Vicky Sabourin was headed for a career in the theatre before she turned to the visual arts. Each of her installation works combines a tableau vivant and a diorama in which she performs, so that viewers can appreciate them whether she is there or not. Inspired by minor news items, personal or family anecdotes, stories or a historical event documented with photographs and having given rise to a work of fiction, Sabourin systematically turns to a narrative thread to anchor her performative installations. These works are viewed generally as if through a frame, or a system that stands in for one, thus forming a boundary between reality and fiction that she shifts and challenges more and more from project to project.
A Triad around Representation: Diorama, Window, Painting
Karen Wonders defines the diorama as a museum-related device that creates “the illusion of a real scene viewed through a window.”1 In its most common version, the diorama is presented as a showcase featuring a historical situation or a natural habitat constructed as authentically and meticulously as possible. Composed of three elements acting in chorus to guarantee the realism of the environment portrayed, it includes a stuffed animal or a lifelike wax mannequin placed in a set, reproducing as faithfully as possible the original context of the scene, which continues in a painting used as a backdrop. The diorama reached its height of popularity in natural history museums, becoming an educational tool for transmitting knowledge about the natural world and making viewers aware of the gradual disappearance of certain species or various ecosystems. Putting together dioramas involved hunting expeditions organized to kill the animals that were to be placed in the set, and also to document their behaviours through observation in the field so that they could be reproduced. Sketches were made to record their environment and specimens collected that would be used to re-create larger elements. True encounters between art and science, these research trips involved the contributions of taxidermists, painters and sculptors.2 At first, this alliance of art and science impeded recognition of the diorama’s educational aims, as the claims of objectivity and truth were challenged.3 Even if it was intended to be a transparent representation of a real place, was the diorama not a creative work potentially involving interpretation and fiction? This question, at the core of Sabourin’s work, also underlies Gérard Wajcman’s analysis of the window in association with the pictorial painting – a comparison linked to the diorama, which Wonders in fact thinks of as a window.
In his book Fenêtre. Chroniques du regard et de l’intime, Wajcman maintains that the trope attributed to Leon Battista Alberti, which has it that the painting is like a window open on the world, or, rather, on history – as revealed in Wajcman’s examination of the source text – is in fact to be understood in reverse: “Not: looking at a painting is like looking through a window, but: looking through a window is like looking at a painting.”4 The convention of representation (the painting) as evocation of the world (the view from the window) is thus replaced by the more provocative idea of the world as representation, of representation as foundation. This idea emphasizes the subjectivity of all perception and, consequently, the impossibility of objective access to “one world” such as it is. Regarding the painting and the window, Wajcman states, “Introducing the subject into the visible world, which is the basis of perspective, is to introduce the vision of the world into the world, and thus introduce the uncountable multiple of points of view. There is no more world, one world; there are only points of view of the world. […] Thus, there is no world, there are only windows on the world.”5 If this is so, the distinction between fact and fiction, the diorama’s scientific objectivity and artwork, would be weakened not because the diorama is flirting with art but because the idea of objectivity is undermined from the beginning.
As a window on the world, the diorama is presented as a device that produces, rather than represents nature objectively. As Samuel J. M. M. Alberti notes, when we enter the museum, the natural specimen is decontextualized, identified and categorized, becoming a product of the social realm. It thus loses its original value as a natural object and acquires that of a social artefact, testifying more to the human being’s vision of nature than to nature in itself.6 In the Victorian era, the diorama, which promoted moral and ideological principles, notably the human being’s superiority over nature by mastering, “capturing,” domesticating and exploiting it, joined the tableau vivant, which was equally popular at the time. Based on the same process, a window on a world defined by a showcase, proscenium, or curtain, the diorama is based on the distinction between the site of the spectator – reality – and the site of the spectacle – the fiction represented. This distinction leads Wajcman to conceive of the window as another type of instrument of knowledge; because it establishes a distance, cuts reality into fragments arranged in relation to each other to set up a rational space, the window brings out logical and narrative relationships.7 Thus, because the diorama renders the visible legible, it can be considered an important pedagogical tool. It tells a story – that of the species or habitat portrayed or the historical event illustrated. The story is the structure that supports the visible, makes it intelligible, tameable. And this story flows from the organization of facts in a system that aims to produce the plausible, giving it the status of interpretation; no matter what degree of objectivity one would like it to have.
Vicky Sabourin’s Stories
In Promenons-nous dans les bois (Let’s walk in the woods) (2010), the story of a young folksinger who was attacked by two coyotes in Cape Breton in 2009 serves as the starting point for the work, which also evokes the tale of Little Red Riding Hood – two stories that feed on and are fed by the all-too-common fear of wild animals. We see the artist sitting at the edge of a photographed forest that serves as the set for the installation; in an ambiguous gesture, she is either pushing away or welcoming the stuffed coyote at her side. Another work Alchimie Boréale, les ermites (Boreal alchemy: The hermits) (2013) revisits a family memory. When she was young, Sabourin’s father apparently met hermits in the forest, near the family cottage, who were hiding to avoid conscription. Blending local and global history, the work, in which Sabourin continually performed the role of a woman who lived in the space and painted small watercolours documenting it, consisted of a true diorama into which visitors had to enter. It was composed of a multitude of specimens to make the scene realistic: mushrooms, moss, earth, branches and mice made of felt, giving the illusion of being stuffed, rocks, utilitarian items evoking the hermits’ living conditions, a platform depicting the ruins of a cabin and so on. For this project, although the artist reproduced the meticulous method of creating a diorama – studying the fauna and flora of the boreal forest where the family cottage was located, gathering together the materials for the scene, examining the posture of the rodents that she wanted to re-create – the cohabitation of the true and the false, notably where we do not expect it, is nevertheless at the heart of the work. For example, although the chanterelles, yellow clubs, jack-o’-lanterns and other mushrooms brought together in the arrangement actually grow in the environment portrayed, they don’t appear at the same time in nature, as they are associated with different seasons.
