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.
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.
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.”]
Surrealism, alter-egos and private mythologies; conclusion.
The concluding chapter of my essay on the Gothic aesthetic and my thesis project The Disobedient Dollhouse. These excerpts from my thesis began with The Gothic House and The Abject…, respectively.
“In 1930, after having furiously and methodically composed my
novel ‘La femme 100 têtes’ I was visited almost daily by Loplop,
Bird Superior, a private phantom very much attached and devoted to me.”
— Max Ernst
Poised amongst the brood of bird-children sits the nanny, a character within my Disobedient Dollhouse that was modeled after myself. Downstairs in the kitchen, a second version of ‘myself’ cast as the household cook struggles with an absurdly large cooking utensil. These characters are the result of an amalgamation of Gothic heroines I have borrowed from sources such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and, most especially, Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Costumed in a fashion reminiscent of a Victorian girl, my ribbon bonnet, puffed sleeves and crinolined skirt (fig. #8) recall the famous wood engravings of Alice by British illustrator John Tenniel. By incorporating my own image into these characters, I have effectively embedded myself within this miniature world. This role-playing is one of the creative strategies I employ in order to generate a private mythology.
Throughout my visual art practice, I have used various legends and myths as cultural ready-mades into which I introduce my own personal symbolism and meanings. Over the years, these pre-existing myths have been absorbed into my artistic lexicon, contributing to a complex language of symbols by which I construct a private mythology. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which I can attach my idiosyncratic story.
Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.
The construction of a private mythology is a procedure that allows an artist to explore deeply personal and intimate subject matter while simultaneously maintaining a level of psychological distance. In my own work, I employ the strategy of role-playing as a means to address autobiographical content. In an earlier body of work entitled The Bitter Seed (fig. #9), I combined images of myself as a child with the character of Persephone, a heroine borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology. By adopting the role of Persephone, I universalized the idiosyncratic – depersonalizing the personal content. This process provides a psychological distance while simultaneously rendering the work more readily accessible to the viewer.
The mythological character Persephone has supplied my artwork with its most recurrent of symbols: the pomegranate. My series The Bitter Seed took its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:
“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter ‘…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…’”
To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. Persephone personified the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.
A pomegranate motif appears repeatedly throughout my Dollhouse. A highly stylized version of this fruit is featured in all of the stained-glass windows, and pomegranates adorn the wallpaper of the bedroom and the head and footboard of the bed. Two of the framed, miniature pictures that hang on the bedroom wall also contain the pomegranate. One of these framed pictures features a self-portrait, in which the curly locks of my hair transform into undulating, snake-like vines (fig. #10). These vines terminate in a single pomegranate, delicately suspended above my open palm. This self-portrait, however, makes only a vague reference to the pomegranate from the Persephone myth. Within the narrative of my current project, I no longer inhabit the role of this Greco-Roman goddess. The pomegranate serves not as a symbol of sexual subjugation – as it does within the Persephone myth – but rather as a symbol of female empowerment. The partially opened vulviform shape evident on the pomegranates throughout the Dollhouse make the linkage to female sexuality quite explicit.
Whenever an artist includes self-portraiture, the temptation for the viewer is to read autobiographical content into the work. Such is the case in my work, although this content is largely mediated through my use of symbolism and mythology. The grotesque and dreamlike imagery of the Disobedient Dollhouse obscures any straightforward reading of autobiography, softening the distinction between ‘the invented’ and ‘the real’ elements. The dark, psychologically tumultuous material that the Gothic would seek to conceal, and the Freudian psychoanalytic model to repress, my Dollhouse opts to place on display, albeit cloaked in myth and symbolism.
Blurring the boundaries between ‘the invented’ and ‘the real’ through the creation of a private mythology was a strategy often employed by artists who subscribed to the idiom of Surrealism. The fantastic and frequently grotesque imagery of Surrealist art closely relate to my Dollhouse’s otherworldly and Gothic-inspired content. In fact, the aims of Surrealism – to question rationality and uncover sublimated fears and desires – seem to echo the urge of Gothic novelists like Brontë to expose the concealed darkness of the human psyche. “Surrealism and the Gothic share a decisively anti-Modernist stance,” wrote curator Christoph Grunenberg, “rejecting Modernism’s emphasis on order, rationality, and purity.” One of the most ‘gothic’ practitioners of Surrealism – and an artist whose work was dedicated to the manufacture of a private mythology – was the visual artist Max Ernst.
The collage-based books and graphic work created by Ernst possess an especially heightened quality of the Gothic. To a large extent, this quality derives from the source material Ernst used to construct his collages, which included wood-engraved illustrations taken from 19th century French popular fiction. The subject matter of these ‘pulp’ fiction books and periodicals generally involved:
“…torrid love, torture, crimes passionels and the subsequent incarcerations and executions (by guillotine), hatreds and jealousies among the very wealthy and the very indigent…”
These are the same dramatic, sinister and darkly romantic themes that typify Gothic fiction. Ernst’s disjointed juxtapositions only served to amplify the already emotionally charged content of his source material.
