Mirroring Evil: A Q&A With Artist Diana Thorneycroft

Posted by: on Feb 22, 2012 | No Comments

In her latest series, A People’s History, Canadian artist Diana Thorneycroft constructs detailed scenes of historical Canadian events using dolls, miniature props, and posters of well-known Canadian landscapes, and then photographs them using an unconventional lighting technique: well-timed flashlights. The result is a series of photographs that mix history and allegory to create a startling experience of the often forgotten atrocities of Canada’s past.

A People's History, Quintland, digital photograph, 2010, by Canadian Artis Diana ThorneycroftA People’s History (Quintland), digital photograph, 2010

On Thursday night, Thorneycroft gave an artist talk about her work processes and the inspirations behind her latest work at the Art Gallery of Calgary, where A People’s History will be shown to the public from February 10 to April 7.

After her talk, she sat down to discuss activism in art, placing herself in the perspective of a perpetrator, and of course, dolls.

A People's History, Burning Braids, 2008 by Conceptual Candian artist Diana ThorneycroftA People’s History (Burning Braids), digital photograph, 2008

Q: How closely did you associate with the victims in your work? Was it hard to take the perpetrator’s point of view?

A: Like I said in my talk, I don’t think I was that successful. I tend to side with the victims, and I tried to put myself in the mindset but it was really hard. Take [the photograph] “Coach”. For me the thickness of his hand, towards the boy, reaching out, I could understand the gentleness of that gesture. And the beauty of the boy, I tried to show that he was really exquisite, and that a man might want to touch a beautiful boy, but thinking about him raping the boy, I just couldn’t.
The example I gave [at the talk] about the little girl doll, that was and still is the ickiest experience.

A People's History, Coach, 2010 by Diana Thorneycroft a Conceptual Artist A People’s History (Coach), digital photograph, 2010

Q: When you were telling the story about undressing her, the room got very quiet.

A: It did. And after undressing her, I had to paint her underwear whiter; it was sort of a cream colour, and she wasn’t quite perfect. I had to make her perfect, and then decide, do I have her breasts facing us or do I just have her bum? I felt icky. But it was an important feeling. None of the others have come close to that.

Q: Using dolls, how much do you feel that hinders or helps your work?

A: I think it helps. I couldn’t do it with humans. I wouldn’t be interested in doing it with humans. It does mediate the experience because we do look at it and think they’re just dolls, dolls don’t bleed. There’s an element of safety involved, so I think people are seduced into looking at the work. And they’re colourful, they’re beautifully lit, there’s a sense of lushness; then when they understand what they’re looking it, that’s when the horror sets in. I think the reading is a bit more complex. If I used real people, I think it would be a completely different audience and a completely different response. And in a lot of ways, I think there would be an element of pornography, whereas I don’t think these are pornographic.

A: Do you feel like your work is more akin to historical art? Do you feel like you are using history as a form of art?

Q: I do see myself as more of an activist and an educator. The Air India incident, for so many Canadians it has been wiped from our memory, so for me [it was important] to wake up and encourage conversation and discussion and the acknowledgement that we are capable of doing these things just like how Americans have bombed various countries. We’re just as capable. We may not have the military power but we certainly have the psychological ability to harm our fellow citizens. In some ways, I guess it is historical. They are based on truths.

Q: Right. You have elements that are so historically accurate, but some of the details are also added in, almost like symbols. You use animal motifs — snakes, wolves — that wouldn’t have been there during the actual event. So how much do you think you are blurring that line between history and art?

A: Being historically accurate is not really important to me. For the work to be visually beautiful, compositionally successful, that’s more important. So that’s when I give myself permission to put in the snake, to balance the idea of a snake symbolizing evil.  The presence of animals in some of the pieces means they become witnesses to the crimes and they cannot assist the child who’s being harmed, for example. With [the series] The Group of Seven Awkward Moments, I usually used animals as witnesses to the stupidity of Canadians.  So there is some carry-over.

Also, because these are toy animals, it just adds another level to the work.  This one [motions to View of Mount Cashel, St. John’s Harbour], it was because it’s a German shepherd; they have been used by the military, but they are also used to protect. It adds another level of ambiguity.

