Dioramas

  An exhibition at Palais de Tokyo, Paris 

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Earliest Human Relatives (1994)

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Earliest Human Relatives (1994)

 

         Recreating a three-dimensional scene frozen in time and space, the diorama is usually
         enclosed in a display case, composed of a painted backdrop, props and figures...
         Although the etymology of diorama means “to see through”, the device also stands
        as a screen onto which a world of fantasy and fiction merges with the display of
        knowledge and science.— Text panel, Dioramas, Palais de Tokyo, 2017

The room is quiet and very dark-- like a theater before the curtain goes up, or a film begins. Standing there, I’m suddenly transported back to the moment at which my love of museums first began: of arranged, explained and exquisitely presented objects and images, housed in buildings that (more often than not) look like temples, because--well—they are, serving up the myths of history and culture.

I try to remember what I was gazing at, entranced, at that long-ago primal instant. Was it a family of stuffed animals, posed in front of a painted sky? Or was it some Neanderthals, crouching in the dirt? I have stood in front of so many dioramas, lost in their worlds. Before movies-- let alone Virtual Reality Experiences—these magical windows invited viewers like me to project themselves into other times and places. Generations of museum-goers have enjoyed their effects, and the pleasant illusion that they offer some kind of real knowledge.

Night at the Museum (2006)

Night at the Museum (2006)

In Dioramas, curators Claire Garnier, Laurent Le Bon and Florence Ostende have assembled a spectacular and immersive exhibition exploring the history of this form and its influence on artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. The lightless entryway of this marvel-filled show is where my Proustian memory is stirred. The first thing visitors encounter, once eyes are accustomed to the penumbral gloom, is a loop from the 2006 movie Night at the Museum. Over and over, museum guard Ben Stiller spectacularly shatters the glass of the display purporting to tell the story of explorers Lewis and Clark, in order to free their beautiful native American guide Sacajawea. Serving as a kind of prologue, this film loop cleverly sets the stage for the rooms of dioramaphilia that follow, by defining and dissolving the ‘third wall’ at the same time that it suggests that there will be an examination/critique of the practices of museology.

Jean Paul Favande, Naguere Daguerre 1 (2012), 19th century painted canvas and digital creation

Jean Paul Favande, Naguere Daguerre 1 (2012), 19th century painted canvas and digital creation

In the first galleries, the story of the invention of the diorama as a theatrical venue in 1822 is revealed through Jean-Paul Favand's 21st century digital enhancements of Louis Daguerre and Charles Bouton's dreamy images, originally created on both sides of semi-transparent canvas. In the image shown here, plays of colored light illuminate the sun going down over the bay of Naples, while Vesuvius erupts nearby. These 'dioramas,' featuring current as well as historical events, became popular fairground attractions for the rest of the nineteenth century.

Caterina De Julianis, Santa Maria Maddalena in adorazione della croce, 1717. Polychrome wax, painted paper, glass, tempera on paper and other materials

Caterina De Julianis, Santa Maria Maddalena in adorazione della croce, 1717. Polychrome wax, painted paper, glass, tempera on paper and other materials

Continuing into the show, visitors soon discover that Catholicism was using some of the same display strategies much earlier, in works intended to stimulate faith during the Counter-Reformation. An assortment of religious events from the Bible or the lives of the saints are enacted by slightly creepy wax figurines in front of painted backgrounds. These are the first true dioramas, as the term is presently used; they were likely made by nuns in convent workshops, as a way of making visible the mysteries of faith. 

Walter Potter, Happy Family

Walter Potter, Happy Family

In the next gallery, there is something quite different: displays of 19th-century taxidermied animals and birds, some in dramatic engagements (predator and prey, for example) in naturalistic settings. Some practitioners, though, went against this 'realistic' trend, seeking their inspiration in fairy tales or Christian themes.   The fictitious 'happy family' pictured here of birds, rabbits, squirrels, mice, a monkey-- and even a cat-- is by celebrated English taxidermist Walter Potter. His own museum included some 10,000 specimens, presented in whimsical scenes like a schoolroom filled with fifty little rabbits in tiny suits of clothes, seated at desks.

