Starving of Sudan by Xu Zhen: Epistemology and Pragmatics of the Diorama

The term diorama entered the contemporary art lexicon in the 1990s, due mainly to a rising interest in realistic three-dimensional representations, at full or reduced scale, such as the striking works of Jake & Dinos Chapman and Paul McCarthy. Employed to designate a method rather than a genre of artwork, diorama was not defined at the time,1 and it is barely more so today. Although the term is still used, and no doubt more today than twenty years ago, it remains to be made explicit.

Retracing the evolution of the diorama to investigate its meaning and scope, and inscribing the contemporary art diorama epistemologically and pragmatically within the history of a term and its practices, is a promising move. Although the contemporary art diorama invests and appropriates the dioramic forms that preceded it, it is not the same as the museum-related diorama; nor is either type of device reducible to Daguerre’s invention dating from 1822.2 Theme parks of all sorts, small-scale models and children’s toys are other types of dioramas, of which only the first invents or re-creates life-size environments3 based on trompe-l’oeil. The illusion generated by the scale to reproduce or suggest reality is the determining factor. This is true of Starving of Sudan (2008), Xu Zhen’s controversial work, which is used here for inductive purposes to envisage the life-size diorama. In this work, the floor of a Beijing gallery was covered with straw, and the walls with trees. An automaton of a vulture and a real child brought to life reporter Kevin Carter’s well-known photograph, showing a vulture hovering over a starving Sudanese child. Carter, as we remember, received a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph in 1994, as well as virulent criticism for having favoured the image over the child; he committed suicide that year.

Etymologically, Daguerre’s “diorama” was inspired by the “panorama.”4 Of Greek origin, the word’s prefix, dia-, means “across,” and its suffix, –orama, is related to vision, to watching spectacles. Daguerre’s diorama was, in fact, a spectacle of appearances: audiences viewed a painting whose scene came to life. The image on the translucent canvas was set in motion by sporadic or continuous changes in lighting; for example, spectators could watch a faithful reproduction of an ancient ruin pass from dawn to dusk. The ensemble, sometimes including real objects and even living beings,5 was presented in a specialized theatre that immersed spectators in “the illusion of being presented with objects at the scale of their own body.”6

Daguerre’s diorama was ahead of its time in that it placed scenography in relation to painting, installation, and light and sound. Beyond being popular entertainment and a pre-cinematographic phenomenon, it was a precursor of contemporary art’s intermediality, documentary approach, diorama, of course, and even performance by the spectator, who is called upon to project him or herself into the artwork. Daguerre’s diorama functioned by oppositions, sometimes “violent”7 ones, such as those between the representation of reality and concrete existence, truth and fiction, geographic distance and overcrowding, past and present, two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, and obviously immobility and movement. This type of opposition, which brings together things that normally are not associated, is also an essential element in contemporary art dioramas. Between Carter’s photograph and Zhen’s living installation, between the reporter’s Africa and the artist’s China, between past famine and present-day muzzled Chinese art, and finally between the media that excessively praise or “criticize” and the public that also denounces but participates, a fecund ambivalence is established. Starving of Sudan exemplifies the use of the Daguerrian principle in contemporary art, and at the same time reveals the specific contribution of contemporary art to this principle. Through a play of contrasts, Daguerre wanted to attract, charm and transport his public. In contemporary art, there is no doubt that one has the desire to attract, but also to criticize, denounce and disturb. In fact, Xu Zhen is an artist who “provokes” his public.8

To explain the main factor leading to the common use of criticism in the contemporary art diorama, let us return to the epistemological evolution. Daguerre’s spectacle, to which the first definition of diorama is attached, disappeared with the arrival of movies – so much so that it is being rediscovered today.9 The diorama form, however, has remained alive in museums, which have been producing them since 1875.10 The museum definition of “diorama” is “a visual composition consisting of a representation of a landscape or a scene expressing a historical fact,  in a large-sized trompe-l’oeil set placed in a frontal view, and sometimes complemented by three-dimensional props.”11 In emphasizing three-dimensionality and the historical approach, this definition sets aside two elements that are essential to Daguerre’s work: movement and the fantastic. It therefore excludes plays of oppositions, the main ones at least, in favour of educational goals.

In truth, the museum diorama is also intended to have mass appeal,12 although this wish is subsumed into the educational aim of passing on objective knowledge that supports its definition and that postmodern authors and artists criticize. They begin to decry the false neutrality of the museum diorama. Using the case of the American Museum of National History in New York, Donna Harraway, for example, demonstrates that its dioramas reflect both the societies that created them and the worlds that they illustrate, through the choice of subjects and how they are portrayed.13 And artists, who, as we know, have been criticizing the museum as an institution since the 1970s and 1980s, find a way in the diorama to disrupt “the separation of disciplinary fields created by modernity and inherited by the museum.”14 In the 1990s, they began make use of this method to change the diorama’s intention from being educational to being subversive. And they exploited it for the purpose of cross-examining, among others, patriarchy, colonialism, sexism, mass consumption, anthropomorphism and hyper-mediatization.

From Daguerre to contemporary art, via Disney, what is at work in the life-size diorama depends on illusion. These other places, other epochs and other worlds, generated by a scene, habitat, taxidermy or character, are identificatory. It is said of Daguerre’s dioramas that they made spectators forget “the canvas and believe in reality,”15 that they were used to “deceive.”16 Although they are related to illusion, however, dioramas do not act through delusion. Rather, they fascinate by suggesting an archetypal world. In one of the rare general texts about the diorama in contemporary art, Ralph Rugoff posits that they are liminal forms of virtual reality: “Like today’s virtual reality simulations, such displays were not meant to actually deceive the viewer so much as to offer a compelling substitute for the real world.”17 It is my view that they were a precursor of augmented reality. They re-create reality, very often by integrating real things, combining the true with the artificial (among other things, the systems of oppositions mentioned above). They correct reality – except that in contemporary art, the corrections serve not to re-create an idealized world, but to reveal the failings of human existence.

