Mat Collishaw, “The Garden of Unearthly Delights” (2009) (Courtesy of Merderme)

I’d been promised “enchanted landscapes, fantastic worlds, and strange encounters” and had already voyaged through wartime Italy, haunted hallways, Chuck Close’s art studio, and a seedy peepshow. Then I collided with all three at once. A sedentary carousel of animals and imps suddenly spun into a 3D zoetrope where the fiendish tiny people tried to stab giant snails and jumping fish and smash a bird’s eggs, while butterflies thrashed away to escape their missiles. A strange whirring, creaking noise accompanied the primal scene. It was perfectly otherworldly.

Appropriately enough, all of this bizarre traveling was contained within Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). The 3D zoetrope, called “The Garden of Unearthly Delights”, is a sculpture comprised of 200 different models. Created by Mat Collishaw, the piece was the most transporting and visually astonishing of the exhibit’s galaxy of small worlds. (You can watch it in action here.)

Patrick Jacobs, “Raked Leaves” (2011) (Courtesy of Pierogi Gallery)

Otherworldy spans two floors of MAD and includes work by 38 artists. It quickly becomes clear that there are two universes of artists in the exhibit: the model-makers and the photographers. Some of the models are extraordinary in themselves, like Patrick Jacobs’ incredibly detailed natural panoramas viewed from small portholes in the museum walls. Others only transform through the artist’s eye, such as Bethany de Forest’s jumbles of plastic fruit and insects that change into what looks like psychedelic digital art under her camera.

Bethany de Forest, “Vlinderveld (Butterfly Field)” (2010), c-print, 31.5 x 47. (Courtesy of the artist)

There are a few pieces that don’t have much gravity (a parallel art museum on the ceiling is quickly clever, but lacks the obsessive perfection of the rest of the exhibit), and some of the models involving human figures tread close to the uncanny valley. Yet overall it’s a captivating exhibit where you can travel far and pay no fare (well, after the museum admission of course). Below are some destinations you should not miss:

Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz, “Traveler CCLXXIV (274)“ (2011) (Courtesy of the artists)

A wall of snowglobes by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz at first appears serene, until you lean in closer and see unsettling snowscapes where bodies are smuggled in rugs, a boy learns to shoot a gun, and a figure tries to wrench a brief case from a dead man’s hand.

Paolo Ventura, “Automaton #04” (2010) (Courtesy of the artist; Hasted Kraeutler)

Venice at its bleakest is recreated with meticulous detail in Paolo Ventura’s models and photographs. The artist has already produced two books that follow his fictional characters through the painstakingly recreated cities, and the works in Otherworldly have glimpses of a narrative about an automaton that takes place in the Jewish ghetto in Venice of 1942.

Matthew Albanese, “Diorama for ‘A New Life’” (2011) (Courtesy of the artist)

Matthew Albanese, “A New Life #1” (2011) (Courtesy of the artist)

Matthew Albanese, “A New Life #2” (2011) (Courtesy of the artist)

Although the model looks a bit shabbier than some of the others, Matthew Albanese achieves a stunning metamorphosis in his photographs. Storms and sunsets are captured in his miniature of a marsh and willow tree, so believable you’d never guess they were made of coffee grounds and ostrich feathers.

Rick Araluce, “The Longest Hours” (2011) (Courtesy of the artist)

Not much is immediately striking about Rick Araluce’s empty hallway, but peer down the row of doors for a moment and you will find it haunted by faint sounds of radios and muffled voices seeping from the cracked doors.

Didier Massard, “Diorama for the Monkey” (2011) (Courtesy of the artist; Julie Saul Gallery)

Didier Massard, “The Monkey” (2011) (Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery)

A layered diorama by Didier Massard is brought into beautiful, yet eerie, dimensions in the photograph results. Something is somewhat off and ominous in the perfect landscape, perhaps the length of the monkey’s fingers or the unfamiliar fruit it grasps in its paw. Coinciding with Otherworldly, FIAF Gallery is exhibiting a solo show of Massard’s diorama photographs through July 5.

MAD’s exhibition of miniature universes holds a variety of surprises; there’s a new world just beyond every corner. The magic of art is to create its own reality, and Otherwordly demonstrates that possibility perfectly.

Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities shows through September 18 at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle).

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...