A very controlled chaos

Artist Lori Nix builds disaster – in miniature

May 19, 2011
Control Room, 2010 [Image Credit: Lori Nix]

A tornado has scrambled the contents of a small town square, leaving upturned automobiles, lopsided telephone poles and a confused cow planted smack in the middle of very unfamiliar patch of grass.

Cracked yellow instrument panels, rusty dials and broken gauges are all that remain of a nuclear power plant control room, devoid of human presence in the aftermath of a meltdown.

A glowing orange fire blazes through jagged black trees, rushing in a fury towards a tiny aluminum camper, its inhabitants ignorant of the impending danger.

No, these bizarre scenarios are not plucked from obscure science fiction novels, surrealist dystopias or old folk tales; they are grounded quite solidly in the real world. Except that world is three feet tall. The scenes are doll-housed sized dioramas, meticulously created and photographed by artist Lori Nix. While her work often coincides with current events, like the nuclear accident in Japan or the tornadoes in the southern United States, her fascination with catastrophe, apocalypse, and the entropy of nature is nothing new. Nix has been crafting her own versions of past events and possible futures for thirteen years, often with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

“Even though these scenes aren’t that funny, they’re still kinda funny, in their own way,” Nix says, “because it’s just a little model.”

Nix’s work, which will be exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City in June, draws heavily from her childhood. Born in a small town in “middle of nowhere, Kansas,” Nix grew up crisscrossing her way through the Midwest as her father hopped from job to job in real estate and then selling construction equipment. Every season brought another surprise from Mother Nature – blizzards, tornados, hailstorms, and floods.

“You name it, I’ve experienced it in Kansas,” says Nix. “There’s not much that happens out there except TV and weather.”

Imagining Yesterday

Nix, 42, with short cropped hair and a navy T-shirt, is sitting with one leg propped onto her lap, at ease amidst a clutter of cardboard boxes, plastic jars, rolls of yellow string and sheets of pink foam. Off to one side, a rubber chicken sticks out behind the stack of DVDs she uses for research – a History Channel series called Life After People and the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs. Inspiration also comes from books like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us and disaster flicks from the ’70s (Lori’s favorite genre). She can remember watching Tower of Inferno and Planet of the Apes as a six-year-old, scared to death and loving it.

Our conversation is supervised by a stuffed jackalope fixed to the wall above. “A jack-rabbit married to an antelope,” Nix chuckles when I inquire about it. “It’s a Midwestern thing.”

Rather than returning to Kansas after studying ceramics, photography, and art history at Truman State University in Missouri, Nix decided to bring home right into her studio, first in Ohio and then New York City. The first series she created was called “Accidentally Kansas.” It depicted a number of quirky natural and manmade disasters: a mattress floating past a row of two-story houses half submerged in muddy water, an overturned DuPont tanker oozing an ambiguous red substance into a pond, a lightning bolt striking a hilltop tent revival.

“They’re just clapping and singing up a storm, ‘I saw the light, I saw the light!’” Nix says about the unsuspecting worshippers inside their lightning-stricken tent. “Yeah, they sure saw the light.”

Nix doesn’t consider herself a political artist, but her work is clearly a commentary on current events, said Mitra Abbaspour, associate curator at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

“She is quite invested in making us more keenly aware of the reality in which we live, of our relationship to our environments – urban, suburban, and natural,” says Abbaspour. Nix’s work highlights the ways we are constantly controlling our environment and, at the same time, the limits of that control.

Other Worlds

Nix builds the dioramas with her collaborator Kathleen Gerber in their Brooklyn apartment, a process which can take anywhere from a few months to over a year. After shooting them with a large format film camera, she prints the photographs at a Manhattan photo lab where she works as a technician. She sells final prints in galleries across the country, including Clampart in Chelsea.

Her darkroom day job lets her witness the world through other lenses. Eight years ago she developed images for a client who had photographed the interior of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The whole control room was gutted of electronics and sprayed with something resembling pink Silly String, Nix says. She remembers being amazed by the irony of these places we call “control” rooms, and the memory of those images turned into a piece of her own in 2010.

The control room diorama is one of the few Nix hasn’t recycled yet, as the pressing need for living space, raw materials and a twinge of environmental consciousness compel her to destroy most of her own work. As we make our way down the hallway to see it, a low hanging tree branch grazes the top of my head. “Decoration?” I ask. “Oh, we have those in several scenes,” Nix says with a shrug, “the hardest part is figuring out where to store them.”

The miniature nuclear control room is crammed between a bicycle, boxes of rolled paper and a large green tarp.

“This one is more relevant now than ever, since the disaster at Fukushima,” Nix says, gazing downward. Then in the next breath she explains how all the lenses on the dials are made from those googly eyes you can buy in a craft store.

“This is her way of talking about what’s going on in the world today,” says Joni Sternbach, a New York City photographer who has known Nix for five years, “through these humorous little vignettes.”

Louisa Green, director emeritus of the Columbus Museum of Art, adds that Nix’s approach is defined by what she does not do. She doesn’t preach or moralize, but her wordless scenes allow viewers to construct their own narrative, or take away their own lesson.

“She’s not doom and gloom,” says Green, “she’s looking around and saying hey, these are the things that are happening – are we going to do something about it?”

Nix is currently working on “The City,” a series of post-apocalyptic scenes of decaying cultural institutions: an abandoned library with several birch trees sprouting between dusty bookshelves, a dilapidated shopping mall with shattered ceiling remnants piled around the broken escalators. If Nix could travel anywhere in time, she’d speed 500 years forward to see how humanity has evolved and how the planet has changed. Without that opportunity, she creates these futures from her imagination.

“The past completely informs everything I do,” says Nix, “but it is the future that I’m working on.”


About the Author

Lena Groeger

Lena Groeger studied biology and philosophy at Brown University and is especially interested in the intersection of these two fields. After working as a graphic designer for Brown Health Education, she decided to think outside the poster and explore new means of communication, which led her to SHERP. She’s excited to write about the multidisciplinary questions of science and ethics for the general public. Visit her web site at www.lenagroeger.com.


1 Comment

James Aach says:

The nuclear power plant control room isn’t quite right but it is reasonably close considering the intent of the artist. Especially considering the size …. impressive.

FYI: Regarding making science more understandable to the public:

The novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The author has worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. Readers report the book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person. The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments – there have been a lot, and they’ve been uniformly positive. One of the interesting things about modern nuclear power in the US is that few really understand how it works day to day — including most scientists and journalists who are commenting to the media on the topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.