Dolly pARTon at South Place Hotel

Think about the best thing that could happen. No, I mean, THINK REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS. Imagine a room – what’s in it? Some comfy sofas? Nice lighting? And what’s that all around you? Think about it now – what would be the most perfect thing in the world? We’re all thinking the same thing, right? Spooky eh? Because in our perfect imagined room we are surrounded by Dolly Parton art by some of the most creative Finnish artists and designers.

WELL YOU DON’T HAVE TO JUST DREAM IT – IT IS OUT THERE! You can find the exhibition Dolly pARTon at South Place Hotel in London but ONLY until Monday 30th June. So GO GO GO, or it WILL just be a dream!

So how did this happen?

Well, a group of Finland’s top artistic types decided to create a collection of works inspired by one of the most iconic and visually arresting pop culture goddesses of our times. And this isn’t just a celebration of Dolly – it is a deliberate confrontation of what is art, and not just in terms of the content, but the spaces this exhibition has, does and will inhabit. Starting at the Klaus K Hotel in Helsinki, guests were greeted in the lobby by a happy onslaught of Dolly depictions. South Place Hotel – quickly becoming renowned for its art and support of artists – took up the challenge of having a room full of pARTon in their chi-chi Le Chiffre games room. If you miss it in London, don’t worry – you can fly and catch it in its next home in Berlin at the 25 Hours Hotel.

I spoke to Sampo Marjomaa, creator of the piece ‘Plywoods Barbie’, one of the key players behind the exhibition and who also just happens to be a major Finnish TV star with his show Hauskat kotivideot, which reappropriates and recontextualises clips from America’s Home Videos. He said that he’d had criticism from the art world for holding an art show in hotels – ‘it’s SO commercial!’ was the common accusation.

And is not the art world and are not galleries commercial? I asked. ‘Exactly!’ Sampo exclaimed.

So Parton is not only a wonderful muse for this stunning exhibition – like the lady herself, Art Dolly is a fuck you to art hierarchies of high and low, good and bad. Exactly The Ethel Mermaids manifesto, I told Sampo. No wonder we loved this show so much.

But it’s more than just a political statement. This show is viscerally arresting. Comprising 8 pieces by 8 different artists, every artwork is amazing. Every single one. How often does that happen? I cannot remember ever thinking that about an art exhibition.

Mari Kasurinen's My Little Dolly
Mari Kasurinen’s My Little Dolly

The one artist I’d heard of before was Mari Kasurinen, who you will also probably know from her incredibly prolific art collection, My Little Pop Icons: gorgeously sculpted ponies resembling some of pop cult’s favourites – including Gaga, Lagerfeld, Warhol, and fictional characters like Poison Ivy, Chewbacca, Edward Scissorhands. So I was very excited to see her ‘My Little Dolly Parton’. Pictures of the sculptures cannot do justice to the artworks or the impact of seeing them in person. I expected to enjoy Dolly Pony – I didn’t expect to have an emotional reaction. The sculptured ponies are bigger than you’d think, they have presence. And there was something about the scruffy ‘do, the extra long luxurious tail and the disturbingly expressive eyes of the thing that just got me. I revisited that pony several times last night.

Suvi Aarnio’s Fandom Imagined

Suvi Aarnio’s textile piece ‘Fandom Imagined’ evokes that other icon of country music, the Nudie suit, as well as a religious triptych with the exquisitely embroidered Dolly posed like the Holy Mother. Fandom of Christian iconology meets that of The Goddess Parton. The side panels of the triptych are mirrors, reflecting her beauty and also bringing to mind an old fashioned dressing table where Dolly might apply layer upon layer upon layer of makeup. For me, Aarnio’s work – which bears the Dolly quote ‘There’s a heart beneath the boobs and a brain beneath the wig’ – is a sister piece to Sami Viljanto’s ‘Dolly Surround System’. A painted glass Parton, you are invited to look at it both in its stunning technicolour and through a red gel viewer, which transforms her boobs into a perfect heart.

Sami Viljanto’s ‘Dolly Surround System’
Sami Viljanto’s ‘Dolly Surround System’

Experiencing these two artworks, I not only considered the ‘fake on top, soul beneath’ Dolly message but also the heartbreaking fact that this incredibly beautiful, classically pretty woman has never thought she was attractive. Part of Dolly’s charm is the trash and the flash and that she embraces ‘too much’ when it comes to paint, wigs and costume. We love her for it. But she has admitted that this is covering what she sees as a lack. And this is also, of course, the reason for her multiple cosmetic surgeries over the years: the boob jobs to enhance and lift her already massive breasts, the face work, the dieting that keeps her teeny tiny. Dolly Parton is at once a glorious celebration and a mood of melancholy and pathos. And isn’t that so country music?

Sampo Marjomaa’s piece ‘Plywoods Barbie’ (see invite above), painted on knotted wood, is the only artwork that gives us contemporary Dolly. I noted this to the artist and he agreed: ‘most people concentrate on the nostalgic image of Dolly Parton’. At once rustic and plastic, in this piece – depicting her in her currently favoured pale, custard yellow – we have the surgeried Dolly smiling at us (well, as best as she can) hand on hip, emoting that solid Dolly attitude of sass, fun and challenge. We can only hope to rise to it and please her. You so want to please Dolly.

In her 1994 autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business, Dolly revealed that as she gets sent such an enormous amount of fan art she has had to dedicate a room in Dollywood to it, a room she gloriously refers to as ‘The Arts and Craps Room’. Again with the play with high and low. When I sent her my own Dolly art – Little Tiny Tassle Top – a couple of years ago, I hoped and prayed that it would end up in the Arts and Craps gallery. My life’s ambition is to become curator of that wonderous space in the Smokie Mountains. One day.

That said – let it be known – the Dolly pARTon exhibition is all art and no craps in sight.

Corinna Tomrley 2014