Welcome to the Dollhouse

She sits there calmly, looking down upon the squalling infant in her arms with the serene expression of the Buddha. One wonders how she maintains her composure amidst the apparent cacophony that surrounds her. At her feet, six monstrous children sit. They have the soft, chubby limbs of toddlers and the featherless heads of baby birds. All are impeccably dressed: the boy children sport Victorian-era sailor suits with ruffled collars, while the girls wear dresses with short, puffed sleeves and a ribbon trim. Arms thrust upwards and heads tilted back, their beaks appear perpetually open in anticipation of sustenance. Or perhaps they are just squawking to attract their mother’s attention? With so many hungry, needy mouths, how does she continue to gaze serenely at her swaddled bird-baby? Even the ornate wallpaper that covers the wall behind her is patterned with the repeated motif of open, screaming mouths. The scene is strange, grotesque, and difficult to decipher.

She sits there calmly, looking down upon the squalling infant in her arms with the serene expression of the Buddha. One wonders how she maintains her composure amidst the apparent cacophony that surrounds her. At her feet, six monstrous children sit. They have the soft, chubby limbs of toddlers and the featherless heads of baby birds. All are impeccably dressed: the boy children sport Victorian-era sailor suits with ruffled collars, while the girls wear dresses with short, puffed sleeves and a ribbon trim. Arms thrust upwards and heads tilted back, their beaks appear perpetually open in anticipation of sustenance. Or perhaps they are just squawking to attract their mother’s attention? With so many hungry, needy mouths, how does she continue to gaze serenely at her swaddled bird-baby? Even the ornate wallpaper that covers the wall behind her is patterned with the repeated motif of open, screaming mouths. The scene is strange, grotesque, and difficult to decipher.

The above scene does not, as one might expect, hail from a David Lynch film nor a nightmarish fever-dream. Rather, it is a description of the nursery room belonging to my art installation entitled The Disobedient Dollhouse, an installation created as a component of my Master of Fine Art thesis at York University. In 2008, I had returned to the hallowed halls of academia after birthing two children and a ten-year stint as a graphic designer by day, visual artist by night. After three years of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, nap schedules and trips to the local playgrounds, I was more than eager to engage with higher learning and the art studio when classes began that September. It comes as little surprise, then, that the body of work I created during my graduate studies would include a dollhouse, that tiny emblem of domestic perfection.  Constructing a dollhouse offered a sense of control that my hectic life as a student and parent rarely granted. The daily negotiations between self, career, and parental responsibilities can often render the home a site of friction. This conflict between different roles, in addition to the ambivalence I sometimes felt towards my role as primary caregiver, informed the design and contents of my Disobedient Dollhouse.

Jennifer Linton, The Disobedient Dollhouse, stone lithography and mixed media installation, 2009-10. Photograph by Tom Blanchard. Image courtesy the artist.

My fascination with dollhouses began, predictably, in childhood. Though I was never fortunate enough to own a dollhouse, I did possess several pieces of plastic miniature furniture that I would meticulously arrange into rooms. These rooms provided the setting for the domestic scenes myself and my playmates would enact with our dolls — scenes that mimicked the day-to-day household routines of our mothers. This form of play amongst young girls —where we would ‘play house’ and pretend to be ‘the Mommy’ — was not only an imitation of the maternal role as we observed it, but, presumably, constituted a type of practice for our future lives as women and mothers. Our imaginary homes possessed all the pink perfection and bubbly enthusiasm as television toy commercials targeted at young girls.

In contrast to the idealized view of domesticity that shaped my childhood dollhouse, the Disobedient Dollhouse was conceived as a place shaded much darker, even sinister in nature. Wild, tangled vines grow out from the furniture and creep up the walls, the same walls on which reside swarms of giant insects. Twisted bed sheets transform into snakes that slither across the wooden floorboards while, in the downstairs parlor room, a bird-headed lady sits at an upright piano. These hybrid monsters, giant insects and tangled vines interrupt the carefully staged interior of the dollhouse and propose a dark fantasy world that churns just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection. The word “disobedient” used in the title of my installation summons the image of a stubbornly defiant child who refuses to submit to a higher authority. Against which authoritative structure does my dollhouse rebel? To a large degree, it is my impulse towards nostalgia — the urge to construct a sentimentalized view of domesticity as shaped in my childhood – that compels my dollhouse and, by extension, myself, to revolt. Wherever these fantastical creatures hail from, be they insect or monster, they’re definitely not here to “mind their manners” and play nice.

A dollhouse is a gendered space, one specifically codified as feminine. Literary critic Susan Stewart, writing in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, defines the dollhouse as a “discourse of the ‘petite feminine’” (Stewart 62) that yearns to see itself replicated in a tiny, precious model of perfect domesticity. Developed in the 17th century as an amusement solely intended for adults, it served as a trophy of the wealthy European woman. Given the rise in popularity of dollhouses in 18th century Europe, at a time in history when women’s roles were increasingly confined to the home, it is tempting to draw a correlation between this change in gender-based codes of conduct and the miniature toy house that reinforced a woman’s role as being solely defined by her place within the house. Her fantasy of a microcosm over which she held complete control — in a world in which she held little or no political control — played out through the choreography of furnishings in her miniature rooms. Unlike the traditional toy object, the staged interiors of the dollhouse were not meant to be manually played with but rather to be “consumed by the eye”(Stewart 62) as an object of display. As such, the dollhouse was modeled as a shrine to an idealized domesticity, forever unsoiled by the grimy reality of daily living.

Nostalgia is characterized by a sense of yearning, either for one’s own past or for an imaginary past located somewhere in history. Yearning constructs a view of the past that is sentimental in nature, and the dollhouse is a manifestation of this essentially romantic construction. There are no shoeless Dickensian street urchins haunting the perimeters of this Victorian-themed dollhouse; these are sumptuous interiors fueled by fantasy and free of social critique.

While a trace of nostalgia is discernible in my Disobedient Dollhouse by way of the Victorian-era styling, a tension also exists that simultaneously disrupts the easy consumption of these nostalgic images. For instance, although the parlor room prominently features an upright piano —  an entertainment staple in many wealthy Victorian households — the woman sat at the piano is a hybrid creature with the head of a bird. In the nursery, a brood of bird-headed monster children collectively squawk at the feet of the beleaguered nanny. These scenes of grotesquerie function as a tactic of subversion, undercutting the inherent sentimentality of nostalgia with large doses of dark humour and absurdity.

