Artist Tara Conley Invites You Into Her Doll House

The sculptor examines issues of gender and childhood in colorful HMAAC installation.

By Michael Hardy January 27, 2015

Image: Felix Sanchez

My Life As A Doll
Jan 30–March 29
Houston Museum of African American Culture
4807 Caroline St.

For the past 18 years, sculptor Tara Conley has been collecting phrases. Phrases she overhears at the supermarket, phrases people say when they’re talking to her, phrases plucked from the ambient chatter of daily life; banal phrases, profound phrases, witty phrases, silly phrases. She now has a collection of 900 such phrases, a collection she dips into when creating her multimedia works.

For a courtyard archway at Texas Tech’s Rawls College of Business Administration, she made limestone engravings of several phrases related to power, integrity, and success (“They never thought small”; “The boardroom just got a lot bigger”). For the South Gessner Houston Police Station she cast 33 phrases in bronze and hung them throughout the building (“You have the right to remain silent”; “Good luck with the police”).

Image: Felix Sanchez

For her new installation at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, Conley took her process one step further and based the entire work around a single phrase: “My Life As A Doll.” She chose the phrase in collaboration with writer Tria Wood when they were planning the original version of the installation, which went on view at DiverseWorks in 2011. “I asked Tria to go through the list of phrases with me, and we both picked the same phrase,” Conley remembers.

Beginning with that single phrase, Conley and Wood created an immersive, brightly colored installation featuring Conley’s sculptural assemblages and Wood’s poetic text. Conley likens the experience to stepping into a life-size children’s pop-up book. For the HMAAC version, Conley added 22 additional sculptural elements, as well as a documentary film about the project that she made with director Sharon Ferranti.

Conley says she wants to give visitors the sense of entering the mind of a doll, or a child who wants to be a doll. “You’re stepping into an environment that shows someone living their life as if they were a doll,” she explains. “Each of us, whatever gender we are, makes decisions that dictate what our behaviors will be and what our circumstances will be. The idea was to have the viewer be standing outside, but also recognizing the ways that this mirrors their own life.”

Image: Felix Sanchez

There’s an interactive element as well: visitors to the installation will be asked to write down some factors in their life that shaped their concept of gender—parents, teachers, toys, movies, etc.—on pieces of paper, which will be attached to magnets and added to a large panel. Conley considers the conversations sparked by her work as much a part of the art as her fiberglass assemblages.

“The dialogue that happens because of the work is the point of the work,” she says. “That’s the most amazing part.” 

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