We’ll start with the flies. In 1927, as the only female designer on Ernst May’s team for the Neue Frankfurt housing developments, Grete Schutte-Lihotzky created what came to be known as the Frankfurt Kitchen. A tightly framed workroom, it was a place of optimal efficiency and order. Nary was there a chance for a hair out of place or any flies in the soup. In her article, A Revolution in the Woman’s Sphere: Grete Lihotzky and the Frankfurt Kitchen, Susan R. Henderson describes the kitchen finish materials. She wrote, "The Linoleum work surfaces, the stove top and tile floor were black, and the enameled cabinet fronts were a deep blue, a color that Lihotzky understood repelled flies."
Whether or not the colored surface actually repelled flies is debatable. However, the intent, the act and the desire to sanitize and restrain all extraneous activity from taking place is clear. This kitchen, at the forefront of the modernist-minimalist frontier strove with a singular purpose to domesticate Taylorism, right down to the elimination of dipterous insects. (It should be noted that dipterous insects, of which the common house fly is one, are in part defined by their larvae which feed on decaying matter such as flesh and rotting food.)
When the artist Candy Jernigan opened her Cape Breton, Nova Scotia summer cottage one year, she found it overrun with bug carcasses. Rather than purge them in a fit of hygienic hysteria, she gathered them up and set out to draw their tiny corpses. One by one these anonymous death portraits are replete with the attentive detail of amateur natural history studies or carefully pressed flowers. Originally published in The Dead Bug Book, the images are now arranged in a deck: dead bugs grace the surfaces of clean little white cards packaged in a tight wood box.
Domestic obsessions in the form of modernist organizational systems or Victorian classification carryovers provide equally fertile and surprisingly related grounds for investigating our relationships to life, death and dwelling. Fin-de-siecle mannerists of all sorts continue in the spirit of these traditions and rise to the occasion with projects that range wide in scope and ambition. Both Joel Sanders’ "Five Minute Bathroom," entitled "Ablution Control," in Wallpaper October 1999 and any undertaking in Martha Stewart’s Living, inhabit similarly extreme edges of domesticity. These projects refine, define and potentially confine sensory experience to and by task. They relish the long-standing seduction of containment, classification and cleanliness of modern man’s seemingly eternal search for control and efficiency on the home front.
While architects imagine lives in surfaces and space, criminal medical examiners reconstruct lives from the final chalk trace of existence. Design for living and documenting the dead make coincident bedfellows because both share a fervor for gathering, noting, photographing and cataloging bits of human activity. In Baltimore there is not only the coming and going of bodies from street to morgue at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, but there is also a fixed collection of mixed-media miniature dioramas depicting nineteen scenes of unexplained death.
Meant as study models, these dollhouses articulate the particulars of individual death scenes in order to provide training in typological case interpretations for investigators. As such, the scenes both refute and reinforce the power of domestic order. Mayhem found in the tableau reveals the banal vulnerability of supposedly secured worlds while their fine detail sparks our faith in forensic truth.
Known as the "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," the dollhouses were built by Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee in the 1940’s. They were a critical part of her crusade to establish sound criminal investigation skills for police officers and medical examiners. A woman with more than the proverbial "room of her own," she endowed Harvard University with $500,000 to found the nation’s first Department of Legal Medicine and actively participated in the Harvard Association of Police Science. Her wealth, position and keen criminal mind fueled her determination and interest; at the same time her unusual talent for model building guided the execution of these havoc ridden sites.
Mrs. Lee’s vignettes are derived from a range of actual case histories. Murder, accident or suicide scenes are palpably identifiable. They are detail laden and atmospherically intact realities of particular characters and situations. Disguised just enough to be untraceable to specific crimes in their own time, they eerily replicate any number of exposés in today’s daily news media and docudramas. As such, the houses sit squarely in line with the history of investigation and the darker side of urban observation and speculation. The existence of the flâneur/voyeur/connoisseur is threaded in and out of each marvelously fetishistic scene via the stories they evoke, the participation they solicit and the materiality they harbor.
While the real-life stories of the dollhouses link them to Edgar Allen Poe’s precursor to the modern detective novel, The Murder of Marie Roget (inspired by the murder of Mary Rogers), the detail of each scene links them to the atmospheric poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The models are custom made for comparison with Bataille’s essay "X Marks the Spot" in Documents 2, Number 7, a discussion of forensic photographs of Chicago’s gangland murder victims. Lastly, their uncanny, callous criminality touch on themes similar to Benjamin’s essays on photography, the city and the ever-present potential for crime.
But perhaps they are closer to the hermetically-sealed paranoia of the female agoraphobic rather than the misogynist flâneur. While the domestic setting bared public though criminality might list these houses as among an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare - however warped the logic may be - their complete self-containment registers them as secure worlds. Thus, outside is bad and inside is good. Whether the murderer is friend or foe, stranger or lover, the structure of the carefully placed, physical interior relationships built into the dollhouses promises vindication if not salvation through identification.
Like any popular mystery novel, the premise of these studies is that the clues can be traced, the crime can be found out, made safe, contained. As it happens, Mrs. Lee was home schooled and denied a college education by virtue of her family’s attitudes toward women in society. With something as seemingly innocuous and traditionally feminine as dollhouses she advanced in a male-dominated field.