Grotesque art revels in the absurd, championing a fantasy world over the rigid conventions of realism. The term grotesque originated in the ancient Roman period and relates to fanciful, decorative flourishes in art and architecture (Williams 14). Grotesque art involves the fantastic, ugly and bizarre, and its subjects are frequently mythological creatures and other strange, malformed monsters. The bizarre, anthropomorphic creatures that populate Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are a primary example of ‘the grotesque’ in literature. Carroll’s novel also proved a valuable source of inspiration for the fantastic hybrid creatures that inhabit my Disobedient Dollhouse. In fact, the only human figure that appears in my Dollhouse is a character loosely based on an illustration of Carroll’s Alice. This character — ostensibly a self-portrait, as I served as the model — appears in the image of the nanny in the nursery cradling the monstrous baby in her arms. This image is an homage to a 19th century wood engraving for Carroll’s novel created by British illustrator John Tenniel, depicting Alice holding a bonneted baby pig. Alice first encounters this strange infant crying inconsolably in the arms of the Duchess, a loud and loutish character who epitomizes the “monstrous mother” in every way. The Duchess violently shakes the child in an effort to cease its crying, and then literally flings the child at Alice as she abruptly announces her plans to play croquet with the Red Queen:

Alice caught the baby with some difficulty, as it was a queer-shaped little creature, and held out its arms and legs in all directions […] “If I don’t take this child away with me,” thought Alice, “they’re sure to kill it in a day or two. Wouldn’t it be murder to leave it behind?” She said the last words out loud, and the little thing grunted in reply […] “Don’t grunt,” said Alice; “that’s not at all a proper way of expressing yourself.” The baby grunted again, and Alice looked very anxiously into its face to see what was the matter with it. There could be no doubt that it had a very turn-up nose, much more like a snout than a real nose: also its eyes were getting extremely small for a baby: altogether Alice did not like the look of the thing at all.

(Carroll 45-46)

At this point in the narrative, the baby fully transforms into a pig and trots off into the nearby woods. For her part, Alice expresses relief at being freed from the burden of care for this “monstrous” child.


Jennifer Linton, detail from The Disobedient Dollhouse, stone lithography and mixed media installation, 2009-10. Photograph by Tom Blanchard. Image courtesy the artist.

The monstrous brood housed inside my nursery — heads tilted up with beaks wide, their arms thrust outwards in a gesture of relentless need — represent every parent’s nightmare of overwhelming responsibility. Much like the crying infant in Carroll’s novel, these bird-children appear inconsolable in their need or distress. Unlike the Duchess, fortunately, the nanny in my Dollhouse (me) opts not to toss her crying baby across the room. Rather, she sits gazing downwards, unflappable, at the squalling bird-baby (an image, incidentally, that is more idealized than it is an accurate reflection of my parenting style under stress). This scene of grotesquerie has been tempered by an element of the absurd. Much like the ridiculously grotesque image of the bonneted pig held by Alice, my bird-headed children are designed to elicit equal measures of pathos, humour and horror. We, the viewers, are moved to pity at the plight of the children, while simultaneously cringing in horror at the thought of all those screaming children, and the insurmountable responsibility of care on the part of the nanny. All the same, the scene is meant to be relatable in a humorous way. My nursery most assuredly conveys parental anxiety and stress, but it does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

With their very survival wholly dependent on the actions of others, babies are capable of eliciting horror at their state of complete helplessness. In this regard, babies can enter the realm of the grotesque. Envision a bird’s nest, populated with a brood of chirping chicks. Eyes still unopened, they sit with beaks perpetually open, waiting for their mother to return to provide them with sustenance. When the mother bird does return with a wad of insect in her beak, her chicks wobble their pink, featherless bodies about in a frenzied dance, straining to catch her attention and be the recipient of the food she offers. There is something of the abject and the grotesque in this scenario: the pink nakedness of the chicks, their blindness, and the desperate urgency with which they wobble about. It is their vulnerability that unnerves us, and it was a scene such as this that shaped the design of the nursery room in the Disobedient Dollhouse, with the constantly open beaks of its hybrid bird-children. In addition to the chicks in the nest, another image has sat nestled in my consciousness for years — a wonderfully grotesque image manifested from the writing of Canadian author Alice Munro. It is this image, too, that informs my understanding of the monstrous baby. 

In her short story entitled “My Mother’s Dream”, Munro digs deep into the grotesque, her text mining the rich vein of maternal anxiety surrounding an infant’s vulnerability. I have a long, personal history with this particular story. I first encountered it many years ago — prior to being a mother myself — whilst working in my home art studio. I would frequently sit at my drawing table in the evenings, working away to the sound of CBC Radio One. A program that aired at that time was “Between the Covers”, a show that featured a series of book and poetry readings. One night, an excerpt from Munro’s “My Mother’s Dream” was read. Owing to the fact that my first encounter with Munro’s short story was auditory, an image of the baby described in the text below was indelibly drawn in my mind – an image that remains with me until this very day. It is the haunting image of maternal failure:

When she got outside she remembered. She remembered that she had left the baby out there somewhere, before the snow had fallen. Quite a while before the snow had fallen. This memory, this certainty, came over her with horror. It was as if she was awakening from a dream. Within her dream she awakened from a dream, to a knowledge of her responsibility and mistake. She had left her baby out overnight, she had forgotten about it. Left it exposed somewhere as if it was a doll she tired of. And perhaps it was not last night but a week or a month ago that she had done this. […]

She went around looking under hedges and broad-leaved plants. She foresaw how the baby would be shrivelled up. It would be dead, shrivelled and brown, its head like a nut, and on its tiny shut-up face there would be an expression not of distress but of bereavement, an old patient grief. There would not be any accusation of her, its mother – just the look of patience and helplessness with which it waited for its rescue or its fate.

(Munro 341-42) 

As hinted at by the title of Munro’s story, this revelation of accidental infanticide is, of course, a dream of the baby’s mother — the baby having survived childhood to later serve as the narrator of the story. 

Nevertheless, it accurately captures the horror and anxiety that new mothers often experience regarding the complete helplessness of their offspring: leaving the baby perched on a stack of laundry atop the dryer, or momentarily forgetting a sleeping infant strapped inside a car seat in the backseat of your car, or a dream in which you trip down the stairs while holding a baby, your body crashing to the ground and inadvertently flattening the hapless child like a deflated balloon. These are the bizarre nightmares and real-life mistakes that mothers relay to each other in hushed voices over coffee at the local parenting centre, confessions punctuated with the occasional, nervous laughter. While the idea of a flattened baby is certainly ridiculous, a residual horror still clings to this image hours after you’ve awakened from the dream.

The narrator of “My Mother’s Dream”, the now-adult baby, tells of the fraught relationship between herself and her mother. Jill, the soon-to-be mother who finds herself suddenly widowed shortly after marriage, scarcely has time to process her grief when her squalling infant arrives. The child proves colicky, and cries night and day. She refuses her mother’s breast, and will only be soothed in the arms of her aunt Iona. “We were monsters to each other. Jill and I” (Munro, p. 373), the narrator admits. Parents who’ve had a baby with colic – one of my children definitely suffered from this – will have no issue recalling the head-splitting, stress-inducing experience:

What is it about an infant’s crying that makes it so powerful, able to break down the order you depend on, inside and outside of yourself? It is like a storm—insistent, theatrical, yet in a way pure and uncontrived. It is reproachful rather than supplicating—it comes out of a rage that can’t be dealt with, a birthright rage free of love and pity, ready to crush your brains inside your skull.

