The Haunted Dollhouse, revisited.

Back in July of 2010, I wrote a blog post entitled The Haunted Dollhouse in which I briefly discussed this interesting and unconventional approach to the miniature house. Created by artists and hobbyists alike, the haunted dollhouse can range greatly from the kitschy, Halloween-themed miniature festooned with cotton-batting cobwebs and tiny jack o’ lanterns, to epic, post-apocalyptic landscapes created in miniature scale by a team of artists. Now, before I venture further in my discussion, I should define my use of the word dollhouse and explain that I’m employing it in the broadest possible sense. While the spooky Halloween-themed dollhouse can be more readily defined as a house, the post-apocalyptic landscape — while still miniature in scale — is less traditionally identifiable as such. Both, however, are miniatures that share a common link to the uncanny (see below).

So, with semantics out of the way, let’s continue with a quote taken from my earlier post on the dollhouse that links our enjoyment of the miniature with the experience of the uncanny:

There’s something inherently unnerving about a dollhouse. While we can easily admire and delight in its minuscule detail, this admiration is frequently accompanied by a sense of unease. This simultaneous intermingling of delight-with-unease is a manifestation of the uncanny — a sensation of anxiety experienced when one encounters “something familiar, yet foreign.” The dollhouse, with its miniaturized approximation of reality, recalls the familiar domestic setting of the home. At the same time, it falls short of appearing truly real. It’s the tension that exists within this disconnect — the miniature’s approximation of scaled-down reality with its inevitable failure — that contributes to our experience of the uncanny.

To reiterate, the uncanny is a sense of discomfort within the familiar setting of the home. I would argue that since the dollhouse is already imbued with an element of the uncanny, it’s not a far stretch to imagine and reconfigure the miniature as a nightmarish, dystopic space. This may have been the thought-process behind the Apocalyptic Manhattan (in an Apartment) project created by Swedish artist Magnus Johannson and his team when they designed and constructed the fifty miniature buildings of their mangled landscape. This extraordinarily-detailed, post-apocalyptic Manhattan was later featured in a Swedish music video in which the band members stomp through the model in Godzilla-like fashion.

A post-apocalyptic Manhattan, as envisioned by two artists from Sweden.

A post-apocalyptic Manhattan, as envisioned by two artists from Sweden.

My favourite artist working in miniature, however, remains American photographer and diorama-artist Lori Nix. Blending a canny mixture of black humour with dread, she creates such varied post-apocalyptic miniature scenes as a burnt-out, long-abandoned beauty parlor, a subway car that has been gradually reclaimed by the surrounding sandy beach, and the interior of an empty mall which has been invaded by flora. Through her constructed dioramas, Nix “…imagines a human-less world where Mother Nature has reclaimed our cities.” (source).

"Beauty Shop" by Lori Nix.

“Beauty Shop” by Lori Nix. 18″x12″x33″

"Mall" by Lori Dix, 92"x42"x100".

“Mall” by Lori Dix, 92″x42″x100″.

My Demon Lover: the mythology of the incubus.

“Inkubus” (photograph, 2005) by contemporary German visual artist Michael Hutter.

The incubus is a demon in male form — the female equivalent is called a succubus — who, according to different mythologies and legends throughout the world, lies upon women whilst they sleep in order to have sexual intercourse with them. In the Middle Ages, belief in demons who sexually preyed on humans assuaged a sleeping person’s shame and guilt over nocturnal emissions and other physical evidence of erotic dreams. Primarily, however, the incubus legend functioned as a convenient means to conceal incest and other types of sexual assault upon girls and women who had no unchaperoned access to men outside the home, but had nonetheless become inexplicably pregnant.

