Dwellings. 1982–83

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Dwellings consists of large, hand-colored photographs of shelters from tribal cultures around the world paired with three-dimensional hand-knitted replicas at the same scale, with added details. Each replica—hung upside down on a peg, collapsed and inverted—abstracts the textural and structural elements of the dwelling from which it is derived.

Dwellings is the first of several projects dealing specifically with ethnographic photography from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I researched and purchased copies of these images from various institutions in the United States and in Europe. What attracted me to them was mainly the fact that I was suspicious of them. I was troubled by their pretense of being objective, scientific, nonideological records when in fact they are deeply invested in two related codes—those of Western science and of photographic representation. Both of these codes present themselves as universal, as conveying uninflected, matter-of-fact truths about the world, but each represents only one way of seeing among many possibilities. All the images I used were produced within Western culture, and they document Western beliefs, morals, and fantasies.

In addition to enlarging the photographs far beyond their original size, I made a pointed intervention in each picture by hand painting only the dwelling. This added color—just as abstracting as the original picture’s reduction of all tones to black and white—reveals the photograph to be not an objective document but an aestheticized icon, far removed from the subject in its original context. By contrast, the replica possesses a tactile physicality, but the extremely incongruous use of knitted yarn makes its presentation of “reality” suspect as well. The misreading of one culture by another is performed within the work as a mistranslation of forms from one medium to another.