ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Miniatures are typically all about control. Life at scale is messy, unpredictable, and often overwhelming. Things never stay where you put them. The creation of miniature dioramas offers both maker and viewer a sense of stronger footing in the present — we can tower over these scenes, peer into them, arrange them to our liking, and glue them in place, if we so choose. As a result, miniature worlds tend to be idealized places, lacking the details that make up our quotidian existence, like toilet paper rolls, dirty clothing, noise, and chaos.
But the miniature worlds of interdisciplinary artist Tracey Snelling lean into the disorder of life, creating scenes with odd proportions, glimpses into an imagined reality, and ultimately offer a compelling argument that the way we inhabit space is subjective. Here and There, an installation at University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery, is mostly dominated by Snelling’s massive mixed-media sculpture, “One Thousand Shacks.” It is, oxymoronically, a giant miniature, a three-dimensional patchwork shantytown that towers floor-to-ceiling before the viewer, affording peeks into thousands of miniature lives in progress.
On the surface, “One Thousand Shacks” subverts the natural tendency of miniatures to give one a sense of control; Snelling recreates the churning chaos of life by deftly incorporating kinetic electricity and sound effects in her dioramas. A peek behind the public-facing side of the piece reveals an inner network bristling with multichannel video and audio — the secret life of this diorama is nearly as busy and overwhelming as the 1.5 lives lived in poverty around the world that it means to spotlight.