The Diorama: Fascinating, Provocative and Educational

With issue 109, ESPACE, the new generation, completes its first lap around the track. While the first two issues focused on Re-Thinking Sculpture?, this third issue features the diorama, as put forward in contemporary art. Although the diorama initially had a purely dramatic purpose, since it created an optical illusion, over the years, it became a three-dimensional object, gaining a new vocation towards the end of the 19th century, particularly in natural history museums. Thus, from its origins of pure entertainment, the diorama could henceforth also assume an educational purpose.

Portraying dramatically staged scenes, conducive to narrative, dioramas also appeared in military museums and religious institutions. Nativity scenes are certainly part of their vast repertoire, but more museological examples can still be found today: the Museum of Saint Joseph’s Oratory, in Montreal, for instance, has a series of ten dioramas depicting scenes from Joseph’s life. Made in 1955 by sculptor Joseph Guardo (1901-1978), a specialist in religious art, these dioramas have never been restored. Given the Oratory’s development project, planned for 2017, there is some doubt as to whether they will be conserved or destroyed. As with all dioramas of this type, the figures, here made of plaster, are placed in a setting with several other objects needed for the story’s representation. Completing the scene is a background painted in trompe l’oeil to reinforce the veracity of the situation. Although from another era, they are excellent examples of dioramas exhibited in a museum context for educational purposes.

Yet there is obviously no comparison with the varied dioramic formats found in contemporary art practices. Consider, for example, the work of Jake & Dinos Chapman shown recently in Montreal.1 The work included dioramas depicting apocalyptic scenes, in which Ronald MacDonald, crucified in several instances, is surrounded by thousands of skeletons and skulls. The irreverence in the face of conservative morality is just as palpable when the same clown, representing the multinational fast-food chain, is associated with SS soldiers bearing swastikas on their khaki shirts. The magnitude of this vision of hell is certainly fascinating in its dark humour, but also in its many references to art history, including, of course, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement.

While the Chapman brothers show us scenes of horror, Canadian artist Graeme Patterson transposes viewers into a more private world that can elicit certain aspects of our former lives. Titled Secret Citadel, the travelling exhibition, which was at Galerie de l’UQAM for a few weeks this fall,2 features installations of miniature worlds based on childhood memories evoked by various experiences, such as that of friendship. Rather than using fiction to try and access personal history from the past, Karine Giboulo’s dioramas, also composed of miniatures, use a different lens to reveal societal aspects such as globalization, overconsumption and exploitation of the disadvantaged. A recent exhibition presented a survey of her work from the past ten years,3 including Village Démocratie (2010-2012), which shows daily life in a shantytown, near Port-au-Prince.

To this short list of contemporary artists whose art practices often, if not always, use the dioramic format, we could add Mathieu Latulippe, Sayeh Sarfaraz or even Guy Laramée. This would enable us to further expand this still poorly defined art form, as Mélanie Boucher right away emphasizes in the introduction to her article. Apart from this caveat, Boucher, who is also the co-editor of this feature, focuses her discussion on a controversial work by Chinese artist Xu Zhen. Although provocative, and in contrast to several compelling works, Xu Zhen destabilizes the seductive effect that the diorama often produces. Guillaume Le Gall, the author of a book on Daguerre’s diorama,4 is interested in Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s work shown at the DIA Art Foundation in 2009-2010, which focused on the future of the book. Inspired by the dioramas at the American Museum of National History in New York, Gonzalez-Foerster’s work gains relevance here in the form of an “expanded literature.”

In his essay, Jean-Philippe Uzel also addresses museum dioramas and questions the ideological nature of some of them that, beneath a semblance of historical truth, distort reality. Referring to indigenous artists such as Wendy Red Star and Kent Monkman, he considers the “myth of the vanishing Indian” that these artists challenge.5 Uzel carefully examines one of Monkman’s recent works inspired by a diorama installed in the entrance to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. Marie-Ève Marchand’s article focuses mainly on two photographs from Karen Knorr’s series Fables (2003-2008). The author explains how the diorama factors into the creative process of Knorr’s photographs. Lastly, Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre’s essay analyses artist Vicky Sabourin’s works, which oscillate between tableaux vivants and dioramas.

At the very least, we can say that the diorama in contemporary art often sparks exploration, whether as a denunciation or a provocation, and is understood very specifically as a prompt to take a position. Also in this winter 2015 issue, readers are invited to take a position on the thesis sociologist Nathalie Heinich champions in her recent book on contemporary art as paradigm. To complement this interview, and following art historian Lise Lamarche’s comments, we invited multidisciplinary artist François Morelli to present a painting.

In addition to exhibition reviews, including one on the Biennale nationale de sculpture contemporaine de Trois-Rivières, the “Events” section has two articles, one on a roundtable discussion that took place at Circa in April 2014, and the other about works made by artists working as duos for the Biennale de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli 2014. Lastly, the “Public Art and Urban Practices” column will return in the spring-summer 2015 issue.

Translated by Oana Avasilichioaei

 


  1. The Chapman Brothers’ exhibition Come and See was presented at DHC/ART from April 4 to August 31, 2014. Organized in collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery in London, this was their first major solo exhibition in North America.
  2. Presented from October 23 to December 6, the Secret Citadel exhibition was co-produced by the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is featured in the Books section, p. 91.
  3. The retrospective exhibition Karine Giboulo Réalité/Utopie took place at Expression, Centre d’exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe from August 16 to September 26, 2014. The recently published catalogue is briefly discussed in the Selected Titles section, p. 94.
  4. See La peinture mécanique: Le diorama de Daguerre. Paris: Les éditions Mare & Martin, 2013.
  5. Multidisciplinary artist, Kent Monkman presented some of his paintings at Galerie Pierre-François Ouellette Art contemporain, in Montreal, from November 14 to December 20, 2014.