Fact and fiction thus form an intertwined dyad that is the basis for Sabourin’s works, which marry tableaux vivants and diorama to tell stories about the relationships that humans have with nature. In fact, taking literature as an example, Jacques Rancière shows that the division between fact and fiction, knowledge and interpretation, is not as clear as one might believe. He posits that “to be built into scientific knowledge, history and social science have had to borrow from poetry the principle that states that construction of a probable causal link is more rational than the [empirical] description of facts ‘as they happen.’ For fiction is not the fantasy against which the rigour of science is opposed. Rather, it supplies it with a model of rationality.”8 This rationality is based on what he calls “the tyranny of human ends”9 – a model that corresponds to the principle of action, central to the structure of the classic novel. Fact and observation would thus be more closely related to fiction and point of view than one might suppose at first sight – fertile ground for Sabourin.
For her most recent project, Does it hurt you to hunt it (2014), Sabourin freely adapted a historical event, gathering information from films, documentary photographs and novels: during the economic depression of the 1930s, a decade of drought caused by excessive land clearing by farmers in the American Midwest led to almost-surreal sandstorms and invasions of hares. In response to this infestation, communities organized group hunts in which they surrounded and killed the hares, hitting them with sticks. The installation and Sabourin’s various performances are tableaux recounting this event, which she chose because it underlines the substantial imbalances that human actions provoke. A makeshift tent and domestic items, including a basin, a cot and a lantern, evoke the living conditions of a family, impoverished by the crisis, moving around to look for food, just like the hares that are scattered around the set. At various times the artist was present and looked saddened to see all the hare cadavers strewn on the ground. The American author John Steinbeck, who situated his novels The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men in this period, and the photographer Dorothea Lange, who created iconic images documenting it, were sources for this project. Although Lange’s photographs, which directly inspired Sabourin, are presented as recordings of authentic moments, documenting the misery of this period in American history, their significance in fact rests more in the atmosphere that she captured than on the factual information that she disseminated. In fact, Lange said that she never asked the photographed subjects to identify themselves. Florence Owens Thompson, in the centre of the image, came to detest it for having transformed her into a destitute, desperate woman – she who, according to her daughter, was a strong woman, a leader, very involved in the struggles of agricultural workers in the 1930s.10 So, where is the fiction found: in Steinbeck’s novel or in Lange’s documentary photographic portrait?
This porosity between reality and fiction, ignored by the device of the diorama when it is used in natural history museums, is stated more and more strongly in Sabourin’s works in which she leaves her alcove to inhabit the space usually reserved for viewers. For this latest project, she stage directed seven performers of all ages – some artists, others amateurs – inviting them to mix, incognito, with the audience gathered for the opening. It was only after about thirty minutes of chatting, a glass of wine in hand, and strolling among the works in the divided exhibition space, that they went into action, taking subtle poses among the guests, staring at them, sowing doubt in people’s minds. When had the acting begun? Who was being an actor? Where was the performance space? By integrating the viewers into the performance for the encircling episode, during which they became the alter egos of the hunted hares, she shook them out of their position of viewers-onlookers, forcing them to become actors-participants. She thus made the double position of every person visible, that of being both subject and object of the gaze, living constantly in a performance space in which his or her behaviour, appearance and identity are subject to interpretation. In doing this, she fully realized Wajcman’s argument, as he suggests that the participant is always active in the creation of the world within which he or she is already part. This world, from which it is impossible to withdraw completely and observe from a distance – through a window – results, instead, from a performance in which every subject takes part. Thus at the core of Sabourin’s work, there is always a shifting of the boundary, a challenge to the function of the frame, impulses that attenuate the site of division between reality and its representation, showing the complexity of our relationship to the world.
Translated by Käthe Roth
Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre holds a master’s degree in Études des arts from UQAM, and regularly writes for various magazines and publications. Until recently, she was associate curator and assistant director of Galerie d’art contemporain SBC, in addition to working as an independent curator. In the fall of 2014, she completed a curator’s residency in Marseille, organized jointly by Quartier Éphémère/Fonderie Darling and Astérides, where she presented the exhibition ENTRE-DEUX. She is interested in the themes of identity and cultural issues explored in contemporary art practices.
Quoted by Stephen Bitgood, “Les méthodes d’évaluation de l’efficacité des dioramas: compte rendu critique,” Publics et Musées, no. 9, 1996, p. 37 (our translation).
See Stephen Christopher Quinn, Windows on Nature, New York, American Museum of Natural History and Abrams, 2006.
Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, “Constructing Nature Behind Glass,” Museum and Society, vol. 6, no. 2, July 2008, p. 81.
Gérard Wajcman, Fenêtre. Chroniques du regard et de l’intime, Lagrasse, Éditions Verdier, 200.
Ibid., 266 (our translation).
Alberti, op. cit., p. 81–84.
Wajcman, op. cit., p. 280.
Jacques Rancière, Le fil perdu. Essais sur la fiction moderne, Paris, La Fabrique, 2014, p. 22.
Ibid., p. 58.
See the Library of Congress Website, which holds the Farm Security Administration collection of photographs: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awpnp6/migrant_mother.html