(Munro 374)

Munro’s use of phrases such as “like a storm” and “birthright rage” conjures the raw, primal intensity of a baby’s cry and its awful power, capable of pushing caregivers to the very brink of their sanity. There is a revelation offered by the narrator at the end of “My Mother’s Dream” of a past transgression, one enacted upon herself by her mother, that nearly had dire consequences for them both. An overtired and beleaguered Jill, left alone for hours with the constant onslaught of her daughter’s crying, makes an impulsive decision to add powerful painkillers to her baby’s milk: 

It’s almost time for the last bottle of the day. […] While it’s warming, Jill thinks she’ll dose herself with a couple more 222’s. Then she thinks maybe that won’t do; she needs something stronger. […] [S]he knows that Ailsa takes something strong for her menstrual cramps, and she goes into Ailsa’s room and looks through her bureau drawers until she finds a bottle of pain pills lying, logically, on top of a pile of sanitary pads. These are prescription pills, too, but the label says clearly what they’re for. She removes two of them and goes back to the kitchen and finds the water in the pan around the milk boiling, the milk too hot. 

She holds the bottle under the tap to cool it — my cries coming down at her like the clamor of birds of prey over a gurgling river — and she looks at the pills waiting on the counter and she thinks, Yes. She gets out a knife and shaves a few grains off one of the pills, takes the nipple off the bottle, picks up the shaved grains on the blade of the knife, and sprinkles them — just a sprinkle of white dust — over the milk.

(Munro 379-80)

As with the dream of accidental infanticide that begins “My Mother’s Dream”, this real-life transgression ultimately ends well, with both baby and mother alive, healthy, and reinvigorated by a newly forged bond of acceptance towards each other. What this dramatic episode revealed, of course, was the truest, darkest depths of Jill’s desperation. After a relatively brief romance with her baby’s father George, she found herself impregnated shortly after marriage, then widowed after George dies in combat during World War II. With few options available to her, Jill is pressured by her in-laws to live with them just prior to, and then after, the birth of her daughter. The arrival of her baby, plus her new living arrangement with her well-meaning but overly controlling sisters-in-law, effectively quells Jill’s plan of graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Music and pursuing a career as a classical musician.  In one notable segment of the story, she defiantly practices her violin despite the shrieks of protest from her infant and, a short while later, her in-laws. Thwarted in her efforts to maintain a sense of self separate from her newfound role of mother — a role towards which she was ambivalent from the start, and is now confronted with a baby that appears to reject her — Jill has become trapped by circumstances into a domestic situation she never chose. It is within this context of domestic entrapment that she commits the desperate act of dosing her infant daughter with “shaved grains” (Munro 379) of adult prescription painkillers. 

The walls of the house — warm, secure, and protective though they may seem — can just as equally represent a cage to mothers who lack societal support. Such was the case with Jill shortly after the birth of her daughter, and a sense of confinement can be projected onto the nanny of the Disobedient Dollhouse, surrounded as she is by a large brood of squawking children. A similar domestic prison entrapped thirty-eight-year-old mother of eight Joanne Michulski who, on July 11, 1974, took a butcher knife and, in a state of psychosis, decapitated and dismembered the bodies of her two youngest children, a real-life tragedy closely examined and contextualized by Adrienne Rich in her book Of Woman Born. From her lengthy struggles with depression, to her lack of agency with regards to contraception, to the societal expectations that she solely perform her domestic duties of childrearing despite the mounting evidence that she could not, Rich traces the sad history of Michulski that ultimately ended with the deaths of her infant and toddler. 

Alternately described by her neighbours as “a mother bear where [the] safety [of her children] was concerned” but also “withdrawn” and “quietly desperate from the moment the family moved into the home” (Rich 257), the signs were present early on that Joanne Michulski was overwhelmed by her full-time responsibilities of homemaking and childcare. According to Rich, Michulski would enter a “deep depression” (Rich 257) after the birth of each child. After the birth of her third child, she discussed contraception with her husband, including vasectomy or her possible use of oral contraceptives. Neither of these options were adopted, however, and she birthed five additional children. Between 1961 and 1966, Michulski was voluntarily admitted to mental hospitals on three separate occasions for severe depression and delusions that “X-rays or laser beams were being projected into her home.” (Rich 258). And yet, once she would return home from the hospital, she would again be burdened with the sole care of her eight children, her husband being absent from home for long periods of time. 

Rich asserts that it would be a “naïve proposition” to suggest that birth control or the occasional baby-sitter “could have ‘solved’ Joanne Michulski’s ‘problems’” (Rich 264). Nor was it simply a matter of mental health, though that clearly was a factor. Rather, the overarching narrative that Rich presents is one in which Michulski’s identity as a mother meant that she was expected — by herself, by her husband, by the neighbours — to perform her prescribed role as homemaker and caregiver regardless of the damage it caused, to herself or to others. To do otherwise would be considered “unnatural” within the confines of what Rich terms “the institution of motherhood” (Rich 275). This is her function within society, whether she is broken or not. Given her lack of autonomy and seemingly hopeless predicament, one can imagine her urge to slip into madness:

What woman, in the solitary confinement of a life at home enclosed with young children, or in the struggle to mother them while providing for them single-handedly, or in the conflict of weighing her own personhood against the dogma that says she is a mother, first, last, and always — what woman has not dreamed of “going over the edge,” of simply letting go, relinquishing what is termed her sanity, so that she can be taken care of for once, or can simply find a way to take care of herself? […] [T]he mothers, if we could look into their fantasies […] we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.

(Rich 279-80) 

Beyond mental health issues and the overburden of childcare, what Joanne Michulski fell victim to was the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood. This is what Rich characterized as the “institution of motherhood” (Rich 275), a system of rules and laws that govern and control how a woman is expected to fulfill her role as mother. The control this institution exerts is insidious, and is communicated through a barrage of media that casts motherhood in an idealized, sentimental light. “When we think of motherhood,” Rich writes, “we are supposed to think of Renoir’s blooming women with rosy children at their knees, Raphael’s ecstatic madonnas, some Jewish mother lighting the candles in a scrubbed kitchen on Shabbos, her braided loaf lying beneath a freshly ironed napkin” (Rich 275). One can easily imagine these scenes of domestic bliss being staged within the carefully curated interiors of a dollhouse: the aproned mother, smiling the beatific smile of a saint, holds the freshly-baked bread just removed from her spotless oven while her cherubic children sit patiently at the perfectly-set kitchen table. There is no screaming, no dirty dishes, no disorder of any kind. The scene has been composed with meticulous detail, right down to the tiny folded napkins that coordinate exactly with the tablecloth in this miniature shrine to idealized domesticity. 

The sound of a newborn’s cry, thin and vaguely animalistic, pierces our senses. It draws us away from this imagined dollhouse of gleaming perfection and back towards that grotesque dollhouse of insects, tangled vines and bird-headed monsters. My Disobedient Dollhouse. We follow the sound down a miniature hallway, and it returns us to the nursery room, where we once again encounter the nanny and her screaming brood of bird-children. Like all tableaux, this scene is permanently frozen in time: the bird-children will always scream, and the nanny always sit in the rocking chair, comforting the swaddled monster baby. The sound, of course, exists only in our minds. The one element that this art installation lacked was an audio component. While I had created a scene of monsters and countless screaming mouths, in order to truly appreciate its horror, one needed to hear it, too.

That is why, two years after the completion of my Disobedient Dollhouse thesis project — and my subsequent graduation from the MFA program at York — I returned to the same subject matter with a new artistic medium. Returned, in fact, to hear the sound of the nursery. I created an animation of it.


