Time travel in miniature

What the future holds — or was it the past?
By BRITTA KONAU  |  January 25, 2012

‘VACUUM SHOWROOM’ Chromogenic print, 30 by 40 inches, by Lori Nix, 2006.

Although comprised of only six photographs, "Lori Nix: The City" at the University of Maine Museum of Art is a show not to be missed. Based in Brooklyn, the 42-year-old photographs tabletop dioramas of highly associative scenarios she creates. They have included a series playing on her home state's propensity for natural disasters, Accidentally Kansas. Using a selective focus, meteoric craters, debilitating snowstorms, and devastating floods are imbued with great humor.

For her most recent series, The City, Nix has envisioned a post-human future in urban public interiors. Of the series' total of nineteen images, the six on view are descriptively titled "Violin Repair Shop" and "Beauty Shop," among others. Nix grew up on disaster movies but also credits the landscapes of the Hudson River School as an influence. The ultimate painting in Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire, Desolation (1836), indeed seems like the perfect precursor of Nix's creations.

The architecturally complex interior of Nix's "Aquarium" is covered with algae and dotted with sand deposits left behind after a deluge. Water stains, barnacles, and debris that includes rubber boots and plastic bottles, all to scale, are further evidence of the unexplained disaster that has wiped humanity off the face of the Earth, yet surprisingly left electricity in place. A large illuminated tank still contains living flora that suspiciously looks like medical gloves. Nix jokingly also included a sculptural fragment of Poseidon's hand holding his trident.

Nix is certainly not alone in photographing self-made dioramas or models. Probably the best-known practitioner of this form of constructed photography is James Casebere, whose built-up landscapes and spare interiors are concerned with volume and light. Thomas Doyle is a master of small-scale models of disasters, but he displays them as sculptures, not photographs. Nix, on the other hand, destroys the sets she painstakingly creates after shooting them without any digital manipulation.

Instead, the artist incorporates a different kind of manipulation into her images — that of time. The non-descript concrete building housing the "Vacuum Showroom" has been reclaimed by invasive nature. Cracks in the walls and ceiling have let in botany; a butterfly and chicken have made themselves at home as well. The advertising posters and old-fashioned look-alike cleaners place this scene somewhere in the not-too-distant past, yet there are also ultra-modern power machines, including a Dyson. (The show includes a few of Nix's objects, and whether intentionally or not, in their display case the little vacuum cleaners make a sweet allusion to the playfulness of Jeff Koons.)

If you look carefully you will notice that one of the upright vacuums at some point must still have had some juice in it and attempted to restore order, leaving a clean trail behind. Nix's images of futility and destruction claim to portray a scene in the future yet seem dated as well. So are we in the present? Is this slippage of time occurring right now, the neglect and decay nature's attempt at reclamation? What cataclysmic event triggered it all remains unspecified, even whether it was natural or man-made. We can thus imagine our own disasters, ecological or political ones, in the near future, going backward, let's say around election time.

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Related: Review: A two-artist show at Aucocisco explores the human form, Slideshow: ''Painting the American Vision'' at the Peabody Essex; ''Shifting Terrain: Landscape Video'' at the Currier Museum of Art, The year ahead in visual arts, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Thomas Cole, University of Maine Museum of Art, University of Maine Museum of Art
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