In the hot, close dark (the day I visit, it’s over 90 outside, and considerably warmer within the exhibition) the next gallery presents one of the most important uses of display as educational tool. This is in museums of ethnography and history, where they became a vehicle for the preservation of the practices, dress and devices of the past.

diorama by Riviere

diorama by Riviere

The father of this kind of diorama in France, Georges Henri Riviere, is highlighted here for his innovative approach to conserving his nation’s patrimony. Some of the other ethnographic scenes feature excruciating moments of colonialism. 

Like a kind of interesting punctuation, works by contemporary artists are interpolated between historical objects as the show progresses. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of natural history exhibits appear in several places, including not far from a

grid of transparencies of paintings used as diorama backdrops-- jungles, forests, rocks and clouds. Another contemporary work near these glowing rectangles is Jeff Wall’s Giant (1992), featuring an immense, naked, sixty-something woman, standing calmly in the middle of a library-- seemingly unnoticed by the patrons. The modest scale of this piece (19 x 23 inches), especially in comparison with most of Wall’s epically-sized work, invites close-up examination. The closer one gets, the more powerfully claustrophobic and disturbing it seems.

Jeff Wall, Giant (1992)

Jeff Wall, Giant (1992)

Sugimoto is not alone in his photographic examination of natural history dioramas.  This subject has also been the subject of works by Diane Fox (represented here as well) and by Richard Barnes, who is known for his handsome pictures of all kinds of ‘behind the scenes’ moments at museums. Barnes' image of a man immersed in the task of vacuuming a bison display encapsulates much of what Dioramas is about, as evidenced by the exhibition’s curators’ description of the show as exploring the concept of the uncanny, describing it as ‘the unsettling experience of an everyday situation.’

Diane Fox, Ubersee-Museum Bremen, Bremen, Germany 2005

Diane Fox, Ubersee-Museum Bremen, Bremen, Germany 2005

Richard Barnes, Man With Buffalo ( 2007)

Richard Barnes, Man With Buffalo ( 2007)

The presence of photographs by Sugimoto and Barnes seems only right; there could hardly be a show about dioramas that did not include them-- or, say, Mark Dion, who has a piece in the large gallery at the end. There are, however, some surprises. These include Robert Gober’s weirdly intimate black and white photographs of-- natural history museum displays. At first baffling, these small images suddenly make a kind of sense when seen as studies for the artist’s truncated wax figures. Research reveals that, in fact, Gober has described his wax work as being “inspired by animal dioramas in a natural-history museum—examples of figurative sculpture far removed from the Classical tradition.[1]. (Perhaps one of the catalogue essays explores this connection more thoroughly, but as I unfortunately can’t read French, I must rely on my own intuition and the few wall texts that have been translated into occasionally fractious English.)

Anselm Kiefer, Family stories (2013-17)

Anselm Kiefer, Family stories (2013-17)

 Also revelatory are an enchanting series of pieces by Anselm Kiefer. They consist of two rows of boxes inset in the wall; these are filled with delicately layered silhouettes, evoking the worlds of fairytales and dreams. The artist describes them as “the story of a life in Germany at different stages: the peasant woman from the Black Forest with her great-grandson… the altar boy who wants to become a pope; a photograph drawn from a father’s war diary… or the walk with my friend during which Martin Heidegger’s brain suddenly lies on the soil of the forest...”

Charles Matton, Giacometti's Studio (1987)

Charles Matton, Giacometti's Studio (1987)

Other highlights include work by French artists Charles Matton and Richard Bacquie. There are several of Matton’s exquisite miniature rooms-- their contents scrupulously researched-- including  Alberto Giacometti’s studio. In a minuscule version of a grand movie theater, a film plays on the screen. Bacquie, an iconoclastic and gifted sculptor whose career was tragically cut short at 42 by cancer, deserves much wider recognition than he has had outside France. His work here is a full-sized replica of Duchamp’s Etante Donne that breaks its illusions by removing the walls and its single point of view, allowing viewers to walk around the figure. For me, this disconcerting deconstruction of Duchamp’s masterpiece recalls nothing

Richard Bacquie, Sans titre. Etant donnés : 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage…, 1991.