Jennifer Linton, video still from Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery, stop-motion animation, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Having taught myself the basics of 2D stop-motion animation, I revisited the nursery armed with a small number of hand-drawn, articulated paper puppets, a digitally printed background, and a very rudimentary, home-built camera stand. My early efforts in animation were, to say the least, humble. Through a combination of perseverance and sheer stubbornness, I managed to shoot a two-minute stop-motion animation which I entitled Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery (2012). The nanny character from the Disobedient Dollhouse reappears, only now we watch her mechanically rocking the swaddled bird-baby as it sleeps. Rather than six toddler bird-children sitting at the nanny’s feet, we have two (it would have proved too daunting a task for me to animate six puppets at this point in time). What they lack in numbers, however, these two monster children more than make up for in volume when the screaming starts. And scream they certainly do, when a gigantic butterfly suddenly flutters into the nursery, frightening its young occupants. For her part, all the nanny can do is stare out at the viewer with a shocked expression as we fade to black, the screams continuing until the end credits appear. 

With its snakes, vines, insects, hybrid creatures and other forms of grotesquerie, my Disobedient Dollhouse allowed me to revisit the dollhouses of my childhood on new terms. Gone are the pastel pinks and saccharine sentimentality of my 1970’s girlhood, or the carefully curated interiors of an adult collector’s dollhouse, replaced instead by the darker shadings of fear, doubt and ambivalence. While my use of grotesquery was tactical, subverting the nostalgia of my youth, it also provided room in which I could, as an adult and mother, reinvent the rules of the game and ‘play Mommy’ in a nuanced space that allowed for conflicted feelings. The presence of absurdity, in the guise of children with the heads of birds, reminds us that — like waking from a strange dream in which you’ve misplaced the baby — everything will, in all likelihood, work out fine. 


Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the looking-glass and what Alice found there. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Munro, Alice. “My Mother’s Dream”, in the collection of short stories entitled The Love of a Good Woman. (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1999). 

Rich, Adrienne. “Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness” in Of Woman Born. (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, Ltd., 1986).

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993).

Williams, Gilda (ed.). The Gothic. (London: Whitechapel Ventures Limited, 2007).

“Blueprints”, group show at Centre 3

Dolls House & Miniature Scene Magazine interview.

Somehow, I completely forgot to post the interview I had back in August 2013 with the UK-based magazine Dolls House & Miniature Scene. Here’s a scan of the layout and the article. The interview was focused on my earlier project, The Disobedient Dollhouse. Click on the images below to get a larger (and much more legible) article.

I found it amusing how the editor kept insisting on changing the title of my work to conform to the British usage of the term “dollshouse” with the plural, rather than my North American-derived term “dollhouse”. Whatever.

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Giant insects swarm the Art Gallery of Peterborough!

Quick and dirty snapshot of the installation in-progress.

My installation The Disobedient Dollhouse will pay a visit to the Art Gallery of Peterborough, starting this month. This exhibition will also screen my 2-minute stop-motion animation Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery. Exhibition runs from November 9 – January 6, 2013. The opening reception will take place Friday November 16, 7 – 9 pm. Visit the web site of the AGP for details and/or directions.

“Domestikia: An Account of Some Strange Disturbances” begins February 24th, 2012.

"The Brood" (2012) by Jennifer Linton. Work-in-progress photograph of a shadowbox assemblage, which includes hand-coloured lithographs that are cut out and pasted into paper dolls.

If you live in the Toronto area, then drop by Open Studio to view some of my recent creative efforts. My latest exhibition “Domestikia: An Account of Some Strange Disturbances” is an exploration into the interdisciplinary possibilities of printmaking. I’ve created articulated paper puppets from lithographic prints, which are then arranged into strange, dream-like shadow box tableaux. These same paper puppets are brought to life in a stop-motion animation, all taking place within an imagined dollhouse.

Opening reception is Friday, February 24th at 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Join me for wine, conversation and general frivolity. Show runs from February 24 – March 31, 2012. Open Studio is located on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, at the corner of Richmond and Spadina in Toronto. For more information on this show, visit the Open Studio web site.

Preface & Chapter One: A Sense of Nostalgia

For many years, I was satisfied by the simple act of drawing. While a number of my colleagues relied on computer software or other technologies to produce their art, I rejoiced in the analog. Aided by a pencil and a facility for drawing, I was limited only by my imagination when creating fantastical worlds between the borders of my paper. And then, one day, I wondered how my fantastical worlds would appear were they freed from their paper borders and delivered into our three-dimensional world.

Tatebanko is the Japanese art of creating dioramas and scenic perspectives from paper. It was popular and widely admired from the 17th century to the early 20th century.

The desire to see my drawings projected into space began, nearly two years ago, with a moment of pure serendipity. While checking my email, an advertisement for an ‘arts & crafts’ store landed in my inbox that offered Japanese paper dioramas for sale. These paper dioramas – known as tatebanko in their native land – are small boxes containing flat, printed paper elements that are folded and glued into miniature tableaux. I grew instantly curious. The shallow relief of the tatebanko provided the perfect stage upon which to mount my drawings and project them into space. As an artist who also works in print media, I could use printmaking techniques to generate multiples that could be cut out, folded and glued. I decided that the box diorama was an obvious next step in the evolution of my hitherto two-dimensional art practice, enabling me to consider space and volume with relative ease.

In the months that followed my virtual encounter with the tatebanko boxes, my project grew in both size and scope. My initial concept of a box diorama expanded into the much larger and more complex construction of a dollhouse, a toy fondly remembered from my childhood. Revisiting the dollhouse in adulthood, myself a parent, has proven a psychologically rich and poignant exercise. In stark contrast to the innocuous role-playing of childhood – when one could ‘play Mommy’ – as an actual parent, the actions I take have real life consequences. This simple fact can, at times, be the cause of anxiety. Additionally, while the household provides a peaceful refuge from the hectic pace of the outside world, the daily negotiations between career aspirations and familial responsibilities simultaneously render the house a site of friction and conflict. An exploration of the conflicts that arise from these competing interests was, in part, the impetus behind my dollhouse project.

Domestic conflict aside, the physical construction of the dollhouse presented the greatest degree of friction and conflict during its creation. Not being a sculptor or an individual with any discernible building skills, working with three-dimensional materials proved a challenging and, at times, frustrating process. However, rather than enlist the aid of someone more technically proficient, I was stubbornly determined to construct the dollhouse myself. Although this aspect of the project offered the steepest learning curve, it also proved surprisingly rewarding to begin to understand and address the special demands of my chosen building materials. Whereas at the start of this project, I viewed the dollhouse solely as a devise for the display of my drawings, by its conclusion, I gave equal consideration to the dollhouse as an object unto itself. This newly found appreciation for sculptural space was, for me, the most pivotal and profound moment of the creative process.

Yet another surprising discovery was the quality of play I found in working with the cut out lithographs. Having printed multiples of the same drawing meant that I was able to explore different arrangements of the same graphic elements. With my drawings freed from the static plane of the paper, I could experiment with composition, contextualizing and re-contextualizing with each new grouping of images. A folded paper wardrobe in one room, for instance, appears subtly altered when combined with different objects in another room. This quality of ‘play’ not only proved enjoyable, but also highly appropriate given the framework of a dollhouse.

