by Amy Elkins
While I was recently perusing the Bard Graduate Center Facebook page, I discovered the work of Swedish artist Berith Bergström (1896-1979). The author of the post commented,
Berith Bergström formed her company, Nolbyn Värmländskt hantverk, in the 1930s. Her interest in dollhouses derived from a project she had begun with her nieces and nephews to produce a miniature village resembling the one she knew from childhood. The name “Nolbyn” translates as “northern village” in the Värmländ dialect. Bergström trained in handicrafts and folk arts in Stockholm and later studied at the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, where she specialized in fabric prints.
I find myself returning to the image of the cupboard dollhouse, connecting Bergström’s miniature village to a linked set of questions about ties between the making of city spaces and artistic representations of those spaces. It seems to me that the two can’t be separated. In Minneapolis, an Intermedia Arts initiative has begun a program called Creative CityMaking. CityMaking brings together a group of visiting artists to think through how the arts might facilitate greater equity in Minneapolis. The term “CityMaking” is suggestive for me and for the sorts of questions I’m after. What happens when cities are replicated, often in miniature, as a mode of preservation? What is the role of memory in visual narratives of place? Where does the city end and its representational models begin? CityMaking is a useful term here because it puts narrative and visual craft in conversation with community and activism—a rich collision of the visual/verbal and social that resonates far beyond the Twin Cities.
In Anthony Doeer’s recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, Marie-Laure LeBlanc’s widowed father makes a scale model of their town out of wood. Since Marie-Laure is blind, she relies on the model city to learn her way around, but her father, a locksmith who works at a museum, also uses the model as a kind of puzzle treasure chest. Marie-Laure’s miniature town and her father’s work form the core tropes—the archives, collections, and puzzles—that become central to the novel. The miniature city introduces immediacy and intimacy to the book’s larger setting, which covers the massive scope of world war and difficult representations of traumatic, embodied experience.
Another novel I’ve been crazy about is Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, a story also entrenched in vexed spaces of trauma, and a book that shows an archive even more embodied than All the Light.
The moment that interests me most is the book’s final installation (the protagonist is an artist who has been overlooked by New York’s sexist art scene) of a large body filled with miniature scenes. The novel progressively develops the idea of the body as a repository for memory—a theme that resonates in fascinating ways with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project:
Everything remembered, everything thought, all awareness becomes base, frame, pedestal, lock and key of his ownership. Period, region, craft, previous owners – all, for the true collector, merge in each one of his possessions into a magical encyclopaedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.
Benjamin’s ruminations on collecting are about as well-known as his fascination with the Parisian arcades—a combination that engenders a certain wonder in objects and how we, like our belongings, inhabit space. In our current moment, I’m particularly interested in how the city, especially small enclaves of it, becomes a repository for grief, the grieving, and the objects that give those affects and subjectivities material form.