Art

Miniature Dioramas That Contain the Chaos of the World

From a patchwork of shantytowns to retail spaces, Tracey Snelling’s miniature worlds describe the disorder of life and offer a compelling argument that the way we inhabit space is subjective.

Tracey Snelling, “One Thousand Shacks” (2016), installation view (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Miniatures are typically all about control. Life at scale is messy, unpredictable, and often overwhelming. Things never stay where you put them. The creation of miniature dioramas offers both maker and viewer a sense of stronger footing in the present — we can tower over these scenes, peer into them, arrange them to our liking, and glue them in place, if we so choose. As a result, miniature worlds tend to be idealized places, lacking the details that make up our quotidian existence, like toilet paper rolls, dirty clothing, noise, and chaos.

But the miniature worlds of interdisciplinary artist Tracey Snelling lean into the disorder of life, creating scenes with odd proportions, glimpses into an imagined reality, and ultimately offer a compelling argument that the way we inhabit space is subjective. Here and There, an installation at University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery, is mostly dominated by Snelling’s massive mixed-media sculpture, “One Thousand Shacks.” It is, oxymoronically, a giant miniature, a three-dimensional patchwork shantytown that towers floor-to-ceiling before the viewer, affording peeks into thousands of miniature lives in progress.

On the surface, “One Thousand Shacks” subverts the natural tendency of miniatures to give one a sense of control; Snelling recreates the churning chaos of life by deftly incorporating kinetic electricity and sound effects in her dioramas. A peek behind the public-facing side of the piece reveals an inner network bristling with multichannel video and audio — the secret life of this diorama is nearly as busy and overwhelming as the 1.5 lives lived in poverty around the world that it means to spotlight.

“One Thousand Shacks,” detail view
“One Thousand Shacks,” behind the scenes

Snelling also created some new work during her residency period at the University of Michigan: a series of small-scale rooms, mounted on the wall in the shape of an apartment building. Each room is a world unto itself, from domestic spaces like living rooms and bedrooms, to public spaces, like a church, to retail spaces like a sports bar, a convenience mart, and a wig shop.

One of Tracey Snelling’s rooms, new work at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities (detail view)

“These are mostly places that don’t exist particularly anywhere,” said Snelling, in an interview with AM 1700 in Ypsilanti, during her residency period. “Or they could be everywhere. They are gathering up ideas of places and people that maybe you know or I know, and places that we’ve seen, but without a specific brand on it.” Snelling is overt about the thread of voyeurism that runs through her work. “I like to look at people and where they live, how they live — I’m almost like a sociologist, in a way,” she said. “I guess I figure myself in a way as a voyeur, so I like to see things that maybe I’m not supposed to see.”

New work by Tracey Snelling at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities (installation view)

Snelling does not work according to scale — which goes against the governing tenet of mainstream miniature-making — and the internal inconsistencies of scale within her scenes gives them the heightened emotional reality of places half-remembered or imagined.

“I don’t measure and make sure it’s a certain size,” she said. “And scale can change within a piece of mine. That’s not important to me, and to have something be exact isn’t important — it’s more about the essence of the place.” This essence gels in Snelling’s scenes, which are not exact replicas, but conglomerate and imaginary places that arise from internet research and her own sort of visual cataloging of her real-world surroundings.

A mini mini-mart by Tracey Snelling (detail view)
Works in neon by Tracey Snelling

“I feel like all the really rich places are disappearing, so if anything, I would like to document some of the places that I find interesting and build them before they’re gone.” This collector’s urge, this desire to preserve places, like mom-and-pop businesses, strip mall venues, and quiet domestic settings, at a manageable scale is what makes miniatures such an alluring, as well as unironic form. In the case of “One Thousand Shacks,” the repetition of these endless small shanties gives the maker a sense of control over the bewildering notion that 20% of the world’s populations struggles with the condition of poverty on a daily basis. When life at human scale becomes too much or moves too fast, miniatures can help us regain our footing, or find critical distance for these circumstances, without having to walk too far away from them.

Like viewing a cityscape from a scenic overlook, it’s grounding to stand before the sounds and flashing lights of Snelling’s miniatures, look into their shrunken worlds, and yet come away from the experience with a sense of connection to and appreciation for the human condition that is big enough to impact one’s worldview.

Tracey Snelling’s Here and There  continues at University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery through April 28.

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