In case #13 from the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, criminal investigators attending training seminars in Baltimore are presented with the following scenario for the Parsonage Parlor.
Reported to Nutshell Laboratories, Friday August 23, 1946:
Dorothy Dennison, High School student dead . Mrs. James Dennison, mother questioned Police Lieutenant Robert Peale reporting.
Mrs. Dennison’s statement:
On Monday morning, August 19, 1946, about eleven o’clock, Dorothy had walked down town to buy some hamburger steak for dinner. She didn’t have much money in her purse. When she failed to return in time for dinner, her mother telephoned a neighbor who stated that she had seen the girl walking toward the market but had not seen her since. Mrs. Dennison also telephoned the market and the proprietor said he had sold Dorothy a pound of hamburger some time before noon but didn’t notice which way she turned upon leaving his shop. By late afternoon, Mrs. Dennison, thoroughly alarmed, notified the police.
Lieutenant Peale’s statement:
On Monday afternoon, August 19, 1946, at 5:25 pm, he received the telephone call from Mrs. Dennison at Police Headquarters, and at once took charge of the matter personally. The customary inquiries were set afoot without results and by Wednesday, August 21, a systematic search of all closed or unoccupied buildings in the vicinity was undertaken. It was not until Friday, August 23 at 4:15 PM, that he and Officer Patrick Sullivan entered the Parsonage and found the premises as represented by the model.
Temperatures during that week had ranged between 86 and 92 degrees with high humidity.
Each study is accompanied by a scenario sheet, similar to the one above, which has more or less information depending on the case. Investigators are given a time frame in which to study the houses and learn from the clues as much as much from what is given as what is missing. Although I am no Nancy Drew, I managed to notice something key in the Dorothy Dennison scenario: the contrast of the plump pinky freshness of the dead girl’s skin and the browny-black pockness of the maggoty hamburger meat. This visceral bit of epidermal observation just happens to be key in establishing time of death. As neatly as a stopped watch, the existence of maggots in the hamburger but not on the girl suggests there is a difference in the time of death between the meat and the body. We know when the hamburger was ground and we know when the girl was found. She is considerably less dead than the hamburger. Searching the scene and the body for more clues one can begin to speculate on what happened between Monday and Friday. In this case maggots are good; they are pointers if not full-fledged informants.
Each scene is as much as much about the living as the dead; they are detailed down to piles of micro cigarette butts, end-burned to invoke an inhabitants’ sleepless night or replications of tiny splattered blood patterns to match gun-shot wound results from a particular weapon at a certain distance. While the houses pretend to serve only as simple problem solving tools their elasticity of form and content beg a wider reading. However noble, practical and educational the cause of their creation there is something profoundly engaging and delightfully disturbing about the ordered mania of dollhouses run seriously amok. Visions as far flung as Hunca-Munca running rampant in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Two Bad Mice, to Hans Bellmer’s surrealist poupees, Cornell’s boxes and David Levinthal’s toy soldier cult classic Hitler Moves East all easily begin to occupy the same territory.
Thus, if their overall visual tenacity ties the houses to real-life crimes and investigators then it is the uncanny mis-en-scene of the 1"=1’-0" scale models represented in carefully constructed photographs by Corinne Botz link them to high art.
Akin to the Cindy Sherman’s film stills, the dollhouse collection and images is as precisely and self-consciously staged as her Old Master series. In both, the reproductions are made from the omniscient artist as detective point of view. These representations are tweaked to provoke the viewer’s complicity in unraveling the scene. Similarly, Sherman’s untitled series from 1986, which, like the Nutshell dollhouses, fetishizes scattered bits and pieces of debris: valuables, waste, evidence. These still lifes challenge the voyeur to conduct a point to point analysis of the events in play.
Still lifes have always held that peculiar air capable of both life and death in one breath: violence and calm, fresh and rotting produce, live bugs and dead meat, mixed season cut flowers, flayed bulls and even a Goya Plucked Turkey. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers, among others, effectively highlight the power of this imagery. Tightly framed scenes of suburbia gone awry in the former and everything from flies on fruit in a murdered husband’s potting shed to the carefully accumulated daily count of roadkill by a coroner’s son are poignant illustrations.
Still life sequences in art and life demand pause. With piercing intensity and disjunctive scale, they are out of sync with their surroundings. Like turquoise blue kitchen cabinets in a modernist housing development, a sudden zoom draws us into the temporal power of the piece and inherently limits our focus. Yet, as The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists notes "objects portrayed [in still life] have a significance beyond their individual appearance and are heightened by their associations." Similarly as quoted by Ralph Rugoff in Scene of the Crime, Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation states that "For the detective, nothing is ever truly itself and nothing more." The Frankfurt Kitchen is not just about which bin holds grain the best, just as the Parsonage Parlor is not just about a dead body. Details of the dollhouses are not mere objects but are avatars. They seem capable of articulating paths, both taken and forgone. In the end, what the minutia reveals is as frightening as what it hides and what is interpreted is as compelling as what is intended.