A People's History, View from Mount Cashel, St. John's Harbour, by Artist Diana ThorneycroftA People’s History (View from Mount Cashel, St. John’s Harbour),
digital photograph, 2008

Q: Touching on the Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art exhibit shown in New York that you highlighted as an inspiration for your work, I read one review that criticized the Mirroring Evil exhibit for being condescending towards the historical events of the Holocaust. They felt that the artists were making the Holocaust and Nazi imagery more artistic than it needed to be, because historically, the events speak for themselves. Do you feel like this could also be a possible criticism of your work?

A: I am a little concerned about that. Because if you think about the hugeness of the pain of the women Russell Williams murdered and what their families have gone through, they could find this difficult, and I would accept their opinion of that.  I still wouldn’t change it because what he did, and the fact that he was part of the Canadian military, he has to be included in this series. It’s really important to me that he is a part of this. But I would always listen to the families of the victims and their opinions because these are make- believe, and what happened to those families are real.

Q: Some of the events in Canadian history that you document have happened relatively recently (“Pig Farm”, “Coach”) and several others take the viewer further back into Canadian history (“Louis Riel”, “Burning Braids”, “Quintland”).  Is there a reason why you choose such a mix of time periods? Did some events call out to you more than others?

A: The title of the series, A People’s History, comes from the CBC series, A People’s History. That series takes place over roughly two hundred years but I wanted this series to have depth. We haven’t just been harmful of each other recently; it’s been going on for a long time. Once again, it comes back to being an activist and an educator. Like the KKK in Canada. Who knew? I didn’t know. There are skinheads in Canada. The cross-burnings happened in 1921, but it could happen tomorrow. And it might. I wanted to show the culpability of Canadians and of our ability to harm each other.

Q: How did you know when the series was finished?

A: I thought it was finished and then my husband showed me the photograph [of the KKK in Canada]. But it’s really hard to do this work. It’s hard to talk about this work. It’s easier to talk about the laughter, like in The Group of Seven Awkward Moments. But this series is heavy, and there’s not as much play. There’s not much black humour in this and I love black humour. So I just feel it’s done; unless there is an event that comes forward that I have to add, for now, I’m ready to move on.

Q: Your next series, which you are in the process of creating, is focused on America. Are you planning to use dolls for that series, as well?

A: Definitely. I already have a nude Mrs. Santa doll…I commissioned a friend to make me a Liberace doll…a Ronald Reagan doll, a George Bush doll, an Uncle Sam doll. I have Archie, Jughead, and Reggie. So I’ve already started collecting them. I’m trying to find a Marilyn Monroe doll. I have to do something with the Kennedy’s.

I’m a little nervous, but I have a show for the work already in a gallery in LA. He’s been trying to sell my Canadian stuff to Americans and of course, it’s a hard sell. But I think he’ll be able to sell my American work in America.

Q: Last question. Do you have a favourite doll?

A: No. But I do have a doll story. When we were younger, my dad was in the military and we lived in Germany. My dad would go to Italy and bring back Italian dolls for my sister, Sandy, and me.  He would also go to France and Spain, so we had quite a nice doll collection. We also had a cleaning lady. My mother used to say to my sister and me, “If you don’t clean your room, I’m going to throw your dolls out.”

One day, my sister and I came home to find our dolls were gone, and the story that came out was that our younger brother, Rob, had shown the cleaning lady that our room was messy, and told the cleaning lady, this is what Mom said she was going to do if we didn’t clean up our room. So the cleaning lady put the dolls into a sack and threw them away.
Years later, I was telling my mother this story, and my mother said, “That is the most ridiculous story I have ever heard. You phone your sister and ask her what really happened.

I phoned Sandy, and Sandy said, “Di, why do you think I buy my daughter so many dolls? That’s exactly what happened.”

So, since that moment in our childhood, my sister and I were both compelled to buy dolls.  The reality of this little cleaning lady, putting a sack of dolls over her shoulder, didn’t make sense. But that’s the Thorneycroft mythology, always tied to dolls.

Steph Wong Ken is a writer and editor based in Calgary, AB. She has published poetry, fiction, and non fiction in several Canadian publications. Other posts by Steph Wong Ken on Luxe Lust
You can also find Steph on Twitter, Linkedin, and her blog.

Steph Wong Ken is a writer and editor based in Calgary