In 18th century Britain, miniature houses were considered a luxury of high society. Ornately carved trinkets, these “baby houses” were not intended for play but as a teaching tool for servants. Wealthy Europeans commissioned small versions of their homes to show off priceless collectibles.
There’s a fascinating history of miniature making to uncover – from post-war children’s dollhouses to nightmarish tableaux from the 2018 horror film ‘Hereditary’ – before you arrive at the doorstep of the wonderful new exhibition by Montreal sculptor Karine Giboulo, “Housewarming”. now in the Gardiner Museum. Where these early replicas dominated economic status, Giboulo’s thought-provoking diorama house, inhabited by more than 500 Lilliputian polymer clay figures, invites us to reflect on those whose daily lives are rarely captured in art.
“The Housewarming Party” feels familiar yet bizarre, humorous yet heartbreaking, as if our collective experiences through COVID-19 are being analyzed through a Wonderland filter. Giboulo compares the space to a diary and a commentary on life through the pandemic. I hesitate to go into too much detail – the real magic of this show is physically moving through space and peeking around every corner.
On the top floor of the Gardiner, Giboulo and his team, including curator Karine Tsoumis, have reinvented a life-size version of his house, blurring fiction and reality. At first glance, life seems normal, but this cozy cushion is inhabited by hundreds of little people focused on their own daily routines. Nothing is quite what it seems: a worn kitchen towel is actually sculpted out of clay, as is a well-used Minions toothbrush in the bathroom. (For laughs, look at the Zoom face on the office worker perched inside the birdcage.)
Outside the front door, I spot a familiar sight: a cardboard Amazon box sitting on the porch. Two eye holes are cut out, creating a malevolent smile from the dipping logo. Crouching to look inside the box fitted with a deceptive mirror, I find a warehouse filled with endless rows of masked workers, packing an endless number of tiny boxes. It’s a disturbing reminder that the luxury of delivery comes at a human cost.
“A big theme throughout the house is about the other side of our home comforts, where some people basically work so we can stay home,” Tsoumis said.
During the pandemic, Giboulo traded her studio for a seat at the kitchen table, working from home, a lifestyle she has since pursued, scheduling much of this show via Zoom calls. “It’s so comfortable,” she said. “I feel like I’m creating in a bubble.”
Walk through the kitchen and you’ll spot a tiny Giboulo sitting in a coffee pot, feet adorned with chunky checkered slippers, sculpting an even smaller version of the polymer bananas that sit on the kitchen table as they’re sanitized. chemically by a tiny person in a hazmat suit. It’s this comfort and play of scale that becomes unsettling as you move around the kitchen.
On the counter, a line of little people wait patiently at a food bank housed in a bag of recyclable groceries. A Dutch oven becomes a makeshift home for a group of refugees preparing a simple communal meal. In the pantry, shelves of canning jars depict long-term care workers and residents isolated from each other and the outside world. While the crafting and cooking of canned jars is ubiquitous on Pinterest, here they are used as mourning vessels, imprisoning hunched bodies.
“It’s a component that preserves food,” Giboulo said of the jars’ use as human containers. She makes sure that every little person has unique features, from their face to their posture and their clothes. “Sometimes I think we try to preserve life, but not meet emotional needs.”
Giboulo, who also works in documentary, has been creating these representative clay models for over 25 years. She initially focused on large paintings that played with human scale but, in an experiment, found she preferred the materiality of clay. It is also a form that allows him to reduce some of the heavy subject matter that his work considers in a way that does not overwhelm him.
What hasn’t changed is the way his social conscience drives artistic creation and the way Giboulo uses his characters to reflect on troubling global crises.
In 2012, she created “Democracy Village”, a Haitian shanty town based on her own visits to Port-au-Prince. In “Housewarming,” her first fully immersive show, a dresser of garment workers on industrial sewing machines is modeled after her visit to China some 20 years ago, when she posed as a woman in business to access the floors of the factory. Atop the chest of drawers is a small model of her grandmother, knitting for her family as an act of love.
Giboulo notes how easy it is to close the drawer and ignore the human costs of fast fashion.
“Clothes are supposed to take care of people,” she said, pointing out the juxtaposition. “But who takes care of these people?”
Just months before the pandemic, Giboulo was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that primarily affects the spine and bones, sometimes called “dinosaur disease.” In the bedroom, we see little Giboulo not as an artist but as a fallible human, reflected in the mirror by a gray shadow, her body metamorphosing into a prehistoric creature. “I already felt more confined to my body,” she said.
The pretty sheets on the bed with their three-dimensional floral pattern suggest hope, while little clay Giboulo and her husband, comfortably settled in the middle, enjoy a peaceful rest.
It was in this quiet moment, in the most intimate room of the house, that Giboulo’s message of hope and the power of art really touched the house as she revealed, “I decided to give me a good night’s sleep.
Karine Giboulo: Housewarming, takes place at the Gardiner Museum, 111 Queen’s Park until May 7, 2023. See gardinermuseum.on.ca for more information.
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