"A story that I read as a child was about how in the future everyone eats pieces of pills for food. It's Thanksgiving and everyone is busy doing something and no one notices that the baby eats the whole turkey pill until it is too late! He ate the whole thing! He explodes because the pill expands in his stomach. What I got out of this story is that there is not much foresight in science all of the time. Didn't the scientists who thought up this great pill idea think that something like that wouldn't happen? What are the contingency plans to scientific exploration?" — Nicole Sanches, describing Thanksgiving (2004)
Nicole Sanches' darkly comic dioramas explore twin themes of architecture and accident, and re-emergent childhood fears of the invisible and the unknown. Though Sanches uses dollhouse furniture, modelling clay, and hobbyist railroad set figures in her work, the narratives she builds are not neatly sewn-up stories for kids where evil is vanquished and clever children prevail.
Miniatures are theorized to fulfill a desire for mastery over things, yet close examination of Sanches' works replaces any sense of mastery with disquieting feelings that that disaster is imminent or even in progress, and the situation is outside our control.
In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart says "(t)he miniature offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularized and generalized in time" and calls the miniature "the notation of the moment and the moment's consequences". This particularization and generalization of the moment focuses the viewer on the distance between reality and construct, between what is and what could be.
Dioramas are models of imaginary or real environments - fictions - that let viewers step outside their time and place and look back. The word diorama, from the Greek dia (through) and horama (to see), was first used in 1821 to describe these "sets". Artists including Thomas Demand, Mat Collishaw, and Mark Dion have also used dioramas to provide contemporary social comment by presenting dys/utopic scenes, in miniature or full-scale. Another artist, Ricky Swallow, gives his dioramas artificial life by melding miniature scenes and dynamic electronic equipment, but Sanches' dioramas remain static, like photographs, keeping viewers trapped in a moment "during" in which our separation from the event trains us simply to watch, and not act.In Crepuscular Dawn
, by Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, in a chapter entitled "The Accident of Science", the moment emerges as an entirely relevant modern measure: the techno-science of modern warfare is described as having "no more before and after
", and computer viruses are called "an accident at the very same instant, or almost, on a worldwide scale".
In Sanches' Control Room
(2004), a man sits at his computer in front of a huge screen, monitoring the global situation as it unfolds. As Sanches says, science appears to lack foresight - the contingency plans to scientific exploration appear to be "wait and see". In Virilio and Lotringer's words: "Each time we invent a new technology, whether electronic or biogenetic, we program a new catastrophe and an accident that we cannot imagine" and "when there is no worrying, there is no hope".
(2003) find themselves trapped inside pill bottles to watch through a medicated haze. Out on the street, an Accident (2004) is guarded by two armed sentries, while questions remain whether the threat of officials with guns or being watched over actually makes us any safer. The test tubes that make up Sanches' Chemical City
(2001) are made of glass, which allows observation and is non-reactive with chemicals, but perilously shatters with any bump onto a laboratory floor.
Sanches' dioramas offer shards of broken narratives which imply that something important is happening, but the situation is so new that we can't understand what the implications are
yet. As the disasters unfold, there's an undercurrent of seeming inevitability.
We rely on everyday technologies that were once unimaginable so unthinkingly until some glitch reveals our hidden vulnerabilities and leaves us helpless and uncomprehending. This story is as old as the golem, Frankenstein, DDT and Thalidomide except these days everyone knows the potential for disaster, but no one is shouting at the screen during the horror film to tell the heroine to turn back before it is too late. It's out of our hands.
Examining Nicole Sanches' scenes, you can almost hear the voice coming out of a tiny, tinny loudspeaker "Move it along folks, everything's under control." Resigned, you keep walking.
— Carly Haddon - August 2004 (Helen Pitt Publication)
On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1993, p. 46-48.
Crepuscular Dawn, Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles and New York, 2002, p. 137-148.