Richard Bacquie, Sans titre. Etant donnés : 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage…, 1991.

else so much as the moment at the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, when the charlatan of a wizard tries unsuccessfully to distract Dorothy and friends by bellowing “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” as he frantically manipulates his controls. 

But I digress. As another one of the exhibition texts reminds us, “Staging a realm of optical illusion in which the laws of perception are constantly challenged, the diorama is a world of fantasy but also a critical platform for artists. What if the world we live in were nothing but a large diorama in which we experience the spectacle of our own life?” The curators drive this idea home by including a second film loop near the end of the exhibition. In this brief excerpt from the penultimate moments of

The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show (1998), Jim Carrey/ Truman discovers that he has, in fact, lived his entire life inside a shooting stage by ramming his sailboat into the painted ‘sky.' Seeing a staircase in the wall, he climbs the steps. Carrey’s escape is a reminder that everything seen in the museum is framed by the building itself—by the fact of experiencing it here, bathed in the museum effect.[2] Each of these dioramas is a story within a story, and so on. There is no end.

Duane Hanson, Housepainter II (1984)

Duane Hanson, Housepainter II (1984)

As a final coda, a worker grasping a paint roller stands mutely by the exhibition’s door. This figure turns out to be a hyper-real sculpture by Duane Hanson from 1984--  symbolizing, perhaps, the end of make-believe (as the wall is returned to pristine white) and the return  to reality-- as you walk out of the darkness, and back onto the streets of Paris, itself a giant open air museum. Turning to look back towards the river, the Eiffel Tower suddenly looms up in the near distance. Just for a moment, it looks painted, as if brushed on a backdrop of achingly bright blue. Then a family of tourists walks by, in terrible fanny packs and shorts, and everything is normal again.  
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[1] https://www.moma.org/collection/works/81069
[2]"The museum acquires social authority by controlling ways of seeing, and the objects around which museal vision is directed gather meaning from their context within the museum." http://www.archimuse.com/publishing/ichim03/095C.pdf

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Dioramas, which opened on June 14th, continues until the 10th of September, 2017. A substantial, heavily-illustrated catalogue with essays (in French) is available from Flammarion. The exhibition includes work by Marcelle Ackein, Carl Akeley, Sammy Baloji, Richard Baquié, Richard Barnes, Erich Böttcher, Jacques Bouisset, Cao Fei, Philippe Chancel, Joseph Cornell, Louis Daguerre, Giovanni D’Enrico, Caterina De Julianis, Mark Dion, Jean Paul Favand, Claude-André Férigoule, Joan Fontcuberta, Diane Fox, Emmanuel Frémiet, Ryan Gander, Isa Genzken, Arno Gisinger, Ignazio Lo Giudice, Robert Gober, Duane Hanson, Edward Hart, Patrick Jacobs, Arthur August Jansson, Anselm Kiefer, Fritz Laube, Pierre Leguillon, William Robinson Leigh, Charles Matton, Mathieu Mercier, Kent Monkman, Armand Morin, Lorenzo Mosca, Dulce Pinzón, Walter Potter, Georges Henri Rivière, G-M Salgé, Gerrit Schouten, Ronan-Jim Sévellec, Pierrick Sorin, Peter Spicer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Fiona Tan, Jules Terrier, Tatiana Trouvé, Jeff Wall, Rowland Ward, and Tom Wesselmann. Obviously, I've just scratched the surface with this brief essay. If we're lucky, maybe an American museum will stage an exhibition of this scope and caliber at some point in the future. If we still have museums.

