Figure it out

Whether she is hanging decaying rabbit carcasses from trees or drawing popular cartoon characters caught in acts of domestic violence, Winnipeg-based artist Diana Thorneycroft knows how to use shock value to engage the public in her art. In Monstrance, her notorious 1999 exhibit, Thorneycroft infamously used decaying rabbits and transformed them into reliquaries, as a metaphor for human rituals surrounding the lifeless body. Thorneycroft received death threats because of the exhibit, and since then has used different “surrogates” throughout her art practice; dolls, miniature figurines and action figures all serve as representations of the human form. In a recent interview with the Manitoban, Thorneycroft explained, “They function as safe replacements to the corporeal body, providing distance and deflected identification with situations I place them in.”

Figurines were used extensively in the artist’s recent series, Group of Seven Awkward Moments, a photographic exploration of Canadian national identity with a strong undercurrent of black humour. Thorneycroft is also using figurines in a new series she is currently working on, and which has yet to be shown, entitled “A People’s History.” This work is neither humorous nor awkward. For instance, in one diorama scene, entitled Coach, two figurines, a small boy and a large man, face each other standing on a snowy ground. The small boy has his back pressed against the house, and beside his figurine form is a duffle bag and hockey stick. The other figurine has a large pot-belly and wears a leather jacket with sheepskin lining, the word “Coach” emblazoned on his arm. Paired with dramatic use of lighting, it doesn’t take much else to understand that this tense moment is a reference to the sexual abuse young hockey players have suffered at the hands of coaches in Canada.

Indeed, Coach is a deeply disturbing reminder of crimes against vulnerable children, often kept silent. It is a recurring theme throughout “A People’s History,” which Thorneycroft says “depicts atrocities committed against our most vulnerable citizens: the disadvantaged, the uneducated and the young.” The series was prompted when Thorneycroft “stumbled” upon areas of Canadian history, including scenes from residential schools or orphanages like Mount Cashel in Newfoundland, and “quickly realized they were atrocious.”

The series title is a reference to the popular video series, “Canada: A People’s History,” which is often shown in high school history classes. Thorneycroft is challenging the “glorified” representation of Canadian history, “a country that views itself, and is viewed by others, as inherently ‘good.’” In another work, Pig Farm, the artist has created a farmyard diorama scene, complete with barn and hay-bails. Pigs nose around the yard, and it appears as if there are no human figures in this foreboding area. However, upon looking into the house, through the small illuminated window, one can see a man talking to a woman standing with her back against the door. The viewer begins to understand that this is a representation of the farm of Robert William Pickton, the Canadian pig farmer and serial killer who brutally murdered vulnerable women, allegedly feeding their remains to his pigs. The women Pickton murdered, like all of the victims in this series, were “either ignored, disbelieved or considered expendable.” It is important to keep these memories alive, Thorneycroft says, so “hopefully the next time several dozen women go missing, it wont take a police force three years to begin an inquiry.”

The surrogate figurines used throughout “A People’s History” are not intended “to mock or diminish the traumas that occurred.” Indeed, they allow Thorneycroft to “play ‘make believe’ acting out the crimes in [her] studio and documenting them with [her] camera.” She considers using a surrogate to be “liberating,” particularly because the plastic dolls allow her to approach such difficult subject matter. She explained, “if I were to depict a real five-year-old standing before a man with his fly open, I’m sure the response would be mixed; even if the photograph was staged, some people would be appalled that I could do that to a little girl.”

Using dolls also influences how the work is perceived. “People also associate dolls with play,” Thorneycroft explained, “so part of their brain understands these are make believe, while another part projects and experiences real feelings.” She understands that viewers will be “horrified by the atrocities,” yet the composition of the works is stunningly beautiful.

Thorneycraft wants “people to be seduced by the beauty of either the child in the photograph, or the photograph itself; I want people to feel, if only for a split second, desire, or if not desire, an identification with the perpetrators, who through their desire, inflict harm.”

Although the artist doubts that viewers will admit to such feelings, her goal is to “encourage an understanding of ‘the ease with which one can slide into a measure of complicity.’” By blurring the distinction between the victim and the perpetrator in her newest work, “A People’s History,” Thorneycroft is attempting to show the “amazing/disturbing range of human capability and the darkness that exists within the human psyche” by blurring the world between the victim and the perpetrator.

Eight images from “A People’s History” will be shown at Carleton University Art Gallery from May 10–Aug. 1, 2010 in a show titled “Awkward and Atrocious.” The entire “A People’s History” series will debut at the Art Gallery of Regina and the Art Gallery of Prince Albert next year.