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Karine Giboulo: Small Images, Big Impacts

Angell Gallery, Toronto November 15 to December 20, 2014

Karine Giboulo uses the contained, miniature format of the diorama to illuminate big topics. In her past work, the Montreal-based artist has created microcosmic views of Chinese factories, Haitian slums, and the life cycle of electronic products. In keeping with past themes, her current solo exhibition at Toronto’s Angell Gallery, titled “HYPERland,” tackles the excesses of consumerist and capitalist society, as well as the collateral damage borne by the global underclass.

The exhibition features nine dioramas and sculptures produced mostly in the past year, as well as several photographic prints that provide close-ups of select dioramas. The miniature three-dimensional scenes are remarkably detailed, with an overflow of colours, patterns and textures that magnetize the viewer’s gaze. All of the hundreds of polymer clay components in these works were produced by Giboulo herself, making the intricacy of her dioramas even more astounding.

The eponymous HYPERland (2014) is the most elaborate diorama in the exhibition, tying together many of the main ideas in the show. It consists of multiple vitrines stacked in a Lego-like fashion, each containing a discrete scene. Upon a closer look, the structure appears to be one big multi-functional building—a kind of capitalist global village.

On the lower levels of HYPERland, Asian women toil away at a garment factory, while industrial-farm pigs branded with the Nestlé logo recline in tidy rows, just like the neatly shelved merchandise in an adjacent supermarket. The levels above contain scenes illustrating motifs from middle- and upper-class life: high-tech work, leisure, luxury items, and the nuclear family. At the apex of the structure is a sprawling, idealized nature scene, an artificial construction that contains snow, water, green grass, a rainbow and animals from disparate regions of the world apparently living in harmony.

Often in art, images of sweatshops and depictions of mindless consumption fall flat; they feel overdetermined, reading as obvious signifiers for how bad capitalism is, and not telling viewers anything they don’t already know or agree with. The components of HYPERland, however, together add up to something more sophisticated than a broad-brush condemnation of our cultural malaise.

In a text on the gallery’s website, Marjolaine Arpin describes Giboulo’s approach to this multi-part work as a “zoom-out”: she takes a step back when considering specific issues in order to offer a broader, “meta point of view.” Here, zooming out helps to highlight the interconnections between particular ills. The microcosm of HYPERland brings into focus the way even the most mundane aspects of life are inextricably enmeshed in the global systems of production.

Giboulo’s commentary on globalization in HYPERland is given an added ironic twist by evocative use of the diorama format; with each scene isolated in its vitrine, the imaginary structure is eerily evocative of the global division of labour and the attendant disconnect between those who produce and those who consume.

The other dioramas in the show are less complex, each consisting of a single scene. Some of them veer toward the documentary, drawing from encounters during Giboulo’s own travels. A trip to Kenya inspired Savage Beauty (self-portrait) (2009–2014), which portrays Giboulo pointing her camera at a zebra, while local inhabitants gather nearby, one of them aiming a cameraphone at the artist as if she herself were an exotic species. Other works tend toward the didactic, aiming at a more concise message. Pain Killer (2014), for example, presents a sleeping figure curled up inside a bottle on a bed of pills. The imagery offers a critique of overmedication and emotional numbing within our so-called prescription culture, but the critique here is too vague to be memorable.

The strength of Giboulo’s work, rather, lies in figuration and storytelling. The human figures of her dioramas are reminiscent of endearing Claymation cartoon characters—not so lifelike, but very much full of life with their idiosyncratic physiognomies and expressions. Her clay people channel the power of figuration to engage the emotions and animate the human aspects of looming social problems, offering audiences a different way of relating to these issues than the usual detached disapproval.

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