Acts of Dog

Another in a series of occasional posts of fiction about art and artists

MightyDog-001-480x640.jpg

It was so nice of you to come by. You comfortable? Can I get you some coffee, soda, anything? No, no, it’s OK, I really don’t mind not being able to drive anymore. I can’t remember recent events so good, but you know, stuff that happened in the seventies… that’s another thing.  Did I ever tell you about my cousin's kid, Steve the artist? No? well, for quite a while, he made his living by producing these little tabletop replicas of buildings--houses, mostly, with the occasional commercial property creeping into the mix-- out of clay. It was perfect for him. Few people would have the patience to reproduce every fricking detail like that, but Steve was a pretty literal guy.

Oh yeah, this is a good story... One day, he gets a call from someone who says he wants to have a model made of his business, in honor of its 25th anniversary. OK, Steve says, fine, no problem, send me photos, architect’s drawings, I’ll get started. No, no, the guy insists, come out and see it, and gives Steve the address. Meet me there at 1, OK? He hangs up. Steve realizes he doesn’t even know what the business is. Still, no problem. He gets into his truck and drives over there, and what does he find? A hot dog stand. It’s a standard drive-up building on a paved lot with parking, ugly as sin like everything else that was built out in the western suburbs, but it’s called Mr. Mighty Dog, and there are these two crazy-ass giant hot dogs standing on the roof.

One is wearing a lion skin across its hot dog chest and the other is—well—a girl hot dog, and she‘s ogling the first hot dog’s, um, biceps. Steve can’t believe it. It’s awesome, it’s breathtaking, but he’s thinking about the technical problems those hot dog figures might present when the guy pulls up and jumps out of his car, full of pride and enthusiasm, checkbook in hand. It’s a matter of minutes and a price is agreed on, the deal is made and Steve has a deposit in his hand. So he goes home and, pretty soon, he gets started.

He has plenty of pictures to work from—taken from every possible point of view, even up on the roof. The guy has clearly been taking photographs of the place for years: in some, the dogs are wearing holiday outfits—you know, Mr. and Mrs. Claus—but in others, they look like Elvis impersonators. Stuff like that. One even features the two of them in graduation gowns. As Steve puts the parts of the building together, piece by piece, he thinks about how the owner will be able to get little costumes made for the model too, dressing it up, you know, seasonally.

Finally, the model is finished, and the guy comes over to see it for the first time. But he’s not happy, not at all, because the hot dog couple is kneeling on the roof instead of standing up. What the fuck?- he screams. Steve tries to explain, reminding the guy that he told him from the get-go that clay has limitations and some things just aren’t possible, but the guy isn’t having any of it and he leaves pretty abruptly.

Naturally, Steve is beside himself. He has spent quite a bit of time on this piece and the rest of the money is obviously not forthcoming. He has bills to pay, a wife and one, no, two little kids at this point, a mortgage—you get the picture. He and the hot dog guy shout at each other on the phone a few times, but nothing gets settled. Steve doesn’t want to go to a lawyer—that could be expensive—but months have gone by, it’s August now and nothing is happening. He tries calling his friends to see what they think he should do but everyone is on vacation.

Suddenly, almost literally out of a clear blue sky, a freak bolt of lightning from a passing late-summer thunderstorm knocks the big hot dogs to their knees. Zango, just like that. Just like the model, that is.

The next day, a check for the balance due arrives at Steve’s studio by messenger. While he is standing there staring at it, the phone rings, and it’s the guy, calling to tell him about the lightning. Just before the owner hangs up, he says, - I understand a warning when I get one.  

One of Steve’s kids wanders in. As the little boy throws his arms around his dad’s legs, he looks up at the photo of the Mighty Dog restaurant, still pinned on the wall. Daddy, he says sweetly, didja ever notice that dog is god spelled backwards?

