Thursday, June 02, 2011

It’s off to work we go

The uncanny lifelessness of museum dioramas has fascinated many artists who have taken on the museum display as subject matter. The Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, for example, nailed the idea in his eerie series End of Time. You can understand then our delight on entering the Berlin Natural History Museum to find a super-size diorama featuring a desert, a pack of small rust coloured wolves, a large bird and a sleeping figure that was obviously human. 

This turned out to be the setting for Laurie Young’s dance performance Natural Habitat. It began as the reclining figure slowly rose to her feet and for the next hour or so stories were told, the sky cycled through days nights and seasons and the entire desert set was sucked down a hole in the floor along with the stuffed wolves. All in all the presumptions of the educational museum were given a thoroughly good shaking. 

This work also brought to mind other performances that have tackled similar challenges to the representation of life and knowledge. Most notably is Cornelia Parker’s 1995 installation The Maybe (in which actress Tilda Swinton slept in a museum vitrine throughout the exhibition) and of course James Luna’s provocative mid-eighties installation Artefact (in which he lay in a museum display case as an item of museumised ethnic evidence). 

And let us not forget Snow White.

Images: Top Natural Habitat. Bottom left Luna's Artefact and right Tilda Swinton in Cornelia Parker's The Maybe