Teen girls’ Tumblr blogs are like the wallpaper of their minds gone public, while photographer Rania Matar captures teen girls in their bedrooms as an outsider. These two reflections of adolescence consider contemporary realities. In her installation “Return to Virtue“ (2013), artist Talena Sanders creates a fictional space of a Mormon teen girl’s fantasy bedroom — the kind she didn’t have growing up, despite being raised Mormon.
While Sanders’s peers were ravenously consuming publications like the Mormon monthly magazineThe New Era, tearing out pages and posting them to their walls, the artist was putting her creative energy towards dance classes. When she asked her parents why she didn’t have the material items her friends had, they reminded her that she could allot the money used for dance classes to purchasing goods from Mormon material culture instead. It was up to teenage Talena.
“I kept practicing dance, and then I would feel this real weight or guilt when I would go to someone else’s house and feel like that [participating in Mormon adolescent material culture] should be my priority,” Sanders told Hyperallergic. “I had faith in a lack of material goods.”
The desire to participate in that culture didn’t leave her after she grew up, even though Sanders decided to get an education instead of play out what she calls the “classic Mormon girl story”: meeting a husband who shares your faith by “going to Brigham Young University in Utah, getting engaged within a year, dropping out, and having kids.” Sanders noted that this is changing — some women are getting married later and finishing college — but the narrative remains mostly the same. And if you don’t follow it, life is much more complicated.
Sanders, who is a fourth generation Mormon on her father’s side (she learned that her mother converted), had a Mormon boyfriend when she was 19. When he proposed to her, she turned him down. Sanders is no longer a practicing Mormon; instead, she’s committed much of her art practice to understanding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A large portion of that has to do with the books, magazines, movies, and consumer shopping experiences produced by the Mormon culture. Her forthcoming documentary film, Liahona, also examines the history and culture of the religion.
“Return to Virtue” explores Sanders’s teen girl fantasy bedroom — the one she missed out on because she chose to dance instead of buy stuff. In the room, the viewer sees posters “reflecting on eternity,” many portrayals of Jesus Christ, a Salt Lake City pennant, lava lamps, a tag that says “future missionary,” a hippie-esque tie-dyed candle, snow globes filled with ponies, and even a poster of Justin Bieber. Mormons generally condone the consumption of mainstream American culture, and even have their own shopping malls, such as City Creek Center in Salt Lake City, which has been called a “$1.5 billion temple of consumption.” Although Bieber, who was once seen as “safe” for Mormon girls, may no longer be an acceptable idol.
“At the time I put up this installation [in 2012], Bieber was still this wholesome teenage icon,” Sanders said. “Then he started getting tattoos.”
Similarly, a One Direction poster hangs on the bedroom wall. As for the hippie stuff, Sanders said she had that in her actual bedroom — just some of the “outside influences” that Mormons learn to navigate and incorporate from adolescent consumer culture.
One of the most striking items in “Return to Virtue” is a magazine image of a young girl staring into a mirror and seeing herself reflected back in a white wedding dress. This is connected to a poem called “My Three White Dresses,” which outlines the three white dresses that keep a woman connected to the Mormon faith, Sanders explained. The first dress comes when she is blessed as a baby, the second at baptism, when she’s eight, and the third when she gets married.
“They keep teen girls ‘pure enough’ so they can get married in the church,” Sanders said.