Common roots: Bawbie, Barbie and the Tilted Ark

There is another hugely resonant aspect to Tilted Arc for me.  Richard Serra has later in life disclosed that he is of Jewish descent.  Brought up in San Francisco, California, in the 1940’s, at the age of 5 years old his mother told him they were Jewish, she having come from a Russian Jewish family of immigrants, but he must never admit this to anyone because Jewish people were hated and even murdered for their identity.  My mother, also a child in the 1940’s in California, was brought up to forget her Jewish inheritance.  I only discovered our history by chance, googling on the internet.  In fact my grandmother’s family was also from San Francisco.

Barbie was a creation of Ruth Handler of the Mattel Company.  Ruth Handler was born in 1916 to Jewish parents who had arrived in the US just 8 years she was born.  They had left Europe fleeing pogroms in Poland.  Handler lived in California with her husband, an art student, and together they set up a business called Mattel making doll’s house furniture among other things.  The inspiration for Barbie came from a trade visit to Germany in the late 1950’s, from an anatomically adult female doll called Lilli, with blond hair, sold as a joke for men.  Lilli was redesigned as the quintessential blond haired, blue eyed, all American girl Barbie and was outstandingly popular from the moment she first hit the market.  Californian filmmaker Tiffany Shlain made a film in 2005 titled “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll…In About 15 Minutes.” after noticing that Handler did not mention her Jewish identity in interviews.  Commenting on the fact that Barbie was inspired by Aryan doll from Germany such a short time after the Holocaust, Shlain considers Handler’s sub-concious desire for assimilation as an American was a motivation behind the production of a blond, blue eyed, un-Jewish looking (whatever that may be), doll.

The 1930’s in Europe were horrible with the rise in fascism and spread of hatred as hugely indebted nations searched for one minority group or another to blame for all their problems, be they Jews, gays, gypsies, or anyone ‘different’ to the received version of ‘normal’.   Who would have thought that right across the other side of the world in California this culture of persecution continued.

The phrase ‘You are as sick as your secrets’ has always rung true for me, but where does that leave you if being loud and proud puts your life in danger.  At what point does history become sufficiently distant that it is possible to be detached enough to achieve balance and honesty.  The discovery of my own history has not been entirely comfortable for my family, and yet as a homosexual who is now most definitely Out, I know only too well what it is to be in hiding. 

And as for Museums, as custodians of public and local history, my goodness this is tricky.


Richard Serra – Tilted Arc

I have just had to write an essay about Richard Serra’s sculpture titled Tilted Arc.  This was a public commission won by Serra in 1979, for a sculpture to be placed in Federal Plaza in New York, in front of buildings occupied by the US Federal Courts Office and the US Department of Immigration.

The sculpture was completed and installed in 1981, a 120ft long and 12ft high tilted slab of cor-ten steel in its natural state, designed to rust over time.  Immediately it was met with criticism and hostility.  A vigorous campaign to get Tilted Arc removed was ultimately successful despite Serra’s huge objections and it was taken down in 1989.  Harriet Senie’s book titled ‘The Tilted Arc Controversy’ covers the whole saga and explores the different agendas of the many parties involved.

The story of Tilted Arc particularly speaks to me at present: it was a controversial art work which interrupted views and the routes people walked, its massive and perilously leaning aspect was experienced as menacing; it provoked reaction and consequently it was rejected by its audience.  Richard Serra’s father lived all his life in the USA, having arrived from Spain as a baby; he died the year Serra was commissioned to create Tilted Arc without ever receiving US citizenship.  Given this fact, why on earth would Serra create an artwork to stand in perpetuity outside the US Department of Immigration that was comfortable?

The sculpture I made to encourage donations for the museum, titled ‘Bawbie’ is at present not wanted by the West Highland Museum.  After putting a lot of work into it I am obviously disappointed; however I did know that what I was making had the capacity to rattle cages and therefore might not be entertained by a traditionally conservative institution. 

Serra maintained that his work had an absolute right to remain, regardless of the feelings of local people that had to look at it all day every day.  Personally I think his approach was belligerent and arrogant and gave public artists a bad name.  But there is a tension, between making work of integrity, and that of such blandness there are no objections.

On the Harvard Law website there is a discussion on the nature of minimalist artworks, the context in which the movement arose, and their relationship with the general public and public bodies. The same questions are asked. 

How can the Minimalist artist blame the public for rejecting a work created in a style that they essentially find inaccessible?  Should Public Sculpture always be visually and therefore psychologically appealing, considering its context?  Who is right here?

A recent public artwork unveiled at St Pancras Station in London shows the depressing direction where this is headed:

The Meeting Place by Paul Day or “Welcome to London, home of heteronormativity!” as it is titled on the wonderful blog celebrating the life of Mary Wollstonecraft,  Day also has designed a frieze to go around the enormous base of this sanitised and idealistic giant, but whilst the top of the sculpture has been generally liked by the general public, the bronze frieze which shows a more realistic and also challenging view of London life has been met with a storm of protest.  Familiar and tedious stuff.

Bawbie’s Thank yous…

Bawbie has only become possible because of the help of two people,

Firstly my aunt Jenny allowed me to use my uncle Toby’s formal dress kilt outfit.   Seeing all the mannequins around the West Highland Museum in Highland dress, was what started this whole train of thought.  The loftier the status of the historical figure, the larger, hairier, and more bejewelled would be the sporran and other accoutrements of that individual in the display cases in the Museum.  My aunt was able to lend me my uncles kilt, waistcoat, jacket and socks..but the sporran was missing.  In the twinkling of an eye a sporran was constructed, using bathroom plug chain, a ladies evening bag and a wig.  I had to choose between two wigs:

I chose the red wig primarily because my uncle, father and grandmother all had red hair.  Also the white wig looked rather like a large sheeps bottom and that seemed undignified..also I rather like wearing the white wig and so didn’t want to cut it up.

The other person to whom huge thanks are due is my pal John Philip, who, for this project, taught me how to use a circular saw without cutting off either mine or anyone else’s arms and legs, and taught me an enormous amount simple electric circuits and switches.  I now know what VERO board is, how to wire a latching relay, and how a reed switch works.


This has been huge amounts of fun.  I really really hope other people think so too.


This is Bawbie.. interactive..intermittantly..and somewhat irreverent.  Below is Bawbie in operation in the Glasgow School of Art

His first mission was at the Free Hetherington, a student occupied building supporting the campaign to oppose cuts and asset stripping at Glasgow University.   Early audience reaction was positive.