Within the body of this paper, I reveal and discuss the various sources that have guided the aesthetics of my project. These sources – which include the Gothic novel, the horror film, and the art of the Surrealists – have shaped not only this project, but have greatly informed my artistic practice to date. It is to these sources that the Disobedient Dollhouse pays homage.

Chapter One: A Sense of Nostalgia

“A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. We are constantly re-imagining its reality: to distinguish all these images would be to describe the soul of the house; it would mean developing a veritable psychology of the house.”
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.

The image that appears in my mind when I meditate on the word “house” is not a recreation of the family home of my childhood, nor is it a straightforward rendering of the house in which I currently dwell. Rather, it is an amalgamation of all the houses in which I’ve lived, blended together with the houses belonging to friends, and the houses I’ve vicariously experienced through films or books. This is the composite house of my dreams, a grand and expansive place with numerous corridors and hidden rooms. The space within my imagined house is infinite in scope. Doors from great hallways lead into small rooms, each presenting more doors which, in turn, lead to progressively smaller rooms, stacked into each other with the artful precision of a Russian matryoshka nesting doll. The endless replication of interiority in my imagined house, unlike that of the nesting doll, has no physical limits. Space as it is experienced through the psyche is boundless. Mine is an oneiric house – a house of dreams – similar in nature to the one conjured by philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his text Poetics of Space, built not from bricks-and-mortar but constructed from layers of memory and experience. According to Bachelard, my every experience with the phenomenon that is “house” is imbued with a deeply personal, psychological resonance derived from the memory of the very first house of my childhood. While I do support Bachelard’s claim that the childhood home is fundamental to the psychological mapping of the oneiric house, I would graft onto his argument the importance of the towers of fairytale castles and the cobwebbed elegance of aristocratic manors that so often provide the setting for Gothic narratives in film and literature. These majestic dwellings, while considerably more grandiose and romantic than the humble home of my childhood, are nonetheless formative to the house of which I dream. The mysterious interior of my oneiric house – the one of endless doors and dark, secret passageways – owe as great a debt to these traditions of literature and film as it does to my own personal, lived-in experience with a physical house. It is this house, this strange amalgam of the real and the fantastic, that I strive to conjure in my project entitled the Disobedient Dollhouse.
Granting form and substance to my house of dreams has proved a daunting task. The infinite space of the dreamscape, with its ever-shifting walls and limitless rooms and doors, defies reproduction in the static world of the real. At best, my aim to is achieve some sort of compromise with the infinite. Thus, I have sought to make this compromise concrete through the creation of a miniature toy house: a dollhouse.

My fascination with dollhouses began, predictably, in childhood. Though I was never fortunate enough to own a dollhouse, I did possess several pieces of plastic miniature furniture that I would fastidiously arrange into rooms. These rooms provided the setting for the domestic scenes myself and my playmates would enact with our dolls – scenes that mimicked the day-to-day household routines of our mothers. This form of play amongst young girls – where we would ‘play house’ and pretend to be ‘the Mommy’ – was not only an imitation of the maternal role as we observed it, but, presumably, constituted a type of practice for our future lives as women. Now, as an adult, artist and mother, I revisit the dollhouse. The idealized view of domesticity that informed my childhood dollhouse is reconfigured by my adult self as a place much more complex, even contradictory in nature. These darker, more nuanced shadings find expression in the ‘gothic’ elements of my dollhouse.

A dollhouse is a gendered space, one specifically codified as feminine. Literary critic Susan Stewart defines the dollhouse as a “discourse of the ‘petite feminine’” that yearns to see itself replicated in a tiny, precious model of perfect domesticity. Developed in the 17th century as an amusement solely intended for adults, it served as a trophy of the wealthy European woman. Given the rise in popularity of dollhouses in 18th century Europe, at a time in history when women’s roles were increasingly confined to the home, it is tempting to draw a correlation between this change in gender-based codes of conduct and the miniature toy house that reinforced a woman’s role as being solely defined by her place within the house. Her fantasy of a microcosm over which she held complete control – in a world in which she held little or no political control  – played out through the choreography of furnishings in her miniature rooms. Unlike the traditional toy object, the staged interiors of the dollhouse were not meant to be manually played with but rather to be “consumed by the eye” as an object of display. As such, the dollhouse was modeled as a shrine to an idealized domesticity, forever unsoiled by the grimy reality of daily living.

A compulsion towards nostalgia often shapes the interior of a dollhouse. Contemporary dollhouses are decidedly not contemporary in their motifs, with the historic splendor of wealthy Victorian homes being the most frequently represented style amongst current dollhouse enthusiasts. As Stewart notes:

“…it is probably not accidental that it is the Victorian period which is presently so popular for reproduction in miniature […] because of that period’s obsession with detail and materiality is so analogous to the miniature’s general functions…”

Nostalgia is characterized by a sense of yearning, either for one’s own past or for an imaginary past located somewhere in history. Yearning constructs a view of the past that is sentimental in nature, and the dollhouse is a manifestation of this essentially romantic construction. There are no shoeless Dickensian street urchins haunting the perimeters of a Victorian-themed dollhouse; these are sumptuous interiors fuelled by fantasy and free of social critique.

A trace of nostalgia can be discerned in my Disobedient Dollhouse, evidenced by the Victorian-style decoration and furnishings, as well as in the clothing worn by some of its inhabitants. An old-fashioned cast iron cook-stove is represented in the kitchen. The parlor room prominently features an upright piano, an entertainment staple in many wealthy Victorian households. The era’s obsession with detail is fully on display in the intricately patterned wallpaper that adorns each room of my dollhouse.

Fig. #1. Odilon Redon. "The Crying Spider". 1881. Lithograph.

Not only do the furnishings and other contents express nostalgia, but the medium by which many of these contents were produced – namely the medium of stone lithography – is itself informed by nostalgia. The printmaking process of stone lithography enjoyed enormous popularity amongst visual artists in the 19th century, particularly during the later decades of that century. Hence, the formal characteristics of the medium carry a heightened association to print-based artwork produced during the Victorian era, particularly amongst fin-de-siècle artists such as Odilon Redon (fig. #1) and Edvard Munch. As a contemporary visual artist, producing a body of work using stone lithography is an especially purposeful act. Against the backdrop of the 21st century digital age, where images can be instantly produced and replicated with the click of a computer mouse, the physically arduous medium of stone lithography – which involves sanding and drawing onto a heavy slab of limestone – is comparatively anachronistic. At a time in history when images can be more easily obtained by photographic or digital means, the act of drawing and reproducing images with stone lithography carries with it a quality of nostalgia. By using this “nostalgic” print technology, my intention is to formally recall the style and design of Victorian art, and in particular the grotesque and macabre imagery of Victorian artists like Redon and Munch.

While a trace of nostalgia is detectible in the Disobedient Dollhouse, a tension also exists in the work that simultaneously disrupts the easy consumption of these same nostalgic images. The word “disobedient” contained in the title summons an image of a stubbornly defiant child who refuses to submit to a higher authority. Against which authoritative structure does my dollhouse rebel? In part, it is the force that drives the nostalgic impulse – the urge to construct a sentimentalized view of domesticity – that compels my dollhouse to revolt. A tactic of subversion has been employed as a means of rebellion. For instance, although the conventional Victorian domestic scene of a woman playing piano has been dutifully rendered, the woman depicted is a hybrid creature with the head of a bird. A chair located in the same room as the bird-headed woman mysteriously sprouts twisted floral vines that snake up the back wall. Gigantic insects infiltrate the room and swarm across the ornate damask wallpaper like a strange, inexplicable virus. These hybrid monsters, giant insects and fantastic vegetal growths disturb the inherent sentimentality of nostalgia and propose a dark, secret world that churns just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection.