In contrast to the sleeping rape victims of medieval yore, the women that populate the photographic work of contemporary visual artist Michael Hutter are both wide awake and engaged in consensual coupling with their respective incubi. In the sepia-coloured photo-collage entitled Inkubus, a nude woman sporting a 1920’s flapper-style bob receives an amorous lick from the tiny demon lover perched on her shoulder. In The Alien Nurse, the erotic-grotesque combines with Victorian fetishism as a blindfolded “wet-nurse” offers up her breast to a curious intestinal/tentacled alien blob. In subsequent photo-collages, the wet-nurse discovers new and even more intimate uses for the alien tentacle, recalling shokushu goukan or ‘tentacle erotica’ of contemporary Japanese hentai.

“Die Alienamme (The alien nurse)”, photograph, 2006 by Michael Hutter.

The work of German artist Michael Hutter ranges from ink drawings on paper reminiscent of the Victorian kinkiness of Aubrey Beardsley’s Lysistrata, to the retro-inspired photo-collages you see here.  Visit his online gallery to see for yourself, though perhaps not whilst at the office.

A Disquieting Beauty: the photography of Loretta Lux

Study of a Boy 1, Loretta Lux, 2002.

It’s a given: babies and small children are cute. If ever there was a photographic image that possessed universal appeal, it is that of the child. Too young to have developed any sense of self-consciousness, they seem assured and wholly natural before the camera lens. That being said, there is no greater threat to the credibility of a fine art photographer than the use of the child as a subject. Photographs of cherubic babes are acceptable on your home mantle, but are they serious enough fodder for the lofty halls of the gallery or museum?

The meteoric rise and critical acclaim of photo-artist Loretta Lux answers my rhetorical question with a resounding “yes.” The German-born Lux combines painting with photography to create her quirky, signature portraits of children. She employs a subtle form of digital manipulation that seamlessly fuses her painted backdrops with the photographic foreground, resulting in images that appear just slightly “off” from straightforward portraiture. Her soft, diffuse light and muted colour palette give her children an otherworldly appearance, as if they were ghosts haunting long-abandoned houses. The nostalgic costumes in which her subjects are clothed serve to heighten this uncanny, ghost-like quality.

It is this tension between the beauty of the child and the strangeness of their environments that elevate Lux’s portraits above the Walmart-variety kitsch of, say, an Anne Geddes eggplant-baby, and offer up a compelling and unsentimental view of children and childhood.

The Green Room, Loretta Lux, 2005.

The Contemporary Daguerreotype: the mannequins of Spring Hurlbut.

Spring Hurlbut & Mike Robinson. Daguerreotype. 2003

In this age of digital photography, where the romance (and corollary health risks) of film chemistry has been displaced by the pixel, there’s something gloriously rebellious about a contemporary photographer who works with a 19th-century process such as the daguerreotype. A labour-intensive and potentially harmful medium — one which involves deadly mercury fumes — it is the antithesis of the instant and easily-obtained digital image. It is perhaps surprising, when you factor in the risks, that the number of contemporary daguerreian photographers in North America is large enough to warrant their own Society where they hold symposiums on this anachronistic art form. (In fact, there are several such ‘societies’ dedicated to working with these historical photographic techniques).

Thus, when Canadian artist Spring Hurlbut — herself not unaccustomed to labour-intensive work — called upon the specialized technical skills of Toronto-based daguerreian Mike Robinson, the results were their nostalgic and hauntingly beautiful ‘Mannequin’ project. Admittedly, I know very little about this series, other than it was a response on the part of Hurlbut to the permanent collections at the Royal Ontario Museum in some sort of collaboration with this institution. The daguerreotypes, along with the 1917 mannequin featured in the photographs, were exhibited in 2002 at Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto. Here’s a nice review published in Canadian Art magazine.

Spring Hurlbut & Mike Robinson. Daguerreotype. 2003

I love the otherworldly elements of this work, from its skulls and ghosts to the frozen smile and Sphinx-like missing nose of the girl-mannequin. At first glance, I thought these items were miniature in scale. However, the mannequin is, well, the size of a typical mannequin (albeit the size of a small child) and the skull that appears in Melancholy (image on the right) an actual human skull.