SAN DIEGO — Curator Toby Kamps nods toward the view from his second-story office window at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, to make a point about the new exhibition "Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art." The cars in the parking lot below "seem tiny, just that big," he says, nearly pinching his fingers together. That phenomenon of being separate from a smaller-scale environment (or one that seems to be) but still being able to project yourself into it, he says, is just what makes the work in "Small World" exert such a visceral pull.
"It's a sort of out-of-body experience," Kamps says. "It's probably the closest thing to being an angel that there is; you can hover over things."
For the show, his most ambitious curatorial venture yet for the museum, where he's worked since 1998, Kamps brought together the work of 13 artists who exercise what he calls the "dioramic impulse."
The instinct to create self-contained, parallel worlds can be traced back to ancient, small-scale tomb statuary and early creches, Kamps says. The act of making "dioramas" long precedes the term, which originated in 1822.
Early dioramas were variants on the panorama, a painted scene that encircled viewers and sometimes incorporated attached sections of false terrain to finesse the transition from real to represented space. The diorama used fabric backdrops, like those in theater, but made of translucent material and painted on both sides. Shifts in the intensity or direction of the lighting altered the effect, simulating changes in season or time of day. (The diorama's inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, continuing his quest to reproduce the appearances of the real world, later devised one of the first methods of photography, the daguerreotype.)
The popularity of this public spectacle didn't last long, but Kamps sees both the panorama and the diorama as momentous events in the history of visual perception.
"They are the first engulfing technologies. They're the first technologies in which you completely immerse yourself in something," he says. "The theater always served that role, but these were technologies, not theatrical events. They're not enlivened. You're not sympathizing or identifying with players. They're the first versions of virtual reality that we know of."
In the 1930s, the term "diorama" was revived to describe small model environments built for displays and commercial purposes. Museums then started applying the name to their habitat displays, those glass-walled mini-environments with once-live animals displayed against curved, illusionistically painted walls. Kamps uses the term even more elastically, grouping together a variety of works that spin off from the familiar museum diorama as well as from dollhouse and model railroad construction.
Helen Cohen, one of the exhibition's artists, constructs tiny domestic environments inside familiar household objects--a 1940s kitchen inside a breadbox, a teenager's room from the '60s inside a stereo. Michael Ashkin builds tabletop models of what Kamps calls "chemical badlands," suggesting the aftereffects of industrialization on the landscape. In Bridget and Tina Marrin's work, miniature sprinklers irrigate a field, and a tiny flag, activated by an electrically charged wire, twitches as if blown by the wind. Alexis Rockman, Tony Matelli, Thomas Demand, Mark Dion, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Clara Williams, Liz Craft, Mat Collishaw and Nils Norman round out the show with photographs, full-scale installations and exquisitely crafted models.
"Very few of these artists are working with dioramas full time," Kamps says. "It's an interesting stop for them, an experiment. It allows them to be great craftspeople, to really lavish all their technical skills on something.
"They get to be scientists and curators and miniature film directors all at once. I do suspect that a lot of artists are looking at film and saying it would be great to be a director, and control the lighting, the sound; to have that total control. That level of control is really appealing."
Another seductive feature of dioramas is their totalizing effect. "They are information condensers," Kamps says. "That's always been one of the functions of dioramas--to condense an entire ecology, to give you that world picture in one work."
The makers of traditional natural-history museum dioramas tended to present that world picture in idealized, sanitized form. Not so with their contemporary counterparts, who often create alternate worlds that distill the social and environmental problems of the larger world. Their works envision dystopia, rather than utopia.