One of Ernst’s most famous collage novels is Une Semaine de Bonté (fig. #11), in which the days of the week are represented by seven seemingly arbitrary “deadly elements” such as the “Lion of Belfort,” bats, serpents and dragons, and the mythological character of Oedipus. It is in the latter chapter concerned with Oedipus that the bird-headed creature named ‘Loplop’ first makes his entrance into Ernst’s novel. The hybrid bird-man Loplop was a creation with which Ernst closely identified. His identification to the bird-headed man prompted many of his contemporaries to view Loplop as the artist’s alter-ego, an association that Ernst strengthened through his writing in Notes pour une biographie. Ernst frequently mixed actual autobiography with his Surrealist art, making it impossible to distinguish between the artist’s life and his wildly inventive stories. In one such account, Ernst forges a strong link between his early life and his artistic creation Loplop:
“1906. Head Bird Hornebom. A friend by the name of Hornebom, an intelligent, piebald, faithful bird dies during the night; the same night a baby, number six, enters life. Confusion in the brain of this otherwise quite healthy boy – a kind of interpretation mania, as if newborn innocence, sister Loni, had in her lust for life taken possession of the vital fluids of his favorite bird. The crisis is soon overcome. Yet in the boy’s mind there remains a voluntary if irrational confounding of the images of human beings with birds and other creatures; and this is reflected in the emblems of his art.”
Ernst’s motivation behind this conflation of his art and autobiography remains unclear. While writers such as Werner Spies describe Loplop as an “autobiographically tinged bird-creature”, there remains a degree of mystery surrounding Ernst’s personal attachment to his alter-ego. His complex vocabulary of recurrent symbols and characters, including the omnipresent Loplop, may have been more the result of a Surrealist intellectual game than a deeply personal expression of psychological catharsis. Driven by a fascination with psychoanalysis, Surrealist artists like Ernst frequently engaged in game-playing as a means to access the random machinations of the unconscious mind. The technique of collage was particularly well-suited to this end. Thus, Ernst’s juxtaposition of disparate images, such as a male figure topped with a bird’s head, could well be the result of his Surrealist investigations into randomness. Regardless, inspired by the psychoanalytic writings of Freud, his private myth-making created a forum in which he unearthed and explored the repressed material of the human psyche.
The bird-headed women that populate my Disobedient Dollhouse can be viewed as the great-granddaughters of Loplop. Female counterparts to Ernst’s invariably male creation, they inhabit a similarly enigmatic role. While it is enticing to read these bird-women as extensions of myself, this close association remains ambiguous. My own image is represented in the appearance of the ‘nanny’ and ‘cook’ characters. Cast in these roles, my social status within this world appears subservient to the two bird-headed women, one of whom leisurely plays at the piano. Has my character/s been enslaved by these menacing creatures and forced to care for their offspring while they lounge? Given my real-life status as artist, wife, and mother, one could easily attach this autobiographical reading. Caution should be exercised, however, to interpret these images too literally. Similar to the private myth-making of Max Ernst, my work contains as much theatrical artifice as it does legitimate psychological exploration. Steeped in dramatic excess, my Dollhouse is self-consciously prone to hyperbole.
The genesis of my bird-women has little to do with Surrealist explorations of the unconscious mind, but instead, are visual evidence of my recent interest in dioramas. In fact, the figure of the bird-woman holding the skeletal rodent was not only the very first image I created for this project, but she derived entirely from a taxidermy diorama I viewed online at the A Case of Curiosities web site. Anthropomorphic taxidermy dioramas were a strange passion of the Victorians. Walter Potter, one of that era’s most celebrated practitioners of this macabre art form, was renowned for his complex and large scale tableaux such as his Kittens’ Tea & Croquet Party (fig. #12). The ghoulish spectacle of Potter’s taxidermy dioramas neatly encapsulates the type of grotesque art to which I am drawn as an artist, and therefore, it is not the least bit surprising that these provided the creative ‘jumping-off point’ for my dollhouse project.
The hybrid bird-women and host of other grotesques that populate my Disobedient Dollhouse represent the wild, unruly and random elements of the psyche that stubbornly resist the process of repression. The nostalgic impulse that seeks to construct a too-perfect version of the past – one that suppresses the ‘dark family secret’ or other psychologically troubling material – is thwarted by these defiant monsters. The idyllic view of domesticity generated by nostalgia rejects the ugly, soiled, imperfect and dissonant. This romanticized construction is illusory and cannot be maintained. Shaken to its very foundations by the uncanny creatures that swarm its interiors, it will inevitably falter and collapse like the ill-fated House of Usher.
Epilogue: A Perverse Thrill
“Who has not a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
— Edgar Allen Poe
The music builds to a crescendo that ends in a sudden, resounding crash, followed by silence. “She’s dead”, pronounces Dr. Markway after he grasps the arm that dangles limply from the open car window. This is the dramatic finale of Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, in which the character of Nell meets her end in a fatal car accident on the grounds of Hill House, remaining forever as the caretaker of the vindictive ghost who haunts the nursery in this classically Gothic house. “It was what [Nell] wanted, to stay here…” explains the clairvoyant Theo, “…she had no place else to go. The house belongs to her now, too…maybe she’s happier.”
Moviegoers have flocked, myself included, to horror films like The Haunting in order to vicariously experience the eerie and macabre. What is it about these frightening experiences that we find so intriguing? Much like the malevolent spirit of Hill House that beckoned to Nell, we feel urged by an inexplicable force to seek out the locked doors, hidden rooms and dark, mysterious corners of the Gothic house. The more we have been instructed by the rationality of science to reject the nonsensical, the superstitious, the absurd and otherworldly, the more we seem compelled to seek these out. The shadowy interiors of these cinematic and literary haunted houses have significantly shaped the construction of my oneiric house, the one that I dream with the endless doors and secret passageways. They also inform the grotesquery of my Disobedient Dollhouse. Rather than reject the absurd and uncanny, my Dollhouse celebrates it.
- Preface & Chapter One: A Sense of Nostalgia (jenniferlintonart.wordpress.com)
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.
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
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.
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.
- Preface & Chapter One: A Sense of Nostalgia (jenniferlintonart.wordpress.com)