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.”]
Further to my previous post on haunted dollhouses, here’s a curiosity I unearthed yesterday: The Ghost Walk Dollhouse Live Cam. You can view, in real-time, the activities (or lack thereof) of the miniature inhabitants of a creepy dollhouse. Why is that mysterious group of dolls standing at the top of the stairs, you ask? Are they awaiting instructions from some sinister puppet master? And what lurks in the room at the bottom of the stairs? The answers to these questions seem elusive, but you just might find yourself staring at the 7-second refresh, nonetheless.
In this age of digital photography, where the romance (and corollary health risks) of film chemistry has been displaced by the pixel, there’s something gloriously rebellious about a contemporary photographer who works with a 19th-century process such as the daguerreotype. A labour-intensive and potentially harmful medium — one which involves deadly mercury fumes — it is the antithesis of the instant and easily-obtained digital image. It is perhaps surprising, when you factor in the risks, that the number of contemporary daguerreian photographers in North America is large enough to warrant their own Society where they hold symposiums on this anachronistic art form. (In fact, there are several such ‘societies’ dedicated to working with these historical photographic techniques).
Thus, when Canadian artist Spring Hurlbut — herself not unaccustomed to labour-intensive work — called upon the specialized technical skills of Toronto-based daguerreian Mike Robinson, the results were their nostalgic and hauntingly beautiful ‘Mannequin’ project. Admittedly, I know very little about this series, other than it was a response on the part of Hurlbut to the permanent collections at the Royal Ontario Museum in some sort of collaboration with this institution. The daguerreotypes, along with the 1917 mannequin featured in the photographs, were exhibited in 2002 at Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto. Here’s a nice review published in Canadian Art magazine.
I love the otherworldly elements of this work, from its skulls and ghosts to the frozen smile and Sphinx-like missing nose of the girl-mannequin. At first glance, I thought these items were miniature in scale. However, the mannequin is, well, the size of a typical mannequin (albeit the size of a small child) and the skull that appears in Melancholy (image on the right) an actual human skull.