Ruth Claxton’s large-scale installation Synthetic Worlds (2011) at SITE Santa Fe featured an interconnected series of mirrored platforms, on which modified porcelain figurines were placed. The spatial arrangement of the metal circles and mirrors created a series of discreet, isolated stages, a model for a Utopian city populated by alien figures. Synthetic Worlds set up a clear clash of aesthetics: high and low, science fiction and the pastoral, all rendered in art-historical terms. The minimal arrangement of steel circles and mirror discs, and the punctuation of primary colours recall a Joan Miró mobile. But that minimal landscape is inhabited and punctuated by kitsch figurines of women, children and animals.
These figurines, purchased second-hand, were machine-produced versions of Meissen porcelain: luxury objects made readily available to the masses. Claxton graphically modified them, so that lopsided glass bubbles and hoods extended upwards and out of the heads; elsewhere streams of clay ran from the eyes or extended over the face and torso. These altered states gave the figurines an air of mystery, the aberration of an organic form countering the perfect geometries elsewhere at work in the installation.
These figures were blinded, their vision uniformly obscured and their identity concealed. But the installation’s use of mirrors emphasized the way in which Synthetic Worlds was about perception and the act of looking – about locating reflections, gazing at the object indirectly as well as directly. The installation was ‘activated’ by this gaze, which unlocked halls of mirrors, reflections and deflections, a complex interplay between the human and porcelain figures.
But at the heart of all this looking were Claxton’s blind figurines – objects that are seen, rather than seeing. The figurines were largely female, and in the rare cases when they were paired with men, they were shown in conventional poses of romantic courtship. The modified figurines portrayed the restrictions of a familiar stereotype – women as domestic subjects and objects, blinded by romantic narrative, frozen and passive.
Claxton’s glass modifications converted the pastoral atmosphere of the figurines into one of creeping menace. A figurine of a man and woman sitting on a garden bench was covered in wreaths of creeping growth, an image out of a Hollywood horror movie. That these images of paralysis and entrapment were modifications of essentially nostalgic, domestic objects further emphasized how deep these gendered narratives run.
Even in their altered state, these women, variously hooded, blinded or overcome by their hair, recollected other childhood narratives ranging from Red Riding Hood to Rapunzel. But at the same time, they made reference to a more emboldened narrative of femininity. The blown glass forms looked like ectoplasm, or other emanations, recollecting the history of spiritualism, and its role in the American suffragist movement, as detailed in novels such as Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886), or in the figure of Victoria Woodhull. From this perspective, the modifications were a manifestation of a psychological state, an externalization of the inner life of women that has been, historically, kept out of view. The vertiginous corridor of reflections created by the installation also felt like a representation of an inner state, psychologically endowing what might have otherwise felt like a purely formal aspect of the work.
Here, the stage-like nature of the mirrored platforms seemed important, as did the large scale of Claxton’s installation. If it appeared almost like a mini-city of sorts, then the presence of these figures, in pseudo ‘public spaces’, was like a Utopia of full emotional disclosure, in which internal disfigurations were laid bare, and finally witnessed.