Shoot

Guns have a purpose,” Tom said. “And it isn’t shooting pieces of paper.” He had backed me into a corner at the Tick Tock Tap, and he was raising his voice. This was partly because people were shouting all around us- it was a noisy bar-- but he was also very annoyed with my (his word) contradictory behavior. I couldn’t help it, though. I had recently started college, out in the middle of the western plains, and I was pumped so full of ideas about everything from Buddhism to Marxism that sometimes it all got mixed together. Despite the fact that he liked to follow me around with a helpless dog-like ardor, it drove Tom crazy when I would start a sentence with something about the sanctity of all life and end it by saying that, come the Revolution, I would be ready, after years of target practice with 22s at summer camps.

I had no satisfactory reply to his assertion, that night. Pinned to the wall, I finally agreed to go hunting with him the following day. So there I was, standing in a stubble-cut field in the freezing end of November, cradling someone’s shotgun in my arms. Tom had brought his hunting buddies: two big amiable brothers with pale blue eyes and tiny immaculate moustaches, whose names I immediately forgot—Beau and Joe, or maybe Jess and Fess. Tom informed me pointedly that these two had killed most of the meat their family ate since they were big enough for the job. With shy, sweet smiles they assured me that this included slaughtering hogs and chickens as well as bringing home  “game-- y'know, critters and birds.”

It was cold and quiet and very, very early. As we began to walk, the sun came up, and our shadows reached out far in front of us. The brothers scanned patiently with identical squints. Since it was, they said, the one day that three hunting seasons overlapped, I could shoot at pretty much anything that moved and it would most likely be OK.

We spent several hours looking for signs of natural life, but we didn’t see a thing. Not a v of geese headed south; not a stray animal scat, not a footprint—nothing. It was like a party without the guest of honor. Finally, we gave up and went back into town. Tom was so embarrassed that he made me promise not to tell anyone. Wary of the subject altogether, I never talked about guns again.

--------------------------------

Seventeen years go by. I am standing in the living room of my girlfriend’s apartment in San Francisco, waiting for her to come home to her formerly-revolutionary neighborhood, now mostly occupied by industrious young couples with clean jobs and well-dressed babies. It’s late, just at the graying edge of darkness, and I’m looking out the window through a telescope. She keeps it there on a tripod, to look at the stars and to shame the people in the building on the opposite corner into closing the blinds before they walk around naked. I check, but no one’s home there yet, so I pivot the instrument around and look the other way, into Golden Gate Park.

As I idly pan across a little glade some distance away, I suddenly see a man about my age, dressed entirely in black and carrying a really big pistol with a silencer on it. (By now, movies have taught me a great deal more than college did about things like guns.) His posture and progress make it clear that he is sneaking up on someone. I think I’m about to witness a murder and there’s nothing, seemingly, I can do about it. I shout at him uselessly as he raises the gun with both hands, sights along the barrel and fires. He runs towards his victim and I follow him with the telescope, now shaking crazily, along the edge of a small grove of trees. I am trying to get a look at his face so I can identify him to the police.

My heart is beating so hard I’m seeing spots before my eyes as he stops, reaches down, and picks up a rabbit with a hole in it big enough to see right through. He pulls a camera out of his pocket and photographs the bleeding shreds at arm’s length, holding them next to a piece of paper he has carefully unfolded. Then he stuffs everything—carcass, gun, and paper—into a garbage bag, shoving it under his jacket before he disappears into the dark beneath the trees. Disturbed and nauseated but profoundly mystified, I tell no one about what I’ve just seen. It is just too awful to describe or explain.

A few months later, I am at the crowded opening of a show of performance art documentation at a big raw alternative space. As I disinterestedly scan a wall of pictures, one catches my eye, and with an exclamation I squeeze my little plastic glass of wine so hard it cracks, leaking its contents onto the concrete floor. I am staring at an image of a hand that holds both the blasted remains of a rabbit and a creased white page with a quote from Baudrillard about simulacra written across it, spelled Bodriard and semulackra.

Later, at a bar, I remember Tom in the Tip Top, shouting at me about putting bullets through pieces of paper. For a moment, I wish I still had that that big cold double-barreled shotgun that he tenderly laid in my city-girl arms, so I could go back and shoot that photograph.