The Nutshells, for all their precision, aren’t puzzles to be solved; some don’t even have a “right” answer. More than anything, they’re occasions for observation, perceptual exercises. They’re laboratories for looking and thinking–not surprisingly, Lee would prickle when people referred to them as dollhouses–so it’s no wonder that they continue to intrigue people to this day.
Monroe, Rachel “The Art of Murder”, Baltimore City Paper, May 5 2010[i]
Last January, I became obsessed with The Wire. Every evening, I would scuttle home from the Library to my Columbia Heights burrow, where Richard would feed me and we would settle down to watch at least a double-bill of this most extraordinary television series. My colleagues and I spent hours rhapsodising about its brilliance: the plotting, the dialogue, the characterisation, the superb camera-work, and most of all, how we noticed our allegiances fluctuate. And then there’s the best swearing in any piece of film/TV work, ever. Such was our obsession that we decided to make a trip to Baltimore for a spot of Dark Tourism. At this moment I found out about The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, eighteen dioramas built by Frances Glessner Lee during the 1930s and 1940s that are held in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
The Nutshell Studies were built by Glessner Lee to teach her pathology students how to assess, approach and process a crime scene. They are not open to public view, and aren’t widely known outside of their community of interest, but the work of two artists – photographer Corinne May Botz and film-maker Susan Marks – have raised their profile. I have not seen Marks’s film Of Dolls and Murder, but I have read Botz’s 2004 book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,[ii] and I have also seen the 2006 The Miniatures Killer episodes of CSI New York that were inspired by the models. Over the last two years I have been working with The Model in my studio, and the Nutshell Studies offered me a new way to think about that work.
Firstly, The Model is not a formal diorama. It is changeable in size, content, scale. It doesn’t always offer up a tableau for interpretation. It began during my Hadrian’s Wall residency after a trip to Segedunum, when I found myself unable to decide whether an artefact was Roman or a reproduction. I remembered visiting Xanten[iii] as a child, not knowing whether the architecture was old or new, and having a series of questions form around what that might mean. I took these feelings and tried to give them some sort of form using architectural model-making materials and light. Then, I photographed the results, always, but always getting lost in the capturing of light. The control of light in my work is a fundamental issue, in fact, I’m starting to wonder whether it may be the fundamental issue. It’s so perfectly expressed by Emily Dickinson in poem 258:[iv]
There’s a certain Slant of light,/Winter Afternoons –/That oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –/We can find no scar,/But internal difference,/Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –/’Tis the Seal Despair –/An imperial affliction/Sent us of the air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –/Shadows – hold their breath –/When it goes, ’tis like the Distance/On the look of Death –
Sharing this poem with you is deeply personal for me. I rarely share my internal library but a growing sense of the literary basis of much of my work seems to make it necessary, and this is one of those texts that flickers like a pale fire beneath my skin (and that, of course, is another, although that’s my paraphrase of Sappho)[v]. A studio visit with an art historian seemed to confirm what I suspected “I particularly dislike miniatures, but it’s clear that you have built this model only in order to photograph it”,[vi] that is to say, The Model is nothing in itself: it is an occasion for viewing, an invitation to look. Some images from it in this first guise became The Telescoped World of the Geisha. I tired of it very quickly – it seemed to be something of an intellectual one-liner, and didn’t really support any further investigation. So I left it on a table for a really long time. At some point I added lead shot from the Somme battlefield to it. Gave it a reflective lid. Added some trees.
Wait a minute! I added some trees? What was that about? I think this was the point when The Model began to have a slightly different function, moving towards being an engine for thinking and acquiring sculptural concerns.
My attempts at model-making were very unsatisfactory when compared to other artists detailed reproductions, my handling of paper in my reconstruction of the Space Station and associated rocketry was profoundly clumsy, and not in a good way. Gradually, I understood this was not only due to my comparatively undeveloped technical skills, but also due to the function of the model as a tool for representation. What was being thought through in the model was always at a remove, it wasn’t narrative, but could still be deciphered in the same way as The Nutshell studies.
Anyway, I added some trees. Turned off the lights. Hid some large polystyrene balls within the scene, conjuring up a connection with the large geodesic domes – long-demolished – of RAF Fylingdales on the Yorkshire moors.[vii]
These polystyrene substitutes for radars worked their way into another piece recently, the as yet untitled Metraux Archive works. Here, the substitution is clearly evident and multi-layered, enabling multiple readings to be applied to and extracted from the work. But I’m getting ahead of myself, racing towards a project that emerged from These Strange Tableaux.
I’ve always avoided making work with dolls, dollhouses, toys of all descriptions, since I think they are largely over-worn and don’t really give me anywhere to go. And they appear on the Degree Show Clichés App for a really good reason. But I love plastic miniatures of all types, and I did try – unsuccessfully – to document my Polly Pockets with a macro lens. That was a disaster: I was completely unprepared for it technically, and the resulting images were so ugly and flat that I was put off both macro and miniatures for about ten years.
