Dioramas, Ruin and Archaeology

I was nudged back into the world of blogging today by the fantastic art of Lori Nix, a photographer who makes incredible tabletop dioramas and then shoots them with a large format camera. The results are stunning.

The above photograph is what initially caught my attention as it reminds me of Orhan Pamuk’s lovely passage about the Bosphorus from The Black Book:

“Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic lines that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As this new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud….”

A closer look at Lori Nix’s website reveals a play on the photographic trope of ruin, something very much prevalent in the photography of archaeologists. She creates an abandoned landscape with a focus on civic structures, structures where we record and celebrate the triumph of civilization.

Natural History, 2005

I particularly like her take on the Natural History museum — she’s created dioramas within a diorama, showing our desire to recreate nature within structures, then the ultimate intrusion of nature.

Library, 2007

I find her work playful, rather than the cliched wallowing in ruin that photographers (including myself) usually pursue.

I’ve been thinking about dioramas for a few years now, especially after the virtual reconstructions of Catalhoyuk I worked on in Second Life. Digitally modeling individual objects was truly tedious, but still gratifying when the entire model came together. When I mention dioramas to archaeologists, they get remarkably excited–are we are all secret dollhouse keepers, manipulating people in the past to pose perfectly with that cob of corn, lighting a fire, catching a fish?

The plow is red/The well is full/Inside the dollhouse of her skull – Tom Waits, Such a Scream

The dioramas at Mesa Verde are stunning examples of interpretive archaeological dioramas that delight the half a million visitors the park receives every year. These dioramas are evocative in the way that the preserved archaeological excavations are not, and I would argue that they attract more interest than the same scene rendered in 2D media.

In a wonderfully reflexive and uncharacteristic move, the park has an extensive display regarding the making of the dioramas by our friends, the previously mentioned CCC. While I’m certain that current scholars of the ancestral Puebloans would find faults with the specifics of the interpretations that inspired these dioramas, Meredith Guillet, Paul Franke and Kenneth Ross reproduced actual artifacts in miniature, and went so far as to fire pots in order to break them, creating a more realistic scatter of sherds. The dioramas took about five years to complete, or “1,100 man-days” according to Ronald Brown and Duane Smith’s New Deal Days: The CCC at Mesa Verde. Would that we could have a similar investment in our museums and national parks by our current administration.

When I finally wandered away from the museum (the rest was full of really fun CCC/WPA displays) I saw a sign that seemed to indicate that there was a new museum in the works. Not so, but for a moment I was really worried–would these classic displays be scrapped in favor of touchscreens and boring videos with flute music? Though my reconstructive talents (such as they are) are squarely within the digital realm, the power of dioramas remains unparalleled. Perhaps they are too powerful, too compelling as a monolithic interpretation. But do we sacrifice the intense, imaginative experience and fascination to a multivocal touchscreen? Can we ever make a digital experience as truly immersive as looking at wax figures fighting with a dog, frozen in time for 80 years?

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