm mannequin loomed over a stand of gladioli, half of whose tops had been lopped off by the scythe.
"I wanted something to be a counterpoint to Timm cutting the flowers, so I figured little Barbie dolls on the other side of the gladiolas," says Stasewich. "And you can imagine as he's cutting through the flowers some of the little heads start flying." Imagined, but not actually staged? He hesitates. "Nnnnnot yet. Eventually I think we will, because we need little heads flying for certain other reasons." He laughs mysteriously. "Heh, heh, heh."
Stasewich wanted to give the Barbies a purpose in life, so he dug them a tiny pool, lined it with plaster, and let the Barbies lounge about in bathing suits. That week the improvised pool leaked horribly, prompting the sign No Swimming. Closed for Repairs. The Barbie dolls disappeared.
The neighbors clamored for the Barbies, so Stasewich brought them back out to watch the pool repairs. "Then about a week later I did something where the waterfall was splashing down between the rocks, and I was losing a lot of water." There's a waterfall? "Well, not anymore. Not since the police visited," he sighs. More on that later.
The Barbies began hanging out by the pool every day, whether it was officially open or not. "Then a woman in the neighborhood became a self-appointed art critic. We're all out here one night standing around, and she said it was the most sexist exhibit she'd ever seen." Stasewich pauses, then quotes her carefully: "It's as shallow as the swimming pool."
The Barbies, she pointed out, were all female. Timm--the person, not the evil mannequin--said there simply are more female than male dolls. The woman disputed that. "This one woman was really upset--she just kept going on and on. It actually did bother me," Stasewich admits. "And the way I responded was by getting male strippers."
The strippers included an Elvis doll, a blond Ken doll, and a black Ken doll, which Stasewich says is called Steven whenever Mattell includes him in a setup with the white Ken because "it's like Superman and Clark Kent--you can't have the same two dolls, a white version and a black version, together at the same time."
The strip show, says Stasewich, "was very static." Elvis, Ken, and Ken/Steven all stood on a small stage perched on a rock above the Barbie pool. Elvis stood in the center with outstretched arms in simple blue bikini briefs; Ken was bare chested in black leather pants, unzipped and falling off to expose white briefs; Ken/Steven was also bare chested, in blue jeans with black cowboy leggings, a white cowboy hat, and a white bolo tie. Three muscle-bound doll bouncers stood around menacingly--Vee Jitsu Samurai Warriors from the boys' toy section.
"After the strippers were up there, a few of the guys in the neighborhood were uncomfortable with it," says Stasewich, rolling his eyes. "One guy in particular who had a strong reaction to the male strippers, he comes by and it's like, 'That's really sick. That's disgusting. How can you put them out there like that?' A half hour later his girlfriend comes by, and her response is, 'Oh Rich, that's hysterical! That's the best scene you've had out here yet.' I don't know how the two of them get along. But keying off that particular guy's reaction and a few other reactions that were similar, we got the male protesters out there."
The protesters, a racially diverse line of Barbie-size dolls carrying signs reading "Lilliput Resort Exploits Men" and "We're More Than Just Cute Butts," were immediate hits.
"At that point tension started to develop between the girls around the pool and the guys on the picket line," says Stasewich seriously. "The official story line is that one of the Barbies yelled over to the guy with the appropriate sign, 'Hey, your butt's not that cute anyway.' And he yelled back something about her needing breast-reduction surgery. She picked up a wine bottle and hit him over the head with it, and then one of the other protesters hit her over the head with a picket sign. And things just went into utter chaos. So we've got them hitting each other with wine bottles and deck chairs."
Stasewich has heavily documented the Barbies' lives and happily gives away photographs for a donation. (So far he's spent about $1,500 on materials and collected $7.03 in donations.) The photos show, for instance, the ostensibly Latino Barbie, Teresa, hitting Ken/Steven over the head with a deck chair, which splintered convincingly; a bouncer disciplining a white Ken doll by breaking his leg on a rock; a Native American Barbie and Belle from Beauty and the Beast dunking a white Ken headfirst in the pool. "That one's very popular," Stasewich notes.
"Once the bouncers go to break up the fight, then we end up with the Barbie dolls realizing the bouncers aren't there to protect the guys on the stage. So they start rushing the stage and climbing up the rocks."
The Barbies scaled the rocks for several days, which brings us to the current apocalyptic scene of Barbies running amok onstage: as the strippers are wrestled to the ground, one Barbie holds up Elvis's blue bikini briefs triumphantly, while a tall blond Barbie in a flowing yellow party dress wears Ken/Steven's white cowboy hat.
Peppers of all sizes and colors fill in the landscape between the Barbies. What's the significance of the peppers? "The phrase that you just said--that's the significance of them," says Stasewich. He likes the question and the theories that follow. People ask, "Does that mean it's a spicy show?" and "Does that mean the women are getting hot from the men stripping?" In fact, a friend of Stasewich's gave him some red chili peppers from his own garden one day, leaving them on one of Stasewich's garden rocks. So Stasewich started adding new purchases from the local farmer's market. "Until last Monday, when we had 163 peppers out there."
It may be a bit seamy to some eyes, but it's not exactly Mapplethorpe. Official interest appeared soon enough anyway.
The cops showed up first. "I'm in the back brushing the cat--I don't think they rang the doorbell," says Stasewich. "They either banged on the door or yelled through the window. I came out, and there's two plainclothes police officers with guns prominently displayed on their hips and they're flashing their badges. And it's like, 'Ohhh shit.'
