It was 1959 when Richard Nixon and Nikita Krushchev demonstrated that the kitchen is a place perfectly suited to the discussion of values and ideologies. Some 15 years later, and under the influence of a growing feminist movement, it had come to seem that domestic interiors were expressly designed for artistic discourse. They appear prominently in Martha Rosler’s seminal video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), in some of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” (1977) and in the beautiful series of black-and-white photographs made by Laurie Simmons between 1976 and 1978 and recently shown at Erna Hecey.
In contrast to Rosler and Sherman, who picture themselves inside actual kitchens, Simmons chose to photograph a dollhouse, and does not include herself in the images. But, surprisingly, artificiality is not her dominant theme. By zooming in on the miniature rooms, Simmons not only invites us into familiar dollhouse territory—a pretend home to which we all can relate—but also creates a childlike dynamic that makes the other, real world disappear. The camera focuses so narrowly on the furnishings of this realm, and on the dolls that inhabit it, that the surroundings tend to recede into a dreamlike blur. This strategy of visual immersion allows for the dramatic potency of the details Simmons orchestrates: the menace in the cracked wall of a house that at first seems sturdy; the foreboding created by dolls that are turned upside down; the even more frightening silence that seems to prevail throughout. The implication of a disaster waiting to happen recalls Chantal Akerman’s famous film Jeanne Dielman (1975), in which the title character’s ordinary-housewife routines lead to a gigantic gas explosion in the kitchen.
In Simmons’s toy world we immediately comprehend how stifling such real-world environments are, and how limiting is the petty-bourgeois esthetic they reflect. By focusing so tightly on these scenes, Simmons fulfilled what Walter Benjamin had asked of the film camera: that it zoom in on the spaces of everyday experience and, by doing so, cause them, as in Akerman’s film, to explode.