by Juliette Estroumsa
You know that you have been pulled into Dina Goldstein’s artwork when you noticed that there is something elementary wrong in the innocent, cute and beautiful photograph that you have in front of you. Indeed, the photographer’s humorous cult images are inspired from Western pop culture, only to reveal sad realities of the human condition. She re-imagines Rapunzel with cancer, a headless Barbie girl or a Buddha working at Whole Foods,..
Dina executes and manipulates the narrative with incredible ideas that divert from the original myth.
Dina, let’s start with a quick overlook of your career; tell me how you got into photography? You started as a documentary photographer, you’ve been to Gaza for instance, so how did the transition to studio-related actually happen?
In 2013 I celebrated 20 years in photography with a retrospective exhibition titled “XX”. In my early twenties I traveled to dangerous and war torn areas like Gaza and the West Bank. I wanted to be a National Geographic or Life photographer. After some time and considerable contemplation I discovered that this life involved a solitude and constant relocation that was not suited for my personality.
I returned home, met my husband Jonas and got married. I got a job as staff photographer on a weekly newspaper and began concentrating on editorial portraiture. I went on to photograph spreads for basically every Canadian publication and was assigned work from American and European newspaper and magazines. Simultaneously I would shoot commercial projects with advertising agencies in Vancouver and collaborated with art directors abroad. I worked many weekends and evenings covering events. I also had several personal projects on the go: I spent years photographing gamblers and regulars at the racetrack in Vancouver, for example. My process was the portraiture expressed through the study of people within various social organization. I titled my method Photoanthropology, I photographed non stop in my twenties and early thirties. My success in the commercial realm afforded me to experiment with my own ideas and create personal work. At 35 I became a mother and began to explore subjects and concepts that interested me. The shift from commercial to fine art happened in 2007 when I began to work on “Fallen Princesses“. The series was inspired by my daughter Jordan at age 3, her discovery of Disney princesses while at the same time my mother was confronting breast cancer. I began to compose the concepts and photographed each pieces with particular attention to makeup, costume and location. It took me over two years to complete the “Fallen Princesses“ series. I continued to work throughout my pregnany with my second daughter Zoe. Just after giving birth I had my first solo exhibition in 2009.
My second large scale project "In The Dollhouse, 2012" plays out in a 10 part sequential narrative, photographed in a custom built adult sized dollhouse. This time I take on one of the most powerful symbols of Western culture: Barbie and Ken, the beloved and idealized American couple. More than any other childhood construct, Barbie represents the concept that `Beauty´ is the apex trait and is necessary to attain power and happiness. Her co-star Ken is trapped in an imposed marriage for over five decades discovers his authentic self and finally expresses his individuality. Barbie´s fate appears grim as she breaks down and confronts her own value and fleeting relevance.
In 2013 I opened my studio XX, located in Vancouver. I decided to focus completely on producing my own projects and specifically my next series, “Gods Of Suburbia“. I received my first Canada Council grant to help support this massive initiative. This series, more complex and contemplative, has taken me two years to complete.With “Gods“ I have taken a personal and professional leap. It is a critical exploration of established and fringe religions.
Today I continue to conceive and realize my own independently produced large-scale tableau projects. My themes are always centered around matters of the human condition through the lens of pop surrealism.
I am very pleased that my work is subject to many written academic essays, dissertations, and mentioned in various literature. The projects are studied and taught in art schools, photography programs, gender and feminist courses.
In 2014 I was awarded the Prix Virginia overall prize and was invited to Paris to show my work in a solo exhibition. This year I will show in Columbia, Taiwan and Cannes, France.
All your series – “Fallen Princesses”, “In the Dollhouse” and “Gods of Suburbia” – have in common to invert the classical image of moral transmissions given either by the myths, the consumer products or some masterpieces. How did you come up with the idea and which message do you want to deliver?