[…this is an excerpt from my Master’s thesis on the Gothic aesthetic. For a continuation of this paper, please visit the earlier post “The Gothic House.”]

The Abject, the Grotesque and the Uncanny; an excerpt

A continuation from my previous post, The Gothic House.

This was all so strange and uncanny that a dreadful fear came upon me.”
— The character of Jonathan Harker from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.

Any analysis of the term ‘gothic’ will inevitably conjure its related terminologies: the ‘abject’, the ‘grotesque’, and the ‘uncanny’. By its very nature, the Gothic contains elements of each of these terms, although it maintains a separate and very distinct character. All three of these terms find a varying degree of expression within my Disobedient Dollhouse. The first term ‘the abject’ was coined by the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in her seminal essay entitled Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Abjection is primarily concerned with societal taboos surrounding the materiality of the body, and the horror that arises from exposure to bodily excretions such as blood, pus and feces. For example, the horror associated with blood is a central theme to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the classic Victorian Gothic novel in which the legend of the vampire is powerfully invoked. In Powers of Horror, Kristeva classifies the corpse as representing the utmost in abjection: “[The corpse] is death infecting life. […] Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.” When confronted with a corpse, we are forced to address our own mortality and the inevitable corruption of our own bodies.

Fig. #5 - Lithograph from "The Disobedient Dollhouse", Jennifer Linton, mixed media installation, 2009-10.

The abject is clearly present within my Disobedient Dollhouse. A group of dead mice hang by their tails inside a kitchen cabinet, presumably providing a food source for the other inhabitants of the Dollhouse. A sinister bird-headed woman stands before the cabinet, clutching the tiny, skeletal remains of a rodent-like creature (fig. #5) While this scene does not contain any signs of blood or viscera, these small rodent corpses offer the presence of violent death, thus contributing to an atmosphere of abject horror within this Victorian-style dollhouse kitchen. Although animal and not human, these tiny corpses nevertheless serve as potent reminders of our own eventual demise.

While elements of abjection are undeniable within my Dollhouse, the second terminology related to the Gothic – the term ‘grotesque’ – has played a significantly greater role in the development of my imagery for this project. The term ‘grotesque’ originated in the ancient Roman period and relates to fanciful, decorative flourishes in art and architecture. Grotesque art involves the fantastic, ugly and bizarre, and its subjects are frequently mythological creatures and other strange, physically malformed monsters. The bizarre, anthropomorphic creatures that populate Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are a primary example of ‘the grotesque’ in literature. Carroll’s novel has also proved a valuable source of inspiration for the fantastic hybrid creatures that inhabit my Disobedient Dollhouse. In fact, the only human figure that appears in my Dollhouse is a character loosely based on Carroll’s Alice. This character – ostensibly a self-portrait as I served as the model – appears twice, once as the beleaguered ‘nanny’ in the nursery, and again as the ‘cook’ in the kitchen. The ‘nanny’, gazing down with quiet stoicism at the squawking bird-infant cradled in her arms, was based upon a

Fig. #6. John Tenniel. Illustration for Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland", 1865, wood engraving.

19th century illustration for Carroll’s novel by John Tenniel depicting Alice holding a bonneted baby pig (fig. #6). The monstrous brood housed inside my nursery – heads tilted up with beaks wide open, their arms thrust outwards in a gesture of relentless, constant need – represent every parent’s nightmare of unending responsibility. The parental anxiety symbolized by this scene has been tempered, however, by an element of the absurd. Much like the ridiculously grotesque image of the bonneted pig held by Alice, my bird-headed children are designed to elicit equal measures of pathos, humour and horror. My nursery most assuredly conveys parental anxiety, but it does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Grotesque art revels in the absurd, championing a fantasy world of the irrational over the rigid strictures of realism. One tactic employed by Lewis Carroll to create the ‘grotesque’ in Alice was his effective play with scale, a scheme that underscored the absurdity of his Wonderland. Alice experiences a succession of physical transformations when, enticed by the label on a mysterious bottle that reads ‘DRINK ME’, she consumes its contents only to magically shrink in size:

“It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. ‘No, I’ll look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’… […] However, this bottle was not marked ‘poison,’ so Alice ventured to taste it, and […] she very soon finished it off. ‘What a curious feeling!’ said Alice; ‘I must be shutting up like a telescope.’ And so it was indeed: she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened up at the thought that she was now the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden.”

After her initial transformation, Alice consumes a cake labeled ‘EAT ME’ and shoots upwards in the opposite direction, growing large so suddenly that she becomes trapped within the house.

As the sudden alteration of a person’s size is impossible without the intervention of magic, this change in scale is both fantastic and absurd in nature. Alice’s transformation from miniature to gigantic in Carroll’s novel provides clear evidence of the absurd, even comical, possibilities of this play with scale. This does not, however, necessarily apply to an object. The miniature furniture contained within a dollhouse, for instance, does not appear absurd or grotesque due to its strict adherence to a standard scale. In fact, the adherence to scale is one of the most fundamental principles of any dollhouse. Any object within this miniature world that deviates from the standard scale appears strangely incongruous in relation to its surroundings. Susan Stewart, in her analysis of the dollhouse, quotes the author Arthur Benson from his introduction to The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House:

“The scale of one inch to one foot being precisely maintained throughout…thus there is nothing of the grotesque absurdity of a scene that does not resemble life and has only the interest of caricature.”

The accuracy of scale within a dollhouse creates a sense of realism. Hence, when a deviation from scale occurs, the illusion of reality is severely comprised.
Similar to Carroll, I have adopted elements of ‘the grotesque’ in my Disobedient Dollhouse by playing with the scale of objects. In fact, several deviations in scale exist.  In the kitchen, in the guise of the household cook, I attempt to wield a gigantic eggbeater that stands as tall as my miniature self (fig. #7).  The exaggerated difference in size – plus the fact that, undaunted, I continue to struggle with the giant kitchen utensil – heightens the grotesque absurdity of this scene.

Fig. #7 - Lithograph from "The Disobedient Dollhouse", Jennifer Linton, mixed media installation, 2009-10.

One creature that appears repeatedly throughout my Dollhouse is the insect. Changing the size of the insect, as well as the context in which the insect is received, is a simple gesture that invokes ‘the grotesque’. Initially, I drew these insects to actual scale from specimens found in a local museum. When placed on the walls of my Dollhouse, however, these same insects suddenly appear gigantic in relation to the miniature scale therein. This change of context – from a normal sized insect in our world to a gigantic one in the miniature world – alters the perception of these creatures from ordinary to grotesque. When these same insects are scaled up, appearing as giants that loom over the viewer within the gallery space, this encounter with the grotesque is further intensified. As the contents of the Disobedient Dollhouse emerge into the surrounding exhibition space, the viewer becomes immersed in its fantastic world – no longer a mere observer but a full participant in its alternate reality.