That being said, most contemporary art dioramas still exploit the strong power of fascination that comes from historical dioramas. This is so even for acerbic compositions such as those of Jake & Dinos Chapman and Paul McCarthy. They invite a sustained gaze that seeks the scabrous surprise in each detail. In contemporary art, the stratagem of the dioramic illusion is generally an attractive way to convey a critique, even in the most caustic works that exploit its appeal by pushing the attraction and repulsion relationship to the extreme.

This statement does not apply, however, to Starving of Sudan.18 And that is the interesting aspect of this artwork as an example, as it is also a counter-example that doubly sheds light on the subject of this essay. Through awkwardness, discomfort, because a human, moreover, a child is on exhibit to remind us of the misery, our gaze turns away from this artwork.19 No one can be attracted to it, but nor can we be uninvolved with it or criticize it from the exterior. By using a child, the artist reactivates the debate surrounding Carter’s photograph and at the same time challenges the founding principle of delegated performances,20 human zoos and, by association, theme parks that are zoos, the Biodôme and other ecosystems in which the enclosures are kinds of dioramas. The work generates questions of museum-related21 and artistic ethics. Can it be said that these institutions exploit the living under cover of the marvellous? And what should we take away from works that shed light on this stratagem, precisely by pushing it to the extreme?

We will have understood that although the subjects of the diorama have been a focal point, at least since the 1970s, its mechanism still acts in shadow. And yet, its phantasmagorical effect, which is systematically generated by trompe-l’oeil elements that are not strictly pictorial, is common to Daguerre, the museum, contemporary art and theme parks. No doubt, this is the essence of the diorama that Xu Zhen exploits and undermines.

Translated by Käthe Roth


Mélanie Boucher is a professor in the museology program at the Université du Québec en Outaouais. Her interest in contemporary art is expressed mainly in her work as a curator (Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Galerie de l’UQAM) and in her doctoral dissertation in art history, an edited version of which was published as La nourriture en art performatif. Son usage, de la première moitié du 20e siècle à aujourd’hui (Éditions d’art Le Sabord, 2014). Her current work concerns the tableau vivant in contemporary art and the creation of events from museum collections.


  1. Two exhibition catalogues deal with the subject of the diorama in contemporary art: Tony Kamps and Ralph Rugoff, Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000), and David Revere McFadden, Otherwordly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities (New York: Museum of Arts and Design, 2010).
  2. The diorama was invented by Louis Daguerre and Charles-Marie Bouton, but it was developed and marketed by Daguerre.
  3. All dioramas involve miniaturized elements that are necessary to trompe-l’oeil. Under the “life-size” and “scale” dioramas I have grouped devices that give this impression.
  4. André Desvallées and François Mairesse (eds.), Dictionnaire encyclopédique de muséologie (Paris: Armand Colin, 2011), p. 588.
  5. In “Vue du Mont Blanc prise de Chamonix,” a cottage, trees, a stable, and even a living goat masked the contours of the canvas. See Ramond Montpetit, “Une logique d’exposition populaire: les images de la muséographie analogique,” Publics et Musées, no. 9 (1996), p. 63.
  6. Guillaume Le Gall, La peinture mécanique: Le diorama de Daguerre (Paris: Mare & Martin, 2013), p. 29, 31 (our translation).
  7. “Daguerre sought to portray tragic events that staged violent oppositions,” Le Gall, Peinture mécanique, p. 41 (our translation).
  8. Nathalie de Vito, “Dérision et prohibition dans l’art de Xu Zhen,” Parachute, no. 114 (April–June 2004): p. [3].
  9. Le Gall’s book, as well as the international colloquium L’image en lumière: Histoire, usages et enjeux de la projection, organized by Érika Wicky, Vincent Lavoie, Johanne Lalonde, members of the Figura research group, and presented May 22–23, 2014 at the Université du Québec à Montréal, are evidence of this phenomenon.
  10. Montpetit, op. cit., p. 63.
  11. Desvallées and Mairesse, op. cit., p. 588 (our translation).
  12. Michael Belcher, Exhibitions in Museums (Leicester and Washington, DC: Leicester University Press and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), p. 61.
  13. Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–1936,” Social Text, no. 11 (winter 1984–85), p. 20–64. As another example, Burcaw refers to the expression of a sexist stereotype in an old diorama of lions at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum that made headlines: in the diorama, the male lion was hunting as the lionesses lay around, whereas the roles are reversed in reality. George Ellis Burcaw, Introduction to Museum Work (Walnut Creek and Toronto: Altamira Press, 1997 [1984]), p. 140–41.
  14. This statement by Gilbert Lascault, which is about art museums, was taken up by Anne Bénichou in Un imaginaire institutionnel. Musées, collections et archives d’artistes (Paris: L’Harmattan, “esthétiques” imprint, 2013), p. 16.
  15. Émile de la Bedolière, quoted in Le Gall, Peinture mécanique, p. 86 (our translation).
  16. Louis Vitet, quoted in Le Gall, Peinture mécanique, p. 92 (our translation).
  17. Ralph Rugoff, “Bubble Worlds,” in Tony Kamps and Ralph Rugoff, Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000), p. 13.
  18. Katherine Don, “Xu Zhen: Long March Space,” Art in America (May 2009), p. 168.
  19. Ibid., p.168.
  20. He challenges above all the delegated performances in which non-professionals exploit an aspect of their identity. On delegated performances, see Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2012), p. 219–39.
  21. Zoos, the Biodôme, and similar ecosystems are museums.