"The way they started out was by saying, 'We've been cruising around the last couple of days trying to figure out what's going on here. So why don't you tell us.' And I said, 'Well, it's my art-display thing--it's an installation piece.' They say, 'What is that in layman's terms?' And they're poking around, going, 'Hmmm, hmmm. What's this? What's this?' It was just really creepy. Trying to be as intimidating as possible.
"There were three peppers on the fire hydrant, and they said that I was blocking access to emergency equipment. They said it again slightly differently--where the peppers being on the fire hydrant would impede the firemen in case of an emergency. That's as close to a quote as I can get. I thought the guy was joking, and I responded as if he was joking. And that's when he got real pissed.
"'Oh, if your building was on fire then you wouldn't be kidding about it,' he says. And it's like, 'I'm sorry, I thought you were joking, because I didn't really think you meant the three peppers would pose that big of an obstacle to the firemen.' So things were a little tense.
"They insisted that I move the peppers and turn off the electricity going out to the waterfall." The waterfall was powered by an extension cord run from the house across the sidewalk to a water pump. "They gave me a scenario whereby a little kid's riding his bike, the tire skids, and he wipes out on the bike and gets tangled in the cord, and the cord is cut. And as it's cut through the insulation it makes contact with the spokes on the bike, and the kid's electrocuted." He shrugs. "This is the scenario.
"I wasn't in the frame of mind where I was keeping good notes. It was one of these things where you're just reacting, and a lot of it is just real gut, instinctual reactions to things. You could literally feel the emotions. You know, I mean it's like, 'Oh my God, men with guns at my door.' And one of the policemen also told me something about running the wires under the ground: if it shorted out, the electricity could enter water pipes and go into a building. That one confused the hell out of me as he was saying it. I said, 'I didn't really understand that. Could you repeat it?' And he said, 'Talk to an electrician.'"
So I did. "Well, that's a possibility only if it was near the pipes," allowed Ed McGuire, electrician and business agent for Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "That's really unlikely to happen, because there's only so far it would travel. You know, you're talking hypothetical. There's so many things that can happen with electricity. You can do a million hypothetical things--and none of us would have an extension cord in our house!"
But McGuire did stress that an electrical cord outside makes the home owner responsible for any injuries to the public. And he didn't scoff at the kid-on-a-bike scenario. "Yes, that's a very good possibility, especially if it's wet out. If there's a break in the insulation and somebody falls on it and there's a little water--I don't know if they'd get electrocuted, but an adult could probably get a pretty good jolt. And a small child or an elderly person--it could stop their heart." He added earnestly, "When it comes to electricity, boy, ya gotta be careful."
The Chicago Fire Department media-affairs spokesman was less forthcoming about the peppers. "I don't have an opinion on peppers on a fire hydrant," he said first. When prodded, he protested, "Well, you want me to go up against the Police Department?" Yes. "If there's a display around the fire hydrant and there's something on it, that would be a judgment call upon seeing it," he answered. "Normal obstacles usually include signs, bushes, cars that make it difficult to operate the hydrant." So peppers would not automatically be a hazard? "No."
Next came the guys from Streets and Sanitation, who arrived last Monday. Stasewich was out, but neighbors reported back to him. "Basically they showed up the first time, they were looking for the Barbie dolls," says Stasewich. "The Barbie dolls weren't out at that point, but they saw the peppers. Somebody was taking photographs of what was out there, and somewhere--I'm not sure, within three visits--they decided that peppers out on the front stones were a rat hazard, that either it was attracting or would be attracting rats. And they said that if they were up there tomorrow they're coming back, and they'd give me a citation and take me to court.
"They said something about they were looking for the Barbie dolls, so they knew there were supposed to be Barbie dolls out there. So I don't know. Maybe they were going to call the Barbie dolls a hazard, or 'Occupancy by more than 40 Barbie dolls prohibited by law.'
"So I went through a great deal of trauma. I was arguing with my friend Pat, and it became a very heated argument. And we were discussing political oppression and this and that--and drawing all these major themes into it. But we don't really know."
Last Friday Stasewich inserted about 30 of the peppers in small glass jars. He doesn't think Streets and Sanitation will argue that the rats will smell the peppers through the glass, but he's not sure.
Stasewich says he enjoys the audience participation in this work, the feeling that he's working on a stage, though his usual materials are Conte crayons for "black-and-white drawings, working heavily with shadows, realistic figurative." So he continues making plans for the Barbies.
He revealed a few plot developments for the next few weeks. "Part of it includes the untimely demise of some of the Barbie dolls at the hands of the Evil Timm. And there's also going to be the Malevolent Becky, who's a female mannequin." Why Malevolent Becky? "When I hear the name Becky I think of someone very sweet and innocent. So you combine that name with the term 'malevolent' and you put a sickle in her hand--and I like that image."
After the bouncers restore calm, Stasewich promises a dramatic helicopter rescue for the Barbies when Evil Timm and Malevolent Becky finish slashing the gladioli and reach the pool. "We actually had the helicopter up. It got about ten feet off the ground and crashed," he explains, holding up a toy helicopter powered with batteries and suspended by heavy monofilament line. He points to a rope ladder. "Most of the dolls will be hanging on the rope ladder, and some of them won't make it to the helicopter."
For now, Stasewich continues responding to the official interest in the installation. "I went out this morning and got rat traps and put peppers in them as bait. So right now there's three rat traps waiting to be sprung--I took out the tension in them so they won't snap on any dog's nose or anything. And two traps have a Barbie and a Ken that they caught. If anything else happens I'll call you from jail."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman, Richard Stasewich.