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Courtesy of Heather Benning

March 25, 2016

The Rise and Fall of Buildings in The Dollhouse

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There are some pieces that are instantly fun to look at — The Dollhouse by Heather Benning, though only viewed through photographs by us, is one of them. With its whimsical nature of retro and vintage furnishings and solid pastel paint jobs, the larger-than-life exhibition piece is what its name indicates: a dollhouse, though perhaps much bigger than the ones we used to have as children. Built from 2005 to 2007 from a narrowly shaped abandoned building on the plains of Manitoba, Canada, Benning’s house stood starkly alone for six years before being burned down by her. On one side, the building seems entirely normal — old, slightly derelict and covered in dark and worn shingles. But on the other side, a transparent wall replaces the entire side, giving a clean cut view into the home, which was refurnished and renovated with care to resemble a dollhouse.

The charm of the house is in the small details — a rotary dial telephone, a pair of hung-up skates, the lace curtains and a plaid cloth tossed over the corner of an iron-frame bed. It’s lovely — the colors are especially fantastic — but there is also a certain dissonance because it is also inherently unreal, ignoring the fact of the building’s abandoned state and increasing fragility. In general, the piece contains a series of contrasts — the white snow and the dark wood of the house, the dark wood of the house and the pastel interior, the image of the warm home and the cold outside snow brought forth by winter, and then the house as a dollhouse and what remains now in ashes.

In an interview with CBC Manitoba, Benning discusses this contrast as a clash of nostalgia and reality. We can instantly see the nostalgia factor in a dollhouse’s place in childhood, but also in the fact that the exhibition creates a façade of a warm, occupied home, though the home is now long abandoned. People can view this façade, but cannot touch it — the only thing they can touch is the outside of the home, which is slowly unraveling over time. It brings to attention that the abandoned buildings had a past and life, however humble or majestic, beyond their present state of denigrating wood.

I found the burning of the building a bit sad in that sense, a loss of the building and what the house was meant to represent in terms of the building’s life. The interior had been created so quaintly and cheerfully in tone — destroying it all seemed to be a waste. But in every life comes an end — the building had never meant to last, and Benning notes so in her CBC interview, saying that it had always been “[her] intention to destroy The Doll House.” The increasingly shaky structural integrity of the building indicated that it was time to go, and the building was brought to the ground in 2013.

In the larger schema of Benning’s message, the end of The Doll House is necessary. The Dollhouse is a fun piece at a glance, a giant toy lost in a prairie field. But it is also meant to reference the aging and warmth of the abandoned barns and homes we pass by in the countryside. The burning of the house is a necessary part of Benning’s juxtaposition of nostalgia and reality — the house faded a long time ago when it was abandoned, and the exhibition in a way simply prolonged its life, temporarily returning color and furnishings. In the end, however, the “dollhouse” is no longer home to anyone, and the fall of the building is a concrete slap back into that reality.

Catherine Hwang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at shwang@cornellsun.com. 

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