Dioramas and dolls


I’m susceptible to information overload. While the contemporary world seems to have adopted the motto that ‘too much is never enough’ – we are encouraged to binge-watch entire TV drama seasons in a weekend, consume news 24/7 and shop till we drop – I’m more inclined towards the ‘less is more’ philosophy. When I’m confronted with vast museum collections and huge art exhibitions, I find myself longing for a show that features just three excellent works and a comfy couch so that I can give each one the attention it really deserves.

In Elaine Campaner’s recent eponymous solo show this wish almost came true. Sadly there was no couch, so I had to sprawl on the floor. But it did feature just three artworks. It was a bold move infused with a refreshing undercurrent of confidence. But as the saying goes, ‘Be careful what you wish for’ – I thought my dreamed-of, three-work exhibition would be relaxing, however actually I felt quite a lot of pressure to really delve deeply into each one.

Luckily Campaner’s photographs of multilayered dioramas reward intense viewing. The artist documents carefully constructed miniature worlds, and the titles of these artworks read like shopping lists or beat poetry; short texts pointing to larger narratives that hover between personal recollections and collective experiences.

Elaine Campaner at Gallery 9, 2019, installation view.

In Radiation (Oncology) (telephone, blu-tac, polystyrene, ice-cream maker, computer parts, pill-packet, keyboard circuit-mat, seashells, safety gloves, green felt-tipped marker), 2019, the artist created a miniature hospital room.

This medicalised scene includes actual medicine in the form of a blister pack of contraceptive pills. The use of oncology in the title may point to a personal experience. Without this word, it would not have occurred to me that the dolly protagonist, with her prominent seashell breasts, was undergoing radiation treatment for some form of cancer. What with the doubling of her oversized mammaries in a mirror and the contraceptive pill packet, the focus seemed to be firmly on the contested space of the fertile female body, highlighting ongoing cultural battles over a woman’s right to choose.

Contemporary Gallery Space (Homage to Louise Bourgeois; lamb bone, plasticine, constructed gallery space), 2019, was equally charged with the vicissitudes of biological sex. In this image, what appears to be a giant mutilated penis (in miniature) hangs from a hook. Apparently violently ripped from its owner’s loins, bits of real flesh (lamb we are assured by the title) still cling to its phallic form, and smooth and shiny knobs of bone convincingly mimic testicles. Spot-lit, this gruesome dismembered appendage appeared to be an object of veneration or a bloody sacrifice.

Elaine Campaner at Gallery 9, 2019, installation view.

Perhaps it is both; a pound of flesh left at the altar of the art world. Of the three images, Contemporary Chapel (Sunday school camp 1978): Prius, toy-light fitting, blu-tac, miniature goblet, matchsticks, embroidery thread, paper), 2017-2019, is the most baffling. The specificity of the title may allude to an actual memory. I certainly did not visit modernist chapels on Sunday school camps nestled in evergreen forests, or anywhere else.

Maybe Campaner didn’t either, but her intriguing image invited viewers to stop, take the time to think and imagine what might have happened if they had.

Elaine Campaner was shown at Gallery 9, Darlinghurst from 24 April—18 May.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Review Words by Tracey Clement