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"Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art"
2000-01-23 until 2000-04-30
Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
La Jolla, CA, USA United States of America

Small World presents works by a group of artists who use the language of dioramas-small- or full-scale models of real or imaginary environments-as a vehicle for artistic expression. The traveling exhibition and accompanying catalogue feature works by artists Michael Ashkin, Helen Cohen, Liz Craft, Mark Dion, Bridget and Tina Marrin, Tony Matelli, Alexis Rockman, Clara Williams (USA); Thomas Demand (Germany); Mat Collishaw, Nils Norman (England); and Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japan). Inspired by a variety of sources including museum displays, stage sets, and miniature models, these artists work in both two and three dimensions. They create and analyze dioramas, exploring the ways we know and understand the world.

The diorama is, like its relative the panorama, an eighteenth-century innovation, a pre-cinematic form of entertainment and education intended to provide views of significant places and events. First used in 1821 by L.J.M. Daguerre and Charles Bouton to describe large, hyperrealistic scenes painted on two sides of translucent fabric that produced changing imagery when illuminated, the word “diorama” stems from the Greek dia (through) and horama (to see). Since this early use, three-dimensional models have become a means for different fields-artistic and otherwise-to convey knowledge and give form to ideas. The urge to create small worlds, however, is primordial. Humans seem genetically engineered to want to simulate the terrain of life and to see the world in miniature, or preserved as if in a time capsule. In dioramas, the concrete and the imaginary, the authentic and the artificial become magically intertwined. Writing about miniaturization in her book On Longing (Duke University Press, 1993), critic Susan Stewart notes that the atmosphere in a diorama is charged; mood and time are crystallized, and the viewer is given the extraordinary opportunity to step outside of his or her time and place to view life.

In the exhibition catalogue, exhibition curator Toby Kamps and Los Angeles and London-based critic Ralph Rugoff discuss the history and influence of the diorama in twentieth-century art. The catalogue contains color illustrations of the represented works as well as entries on each of the artists.

In MCA’s exhibition, four of the artists produce small-scale dioramas as a means to create imaginary views of the world. Michael Ashkin uses model-railroading supplies-miniature buildings, vehicles, and plants to create barren, neglected landscapes where some toxic or illicit event may have transpired. Nils Norman uses two-dimensional diagrams along with three-dimensional modeling materials to give form to his ideas for utopian community structures and events: solar-powered kiosks where citizens can trade information and labor; strikes by radical bicyclists; and anarchist tree-houses, complete with walkways to escape police attacks. Clara Williams installs an unspoiled, verdant landscape, complete with picturesque waterfall, on a desk in an office cubicle, contrasting an ideal vision of nature with the characterless reality of the urban work environment.

For another artist in the exhibition, architectural dioramas serve as a means to represent interior states. Helen Cohen builds tiny, scrupulously realistic rooms inside a variety of objects including portable record players, ammunition boxes, and old-fashioned hair dryers. Relating closely to the function and era of their containers, Cohen’s tiny, uninhabited spaces, many of which are accompanied by soundtracks, evoke powerful sense memories of private and public spaces. British artist Mat Collishaw uses projected video to juxtapose expectations and reality. Onto a model of a quaint English town, Collishaw projects images of marauding hooligans who brawl outside a pub, torch a car, and stagger off into the night singing drunkenly. Liz Craft builds large-scale sculpture that represents her own experience of the terrain of her home city of Los Angeles. Using forms abstracted from nature, she captures the experience of driving through L.A. and looking through hedges and over walls into private realms.

Natural history museum displays serve as inspirations for two other artists in the exhibition. Using real objects, artifacts, and taxidermied animals, Mark Dion creates elaborate life-size scenes of the despoilment of nature, such as a beached fishing boat surrounded by a morass of man-made flotsam and jetsam or a row of garbage cans being scavenged by urban creatures. A student of the history of museums and the study of nature, Dion skillfully exploits the spectacular and the didactic aspects of dioramas to illuminate the interface between the human and natural environments. For Small World, Dion will create a new diorama based on dump ecology using taxidermied animals and a painted backdrop that explores the not-always-harmonious relationship between the human and animal worlds. Working in near life-size painted epoxy resin figures, Tony Matelli creates tragically absurd tableaux: a troop of lost Boy Scouts vomiting after eating something poisonous or two early hominids trying to reattach their lost tails. Suggesting both the Museum of Natural History in New York and Madame Tussaud’s in London, Matelli’s work uses black humor to exploit the power of dioramas to shock and amuse.

Three other artists use museum dioramas as the basis for two-dimensional work. Hiroshi Sugimoto makes carefully crafted black-and-white photographs of natural history and wax museum displays. In their straightforward presentation of artificial people and settings, the images test the power of art and science to capture life’s animate forces. Thomas Demand creates elaborate cardboard scale models of historically and personally important spaces-Hitler’s office after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, the desk where Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote the book Dianetics, the entrance to his apartment building-and then lights and photographs them. Stripped of most surface detail and texture, the works present chilling, diagrammatic views of psychically charged environments. New York-based artist Alexis Rockman creates hybrid assemblage-paintings combining real objects and painted and digitized images in transparent resin that function as radically foreshortened dioramas. Filling his lush, trompe l’oeil land- and seascapes with modern and prehistoric creatures as well as evidence of contemporary pollution, Rockman creates comical and disturbing images of ecosystems run amok.

In addition, Bridget and Tina Marrin, curators at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles-an institution which uses dioramas to blur the lines between fact and fiction-are collaborating with an L.A. based high-tech firm to fabricate new, mechanized dioramas involving miniature moving sprinklers and flags. These works investigate the ways the perception of time can change in a miniature environment.

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