I had included a number of small toys (rockets) in the model during the summer of 2010, as somewhere I was thinking about the Blue Streak launch-pads at Spadeadam, and I took this theme up again in 2011’s The Ghost Army, where I used plastic toy soldiers from a French supermarket to respond to the contested landscapes of northern France. I had also used a model for my ‘holding’ imagery for New Battle Plan to relay the central concerns of scenario-building[viii] that I have been developing as a key thesis of my phd.
My visit to the Toy Museum had already been delayed twice – and once I had completely failed to understand where the entrance was located. But I finally made it, and from the collection there, a few things came together that started to make some sense, drawing The Model, modes of looking, scenario-building and The Nutshell Studies into a tighter embrace.
I had decided to visit the Toy Museum as I was looking for samples of mid-20th century – Cold War era – toys that I could collect for a visual survey. Nottingham Contemporary’s exhibition Star City[ix] had a small collection of space toys, and the Metraux Archive referenced many others, and I had seen quite a few vintage re-issues, but not a broad selection over a from 1950-1975. The Toy Museum had all this and more. I had documented all of the toys that I found in this treasure trove of the vernacular and the domestic, when I noticed two things. One was the extraordinary range of dolls, and another was what amounted to a large wall full of small (but not miniaturized) furniture. The first photograph I took was of a male doll in an astronaut’s garb. I decided to make the images portraits, not only so that I could take advantage of the particular lighting but also so that I could reference current software for identifying faces within editing programmes. I was aware of projects in Victorian studies relating to the mean of images, and work by another artist using police facial recognition software to create a ‘mean’ image, and I responded to both of those by compiling a catalogue of dolls contained in the Tynemouth Toy Museum. By excluding the bodies of the dolls, I was able to see how the communication of faces had changed over 100 years or so. Fully absorbed in the work, I edged closer to the Wall of Furniture. Stopping to look at it in detail, I noticed that the randomness of the composition really lent itself to photographing small scenarios and situations.
These Strange Tableaux is the result. There’s more at stake in the images than the documenting of toys and fashions. There’s a gap for the imagination to dance an uncanny dance, to imply all sorts of things that are unspoken, to suggest something strange and deliberate.
I’ve decided to stop with this post right here. There’s a lot more thinking to come, but I thought it was time it had an airing… I’ve been revisiting Susan Stewart’s On Longing and PD James’s essays on the art of murder. So this isn’t my final word on this subject, keep tuned for parts 2,3,4 and 5!
[i] Monroe, Rachel “The Art of Murder”, Baltimore City Paper, May 5 2010
http://www2.citypaper.com/film/story.asp?id=20174 accessed September 15 2011
[ii] Botz, Corinne May The Nutshell Studies Of Unexplained Death, 2004 (NEEDS PUBLISHER & PLACE)
[iii] regular readers will know this as the site of my primal scene of photography which opens my artist’s statement.
[iv] The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ralph W. Franklin ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
[v] [v]Φαίνεταί μοι κήνος ἴσος θέοισιν/ ἔμμεν ὤνηρ, ὄστις ἐναντίος τοι/ ἰζάνει, καὶ πλυσίον ἆδυ φωνεύ-/ σας ὑπακούει/ καὶ γελαίσας ἰμερόεν, τό μοι μάν/ καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόασεν·/ ὡς γὰρ εὔιδον βροχέως σε, φώνας/ οὺδὲν ἔτ’ εἴκει·/ ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον δ’/αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,/ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδὲν ὄρημ’, ἐπιρρόμ-/βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι./ἀ δέ μίδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δέ/παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας/ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ‘πιδεύης/φαίνομαι [ἄλλα]./ἀλλὰ πᾶν τόλματον, [ἐπεὶ καὶ πένητα].
And this beautiful translation by Henry Wharton: “That man seems to me peer of gods, who sits in thy presence, and hears close to him thy sweet speech and lovely laughter; that indeed makes my heart flutter in my bosom. For when I see thee but a little, I have no utterance left, my tongue is broken down, and straightway a subtle fire has run under my skin, with my eyes I have no sight, my ears ring, sweat pours down, and a trembling seizes all my body; I am paler than grass, and seem in my madness little better than one dead. But I must dare all, since one so poor..” Sappho, Ode to Anactoria (fragment 2)
[vi] Dr Venda-Louise Pollock, in conversation, NEEDS DATE 2010, also demonstrating a typically polarized response to miniatures
[vii] (have a look at these amazing images http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=63279 and these, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/jun/18/son-star-wars-base-yorkshire )
[viii] see my notes on the Military Technologies conference organised by APL at Newcastle in May 2011 (these will be on my doctoral research page when I finally get it back on-line)
[ix] 12 February – 18 April 2010