The Doll House Dinner Party
Twelve guests are seated all around a large dining table set with the host’s best linens topped with dinnerware and a freshly roasted suckling pig. One person speaks while the rest serve themselves from the abundant dishes and trays.
I hope everyone does not mind, but our dinner host has requested that I continue to share more about my work. In order for you to truly get the most out of my discussion I have decided to tape my talk which will be transcribed later and you may request a copy. For $10 a copy you understand, since I am a poor artist. Do you have any idea what studio space costs in this town?
Everyone nods, chewing simultaneously.
I will talk about three artists works that are similar to my project dollhouse. The work of artists Jennifer Linton, Heather Benning, as well as the collaboration of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy will be discussed.
Briefly, miniature houses have been in use in various cultures such as the Egyptian culture as long as 5000 years ago. The doll house of the sort that most of us are familiar with has been in use in Europe since the 16th century and were quite elaborate. Most doll houses were not intended for children’s play, but were used to display wealth and possessions.
‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from several at the table.
Jennifer Linton’s project is called The Disobedient Dollhouse (2009-10). Linton’s doll house is a mixed media installation consisting of a large area of gallery wall covered with an illustrative wallpaper and a small scale doll house hanging just off center within the field of wallpaper. While the house is constructed from thin board the interior furnishings are made entirely from lithographed paper. Linton reveals her childhood experiences with doll houses as a place where she could act out her fantasies about motherhood and domesticity (Linton). Linton goes on the explain that she now sees the site of domesticity as “much more complex” (Linton). As a child she saw the doll house as an idealized site, where she now identifies the contradiction between the reality of being an imperfect parent and the home as a refuge (Linton).
In the same way the empty dollhouse opens the door to recalling memories from childhood. What are the things thought about/fantasized about as children play, acting out various scenes in the three sided rooms. Commercially idealized narratives where mommies cook and have babies while daddies tirelessly work at their jobs. Or visions of the dominant images of heterosexual sex might play out if a male doll is handy. Or renditions where the child’s violent reality is acted out as a way to release and resolve tension. The barren rooms of dollhouse invite memory, while concurrently referring to Richard Dyer’s idea of whiteness as representing emptiness (Dyer 222).
“Oh…I see…(burrrp),” someone says.
Artist Heather Benning also plays with toys in her work. Doll House (2007) is a human scaled, renovated doll house reclaimed from an abandoned farmhouse in Manitoba near the Saskatchewan border. Benning turned the actual farmhouse into a “doll house” by clearing trash, repainting as well as repairing and outfitting the house with a complete set of 1950s themed furnishings (Merkle 60). While there are no actual dolls for the house, a notion of doll house is invoked because Benning removed one complete side of the house opening the interior to an exterior view. Benning is also the creator of Field Doll (2009), a larger than life-sized replica of a childhood doll once owned by her. In talking about Field Doll Benning says that “dolls are little miniature notions of humans that children carry with them, they create fake souls for them” (quoted in Markle 62).
Similarly Bennings life-size Doll House and the dollhouse project both work to invoke a sense of reality for children. It is in these places that the child can practice at being adult within a specific culture such as how to dress, how to act, practicing various roles, genders, and identities. The doll house becomes a tool of enculturation. In contrast, both Linton and Benning do not write about or express a consciousness about racial identity. The notion of whiteness may be implicit since both artists are “white,” but it is not overt. dollhouse on the other hand is referring directly to the construct of whiteness through the method of its fabrication as well as through its colour.
Referring more directly to whiteness is Heidi (1992) by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. Through a video that narrates an abject re-telling of of the classic children’s story Heidi (written in 1880 by Johanna Spyri), Kelley and McCarthy seek to dislodge the dominant image of white middle class normalcy (International). Kelley and McCarthy’s reinterpretation includes incest, abuse and a preoccupation with bodily functions (“Paul McCarthy”). Significantly Kelley and McCarthy have chosen to use a popular children’s story once again pointing to the early enculturation of children. Heidi challenges white normalcy by “making whiteness strange” (Dyer 4). By pointing to its white interior and exterior dollhouse similarly questions the notion of whiteness.
Cutlery clatters on the fine white porcelain dishes.
In conclusion, while the five works discussed each address childhood conditioning, Heidi takes one step further by offering an open door to question whiteness. dollhouse begins to do the same.
The little girl, feeling bored, then reaches her hand into the miniature house tipping the table, unseating the dolls and scattering dishes along with the tiny plastic suckling pig. Lilliputian size potatoes and beans roll under the 4 inch buffet.
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Bignell, Jonathan. Postmodern Media Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Print.
International Center of Photography. White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art. International Center of Photography. Web. 26 Jan. 2011.
Linton, Jennifer. “The Disobedient Dollhouse.” Jennifer Linton’s Web Portfolio. Web. 24 Jan. 2011.
Markle, Andrew. “What’s Left Behind.” Galleries West 8.2 (2009): 60-62. Print.
“Paul McCarthy & Mike Kelley – Heidi (1992).” ART TORRENTS. 7 Mar. 2008. Web. 10 Aug. 2010.