The repetition of the insects and change of their scale harkens back to my earlier analogy of the Russian matryoshka nesting doll – a doll within a doll, each one a slightly smaller version of the larger doll that contains it – an analogy suggestive of an almost endless replication. By playing with scale, I allude to the infinity of repeated space, an infinity that is only truly attainable in my ‘house of dreams.’

An encounter with giant insects on a gallery wall – insects made strange by the fact of their surprising scale – can be classified as an encounter with ‘the uncanny’, the third and final of the terminologies related to ‘the Gothic.’ Our present day understanding of the term ‘the uncanny’ has been largely shaped by the psychoanalytic viewpoint of Sigmund Freud’s 1919 seminal essay entitled “The Uncanny”. In his essay, Freud defines the uncanny experience as: “that class of the frightening which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” To experience something as ‘foreign, and yet familiar’ may result in feelings of discomfort and alienation. In this regard, the concept of ‘the uncanny’ is closely related to Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection – in which the human corpse can be simultaneously experienced as alien (the abject) but also felt to be strangely familiar (an individual, now deceased). Freud situated ‘the uncanny’ in the realm of the repressed: “[The uncanny] is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old – established in the mind and become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” According to the Freudian psychoanalytic model, the process of repression involves the rejection and subsequent suppression of troubling impulses and desires. The concept of repression closely relates to the suppressed ‘family secret’ frequently found within the Gothic narrative. Whereas the Gothic ‘family secret’ manifests in the guise of a vengeful ghost, repressed desire assumes the form of the uncanny person or object.

In his essay “The Uncanny,” Freud analyzes the etymology of ‘unheimlich,’ the German word for ‘uncanny.’ His analysis proposes a strong linkage of ‘the uncanny’ to the domestic setting of the home. The German term das Heimlich signifies that which feels homely, comfortable and familiar. The inversion of this term, das Unheimlich, negates this feeling of comfort and suggests an estrangement or feeling ‘not at home,’ literally ‘unhomely.’ Through the process of repression, the safe haven of the home becomes ‘self-haunted’ by ghosts of the unconscious, a phenomenon that transforms the otherwise comfortable and familiar setting into a place that feels inexorably strange.

In his catalogue essay for the exhibition Gothic mounted at the ICA Boston in 1997, curator Christoph Grunenberg reflects on the nature of the uncanny:

“The invasion of the private and secure sphere of the home by some unknown evil force exemplifies the conflict between interior and exterior world, between individual and society, and between the intra- and intersubjective. Ultimately, the uncanny describes the return of repressed events, memories, and fantasies – the encounter with one’s own most intimate fears…”

The “private and secure sphere” of the home becomes the site of internal conflict, where the repressed are stowed away in hidden rooms, behind locked doors, in attics, closets and cupboards. Ultimately resisting suppression, the repressed reemerge as the ‘uncanny’ and transform the home into a strange and frightening place.

The ‘uncanny’ appears throughout my Disobedient Dollhouse in the strange and otherworldly transformations. The bed – that most psychologically potent of symbols – literally boils over with desire and sprouts flowers from the elongated bedposts. Snakes emanate from the tousled bed sheet and slither across the floor, penetrating the wooden floorboards and sinking into the room beneath. These uncanny transformations hint at a secret world of sublimated desire, resistant to the forces of repression that are compelled to hide them away. Like the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, they periodically escape imprisonment, only to wreck havoc in the realm of the conscious.

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The Gothic House; an excerpt

The following text is an excerpt from my Master’s thesis written, in part, on the topic of the Gothic aesthetic. I felt that this chapter of the paper might be of particular interest to those that read this blog. The “Disobedient Dollhouse” project to which I make reference was the visual art component of my MFA thesis. To view images from this project, click on the Gallery page located above the header of this blog. Enjoy.

“It was an evil house from the beginning – a house that was born bad.”
— The character of Dr. John Markway from Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting

I confess to being an avid fan of gothic horror films and ghost stories, a confession that may not seem overly surprising given the content of my work both past and present. The castles and aristocratic manors that I mentioned earlier as being critical to the formation of my ‘house of dreams’ arise from these sources (fig. #2). The heightened theatricality of a medieval cathedral, castle or historic manor has been incorporated into my oneiric house and translated into its endless doors and dark, secret passageways. The term ‘gothic’ that I use to specify a certain subgenre of horror fiction refers not to the tribes of ancient Germanic people from whom the name originally derived, nor is it related to the medieval art that also bears this name. Instead, the term derives from a chiefly British literary genre of the 18th and 19th centuries, originating with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel entitled, appropriately enough, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Gothic literature combined elements of both horror and romanticism and its themes typically involve death, ghosts, the supernatural, transgression, patriarchy and the female heroine. Much like the staged interior of a dollhouse, the Gothic novel reflected a similar tendency towards the staged and theatrical. Gilda Williams, editor of the contemporary art anthology The Gothic, described ‘Gothic’ as “a studied, adopted stance,” that is “cultured, sensual and affected”, a description that concisely captures the Gothic’s propensity for dramatic hyperbole.

Fig. #2. Film still from Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting.

A central motif to the Gothic narrative is the house, especially one haunted by ghosts – both literal and metaphoric – and the disturbing family secret that has been shut away in an underground crypt, a dark attic, or behind hidden doors. Beginning with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the genre has maintained a continual fascination with architecture. Perched on a hilltop overlooking a grey and perpetually soggy landscape, the dilapidated old aristocratic manor provided the Gothic narrative with its characteristic atmosphere of gloom and foreboding. Not merely a setting for the narrative to unfold, the Gothic house was frequently cast as a character itself, imbued with an uncanny – and often malevolent – sentience. This notion of a sentient house that is, by virtue of some inexplicable phenomenon arising from its very construction, a conscious being, is best exemplified by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher in which the titular house claims the lives of the family that dwell within it. In Poe’s short story, the character of Roderick Usher believes that his family home is sentient through some mysterious combination of masonry and vegetation, and that the illness which plague both he and his sister Madeline have been caused by this house. Poe’s use of adjectives such as “eye-like” to describe the windows belonging to the House of Usher bestow an anthropomorphic quality to the structure, a quality which further underscores the notion of a sentient house:

“I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down – but with a shudder even more thrilling than before – upon the remodelled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.”

In the dramatic conclusion, the moral and spiritual decay of the Usher family physically manifests in the destruction of the house itself – the building literally splits in two and sinks into the surrounding landscape.

Fig. #3. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the Disobedient Dollhouse, 2009-10, mixed media.

The structural features belonging to my Disobedient Dollhouse, while not as malevolent as those of the House of Usher, share some of the qualities of anthropomorphism and otherworldliness with its literary antecedent. Reminiscent of the “eye-like” windows of Poe’s creation, the windows featured on all of my exterior-facing walls are comprised of a stylized stained-glass pomegranate design that closely resembles the slit-shaped eye of a cat. These “cat’s eye” windows – all of them grouped in pairs – are most clearly evident from the brick exterior of the dollhouse, where they stare out, unblinking, at the viewer. Additionally, a repeating pattern of disembodied eyes gaze outward from the wallpaper of the kitchen (fig. #3), suggesting that the house itself bears witness to the strange events that are unfolding within. Upstairs on the wallpaper in the nursery, a legion of tiny, open mouths appear to silently scream in a gesture that mimics the endless squawking of the bird-children that inhabit this room. Much like the sentient house of Poe’s story, these anthropomorphic elements propose a house possessed of consciousness – one that not only contains supernatural events, but may also be the generator of them. The desired effect I aim to achieve is a disquieting exchange between the Dollhouse and the viewer, as the walls of the dollhouse uncannily return their gaze.