Surrealism mines dreams and the unconscious, while popular culture is concerned with surface and commonplaces. This art practice often has a sense of humor – sometimes the humor is colourful, joyful, and sometimes dark, mischievous and sarcastic. This lean towards pop surrealism has altered my visual language which is defined by narratives, use of symbolism, dark humor and subversive messaging. My work analyzes the human condition, interpreting new and clichéd notions of beauty, gender, sex and religion through the lens of pop culture.
Photography as an art form transcends cultural borders and has the ability for quick communication. Within one frame or a series I attempt to create a narrative that relays as much information as a book or movie. This is always my challenge. Sometimes the message is delivered quickly and makes an instant impression and other times the image requires further research and deeper involvement.
My current photography practice examines pop culture within modern society and by utilizing recognizable/ iconic figures like Disney princesses, Barbie and Ken, and images of Gods, I attempt to bring attention and to inspire insight to the human condition.
Fallen Princesses challenges the notion of ‘happily ever after’ and creates metaphor out of the myths of fairy tales, forcing the viewer to contemplate real life: failed dreams, obesity, addiction, obesity, Cancer, the extinction of indigenous culture pollution, war and the fallacy of chasing eternal youth. By embracing the textures and colors created by Walt Disney, which built a multi-billion dollar empire exploiting these fairy tales, Fallen Princesses exposed the consumerism that has negated the morality of these ancient parables. It also begged the question, "How do we define the concept of ‘good’ and how do we live a ‘good’ life?”
In the Dollhouse breaks down the perceptions of ‘perfection’. We see that perfection is not stable, as the idealistic relationship of the most popular pink plastic dolls comes to a tragic end. The series is a 10 part sequential narrative that unfolds within a custom built human size dollhouse. After decades in an imposed marriage I re-imagine the iconic couple finally facing the problems within their marriage as Ken finds his authentic self and ‘comes out’, while Barbie has a nervous breakdown and looses her identity, her hair, her confidence, her hope and even her head.
Gods Of Suburbia offers an iconoclastic interpretation of how ancient belief systems fit with technology, science and secularism, the three main pillars of modernity.
My initial ideas are mostly instinctual, and inspired for a subconscious place. When I see potential in an idea I take the time to study and review the subject. When I make the decision to move ahead with a project I introduce the idea to Jonas or another trusted friend and stay open to constructive criticism. Making a decision to proceed is a huge commitment, as my projects take upwards of 2 years to complete, and I don’t release the images individually.
I try to come up with rough concepts for each piece before the start of production. I want a clear ‘big picture’ so I can continue with a vivid vision with a semi practical budget. My first priory is to find the right person to portray the lead character of the piece. This process can happen quickly or may take months or even years. I tend to do a lot of street casting and/or work with local actors and performers. The circumstances are always different but somehow seem to work out at the end. I am working with tiny budgets and each time have to find a way to bring people on board and get them excited about something that doesn't exist yet. Sometimes I loosely draw out my concepts or work with a story board artist (as I did for In The Dollhouse). I assemble my crew and consult with my creative team, that is made up of makeup & hair artists, costumers and prop builders. Many of the costumes and props are fabricated by local craftsman and artists.
l methodically scout out locations, as these will become permanent backdrops for my conceptualized scenarios. There is usually a lot of red tape that has to be dealt with in preparation, (all this keeps the studio interns busy on the computer and phones). Many of my set ups involve elaborate sets with crews largely made-up of photography and art students, as well as volunteers from all walks of life.
To prepare for the shoots I shift focus to the tiny details. The collection of furniture and knick knacks, which I hand pick, play an important role in the telling of the story. Prior to the shoot day I meet with the actors to discuss character and give them some clear direction. I usually photograph 2 images over a weekend. I revue the shoot and the files and make decisions for post adjustments. I may have to reshoot or add an element that will help shape and complete the image. I work with a dynamo post team, that despite my limited budgets and huge ambitions, can make anything possible!
What do you think about gender and the image given to the woman in the 21st century? Still Barbie and Disney Princesses?
