Today, artists around the world are making and analyzing dioramas-scale or life-size three-dimensional depictions of environments. As the millennium approaches, many artists are turning their attention to real life, to considerations of natural and social environments. In an age concerned with natural and social environments, scientific methods, and virtual realities, the medium of dioramas provides an ideal means to consider real conditions and speculate about imaginary situations. Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art considers a group of twelve artists who have explored the diorama: Michael Ashkin, Helen Cohen, Mat Collishaw, Liz Craft, Mark Dion, Bridget and Tina Marrin, Tony Matelli, Nils Norman, Alexis Rockman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Clara Williams. Ranging from recreations and photographic studies of museum dioramas, to models of ecological and economic systems, to psychologically charged miniature environments and architectural spaces, their works address a variety of environmental, social, and psychological concerns. The exhibition considers the small worlds of dioramas - their changeable scales, their heightened and condensed versions of reality, their often-uncanny stillness.
Several of the Small World artists explore reconstructions of architectural spaces. Helen Cohen builds tiny, scrupulously realistic rooms inside vintage household appliances, which evoke powerful sense memories. British artist Mat Collishaw projects video images of brawling hooligans onto a model of a quaint English town. In his studio, German photographer Thomas Demand builds cardboard models of historically significant spaces - Hitler's office after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, a stairwell in the artist's high school, the hallway outside Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment - and then lights and photographs them. Stripped of most surface detail and texture, the works present chilling, diagrammatic views of psychically charged environments. Nils Norman uses two-dimensional diagrams and three-dimensional models to illustrate his ideas for utopian structures and communities: solar-powered labor exchange kiosks; urban farming collectives; and anarchist tree houses.
Small-scale simulated landscapes and environments such as model railroad layouts are points of departure point for other artists in this show. Michael Ashkin uses modeling supplies - miniature buildings, vehicles, and plants - to create barren, neglected landscapes that are simultaneously romantic and apocalyptic. On the desk of a Manhattan office cubicle, Clara Williams builds a tiny unspoiled landscape, which contrasts an ideal vision of nature with the characterless reality of the urban work environment. Sisters Bridget and Tina Marrin collaborate with an L.A. based high-tech firm to fabricate mechanized miniature dioramas that investigate the ways perceptions of time and space changes in miniature environments.
The art and science of the third category of dioramas-hyperrealistic, life-size museum displays also known as habitat groups-inspires the work of the last group of artists. Riffing on environmental displays, amusement park attractions, and formal gardens, Liz Craft builds a large-scale installation that symbolically represents the quintessentially Los Angeles experience of driving through the city and looking through hedges and over walls into private realms.
Hiroshi Sugimoto makes carefully crafted black-and-white photographs of natural history and wax museum displays that test the power of art and science to capture life. New York-based painter Alexis Rockman creates hybrid assemblages combining real objects and painted and digitized images that function as radically foreshortened dioramas depicting ecosystems run amok. Using real objects, taxidermied animals, and a painted backdrop, Mark Dion creates an elaborate, museum-style diorama of animals scavenging a dump of animal-related garbage and waste. And Tony Matelli creates tragically absurd tableaux blurring the boundaries between the natural history and the wax museum: a troop of lost Boy Scouts vomiting after eating something poisonous and two early hominids trying to reattach their lost tails.
As precursors to contemporary virtual reality technologies, dioramas represent a compelling point of origin for contemporary artists. These small worlds allow artists to engage the sublime-the ineffable power of nature and the visible world-directly, re-creating it on a tabletop or in a room. By making this sleight of hand, a primary characteristic of art, obvious and acknowledged, they point the way to a more open sense of wonder at the big world.
Organized by MCA Associate Curator Toby Kamps
The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego - one museum with two distinct, complementary locations in San Diego and La Jolla
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