The crowning glory of any Gothic house is, of course, the attic. Similar to its close relative the cellar, the attic is a mysterious and seldom-used room where items – both material and psychological – are stowed away. The attic located within Bachelard’s oneiric house is a place of light and rationality, whereas he characterizes his cellar as the “dark entity of the house” that “partakes of subterranean forces” of the irrational, unconscious mind. In an inversion of Bachelard’s house, the attic that tops my Dollhouse is a shadowy place that offers a single window through which the dark interior may be viewed. Following the convention of most contemporary dollhouses, a cellar room is not represented in my Dollhouse, although the small cupboard door beneath the stairs – through which vine-like tentacles emerge from darkness – seem to hint at the “subterranean forces” present in Bachelard’s cellar. Peering through the attic window, the viewer encounters a snake-tentacled monster with a single, gigantic eye returning their gaze (fig. #4). This strange Cyclops is positioned slightly off-centre and is thus partially obscured by the outer wall, the bars of window frame, and the darkness within. The very purposeful positioning of this creature follows the time-tested horror film adage that “a monster you can’t see is scarier than one you can”, granting the viewer only enough information to understand that something sinister lurks within this space.

Fig. #4. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the Disobedient Dollhouse, 2009-10, mixed media.

The attic is the only enclosed room within my Dollhouse, allowing a very limited access to its interior. As such, it is the most private and mysterious of all the rooms. If I imagine myself descending from the attic onto the second story of my Dollhouse, where the nursery and the bedroom are located, the level of privacy compared to the attic decreases. While a bedroom is generally considered a very private and intimate space, the contents of my bedroom are fully on display, thus negating privacy. One of the crucial features of a dollhouse is the lack of complete enclosure of the miniature, thereby admitting access to its interior. This access facilitates play in a children’s dollhouse, and allows for display in the dollhouse designed for adults. Whereas the ground floor and second story of my Dollhouse adopt this convention of display, the enclosed attic rejects it. Whatever monsters and dark, troubling secrets hide within its shadowy corners, the attic will not reveal too readily. In this regard, the attic is the most “disobedient” of all the rooms.

The dusty and cobwebbed attic, dark and infrequently visited, provides the optimal place in which to discard the disused, unwanted, and the surplus. It can supply storage space for the cherished items of the past, no longer in use, as well as a hiding place for family secrets and other psychologically troubling material. The attic is a quintessentially ‘gothic’ space, where suppressed secrets threaten to rise up like a vengeful ghost. Given that my Disobedient Dollhouse is a Victorian-themed dollhouse, it is not difficult to imagine all of the wild, violent passions forbidden by that era’s strict social codes might be banished into the hidden corners of this room.

Concealed family secrets that slowly reveal themselves, threatening to unravel the apparent order of the household and causing a “…forced reckoning with a long buried piece of family history” is a classically Gothic trope. Like the ‘sentient house’, whose malevolence has assumed solid form within the structure of the house itself, the Gothic ‘family secret’ often physically manifests as an individual, or a ghost. In Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, the ghost of Madeline Usher rises from the family crypt – after having been interred there whilst still alive – and claims her deadly vengeance upon her brother Roderick. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, the violently insane Bertha Mason has been imprisoned in the attic of Thornfield Hall, literally bound by chains and guarded. Described as a “beast”, a “wild animal”, a “monster”, and likened to “the foul German spectre – the vampire”, the insane first wife of Edward Rochester represents the darkest and most dangerous of family secrets.

Literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their study of women writers entitled Madwoman in the Attic, draw a provocative parallel between the characters of Jane and Bertha in Brontë’s classic novel. They suggest that Bertha represents the “truest and darkest double” of Jane, embodying all of the wild, destructive passions that the genteel Jane consciously rejects. She can be likened to the wild, tangled vines that grow spontaneously from the chairs and bedposts in my Dollhouse, or the snakes that magically slither out from the folds of the bed sheet. Forced to dwell in the shadows of the attic for years, she reemerges into the light with an unchecked fury. The wild randomness of her actions, much like my snakes and vines, disrupt the social niceties occurring elsewhere in the house, serving as a forceful reminder that hidden secrets will inevitably “see the light of day”, and that the repressed will always return.

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The Disobedient Dollhouse; or, indulging in a bit of self-promotion.

Some thumbnails of my artwork. Actually, I’m just testing out this ‘insert gallery’ feature on WordPress. Works pretty good.

The dollhouse is a toy fondly remembered from my childhood. Countless hours were spent fastidiously arranging the miniature furniture in its rooms. These rooms provided the setting for the domestic scenes myself and my playmates would enact with our dolls — scenes that mimicked the day-to-day household routines of our mothers. This form of play amongst young girls was not only an imitation of the maternal role as we observed it, but, presumably, constituted a type of practice for our future lives as women. Now, as an adult, feminist, artist and mother, I revisit the dollhouse. The idealized view of domesticity that informed my childhood dollhouse is reconfigured by my adult self as a place much more complex, even contradictory, in nature. In stark contrast to the innocuous role-playing of childhood — when one could ‘play Mommy’ — as an actual parent, the actions I take have real life consequences. This simple fact can, at times, be the cause of anxiety. Additionally, while the household provides a peaceful refuge from the hectic pace of the outside world, the daily negotiations between career aspirations and familial responsibilities simultaneously render the house a site of friction and conflict. An exploration of the conflicts that arise from these competing interests was, in part, the impetus behind my installation project entitled The Disobedient Dollhouse.

Contemporary dollhouses are decidedly not contemporary in their motifs, with the historic splendor of wealthy Victorian homes being the most frequently represented style amongst current dollhouse enthusiasts. In The Disobedient Dollhouse, I recreated the highly-detailed interiors of a Victorian-style dollhouse, self-consciously aware of the storybook view of domesticity they often conjure. While a trace of nostalgia is detectible in my project, a tension also exists in the work that simultaneously disrupts the easy consumption of these same nostalgic images. A tactic of subversion has been employed as a means of rebellion against the construction a sentimentalized view of domesticity. For instance, although the conventional Victorian domestic scene of a woman playing piano has been dutifully rendered, the woman depicted is a hybrid creature with the head of a bird. A chair located in the same room as the bird-headed woman mysteriously sprouts twisted floral vines that snake up the back wall. Gigantic insects infiltrate the room and swarm across the ornate damask wallpaper like a strange, inexplicable virus. These hybrid monsters, giant insects and fantastic vegetal growths disturb the inherent sentimentality of nostalgia and propose a dark, secret world that churns just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection.

Most of the elements within my dollhouse are hand-drawn and printed lithographs which have been cut out, folded and glued. The wallpaper was created digitally and printed on matte inkjet paper. For more images from this project, visit my web site.