I would like to think that women can make themselves happy despite what they look like. However, the concept of a fairy tale happy ending and unrealistic physical ideals are a bit ridiculous. Modern life is about constant change, women today have to adapt and learn how to grow from adversity. Everyone must define what being ‘happy’ means to them and then move towards that. Some may never find happiness because of obstacles that they themselves create. Some may realize that happiness itself is an abstract notion and that changing expectations and attitudes can make a big difference.
So how do you deal with your daughters and fairy tales? What stories do you tell them?
My daughters know and love all of the fairytales but usually in the original version; which is a parable meant to teach important lessons. I raise them to ask many questions and I attempt to give them advice, which will ready them for this most complicated world that we live in.
Since your photographs became famous worldwide, did you get feedback from companies such as Mattel or religious authorities?
Mattel or Disney have never contacted me but why would they? My characters are real people not cartoon characters or dolls. “Gods Of Suburbia“ has rustled some feathers with a Hindu leader that took offense of his deities portrayed in human form. He sent out a press release asking me to take down my images of Lakshmi and Ganesha.
I can imagine that you have a large scale of different clients but which buyer surprised you the most?
My collectors are sophisticated and have a good sense of humor. They are located all over the world and discover my work either online, at exhibitions or through published articles. They often contact me directly, writing very personal messages, or they may be introduced to me through one of my galleries. They vary in gender, income and culture. Some have been supporting my work for years and continue to believe in my vision. I am most surprised by people who are unlikely to collect my work and yet connect to the themes.
One of your photographs, “Haircut”, where Barbie just cut her hair in a depressive action, is a nod to Frida Kahlo... so who are your influences?
My daughters continue to inspire my themes. I find comfort in the natural beauty of this world that we live in, and in the frailty and randomness of life. I’m in awe of howeasily all can be lost. I look for inspiration in the ‘corners’ and ‘edges’ of life... In the stuff that us humans have managed to create, in the individuality that we all possess, I understand the darkness that shares the light. I am nostalgic and sentimental. I love all mediums of art and respect the tenacity and patients that it takes to be an artist. ‘Haircut’ was inspired by ‘Frida’s Self Portrait with Cropped Hair’; this was recognized by the Musee d’Orangie which included the image in last year’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera catalogue.
I must say I really like the “In the Dollhouse” series, so I am really curious: why do you see Ken as gay? Why did you focus only on the relationship between Ken and Barbie, why there is no children involved for instance?
Even the most beautiful, powerful, wealthy cannot always find happiness in marriage... for many our world is full of images that are created by ad agencies. These images portray the perfect couple, perfect homes, perfect children etc. I think that my images portray the truth about life and its complexities. That everyone deals with challenges and that although this world is so full of beauty there is also darkness that enters our lives once in a while. It’s good to recognize this and find the humor in it. In my story Ken has been suffering in an imposed marriage and finally finds his authentic and the courage to break free. Overtime we have seen a few versions of Ken, who was originally created as Barbie’s brother (taken from Barbara Handler’s real brother Ken Handler). When Mattel issued “Magic Earring Ken“ in 1993 - complete with buff body, mesh tanktop, mauve vest and a much speculated upon chrome ring about his neck - the doll sparked controversy and was soon discontinued and recalled despite its popularity. Ken’s makers have softened him overtime making him more attractive to girls and boys alike. In my re-imagined version Ken finally breaks free from the imposed marriage and finds happiness.
Yes, in the dream image I wanted Barbie and Ken to fantasize about GI Joe. Within the context of the dream they imagine him the way that they would prefer him.
I myself have been with my husband Jonas for 20 years. We have two little daughters Jordan, 9 and Zoe, 5. Even though we have been together for so many years, our relationship has seen and overcome crisis. Marriage itself is a work in progress. Also within the “Dollhouse“ I play with the gender rolls of the two dolls: the social and behavioral norms that are generally considered appropriate for either a man or a woman.
So what is next for you and your camera?
I am continuing on with similar themes with my next project. I’m still in very early stages so I won’t say too much. I’ll also be producing custom LED light panels which I am incorporating into my current work.