- The Haunted Dollhouses of Diana Thorneycroft
The work of Diana Thorneycroft has been controversial, to say the least. She is probably best known and perhaps most notorious for a 1999 site-specific show in Winnipeg titled Monstrance. Playing with the form of a Catholic reliquary called a monstrance that often holds the bones of various saints, Thorneycroft stitched family-type photos under the belly skin of gutted rabbits that she had purchased at a local fine-food store. Her hope was that the images stitched under the rabbits’ skin would become clearer as the rabbits decayed and that the work as a whole would become a poignant reflection on the relationship between death, the decaying body, memory, and mourning.
Unfortunately for her (or fortunately if you believe the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity), things did not work out that way. On the technical side, the rabbit skins did not decay as quickly as she expected and so the sombre and phantasmic effect that she hoped to produce fell flat. That technical failure would prove to be the least of her worries, however. Almost immediately, the show united three rather surprising bedfellows in their denunciation of it: supporters of the Catholic Church decried her desecration of sacred symbols, animal rights groups accused her of cruelty against animals, and taxpayers associations were furious that the Canada Council was paying for all this. What followed was a wave of sanctimonious editorials, recurrent vandalism of the show, and even death threats against the artist (Werier).
While she is best known by the broader public for Monstrance, Thorneycroft began to establish herself as an important presence in the Canadian art scene in the early 1990s as a feminist art photographer. Her cold but eroticized black and white photographs, now collected on her website <http://dianathorneycroft.com> as The Body, Its Lesson and Camouflage,1 dealt with issues of the body in pain, gendered violence, and gender ambiguity. Typically using her own nude body as a model, Thorneycroft composed a series of what can only be described as neo-Gothic depictions [End Page 99] of contemporary martyrdom that evoke early modern paintings of suffering saints, but she inflects them with a contemporary feminist consciousness (Langford 75–94).
During the course of her exploration with the theme of pain and suffering, Thorneycroft began to supplement the image of her own body with those of children’s dolls. For my money, Untitled (Witness) is perhaps the most unsettling of these hybrid images (see fig. 1). The combination of the grainy image shot on silver nitrate film stock and the retro medical equipment evokes at once documentary photos of late-nineteenth-to mid-twentieth-century medical experiments that are now seen as unethical (even criminal) and pornographic images of contemporary rubber, medical, or prosthetic fetishes. In the photograph, Thorneycroft’s nude body is transformed into an object of both the clinical gaze and the aesthetic gaze, a transformation that provides the image with an unsettling erotic charge: by putting viewers in the subject position of the doctor engaged in criminal and creepy experiments with nude women and girls, the photographs deny viewers the possibility of taking the position of “cultured” and “disinterested” art connoisseurs looking at her nude body. If this were not unsettling enough, there is the enigma of the tubes and the masks: is her vagina breathing life into the dolls, is it a filter, are they feeding from her, or is the direction of transmission the other way?
While dolls were central to her practice as early as 1989, The Doll Mouth Series (2004) was the most obvious result of this experimentation (see fig. 2 and fig. 3). Using colour photography, Thorneycroft produced a set of close-up images of various dolls’ mouths, images that reveal our society’s ambivalent relationship to the sexuality of children. If dolls represent an ideal of childhood innocence, then Thorneycroft’s images reveal those ideals to be latently pornographic, if not pedophiliac. As one’s eye pans along the line of photos of dolls’ mouths, a disconcerting pattern is revealed: almost all of the mouths resemble vaginas, except for those that resemble...