The mind has a difficult time wrapping itself around the notion that one day humankind will be extinct. Armageddon itself is easy to imagine, whether by nuclear fire, worldwide pandemics, zombie hordes, or death from above. The apocalypse, after all, is still a drama that plays out in the theater of man; it’s what happens when the actors have gone home and the theater is empty that is so hard to relate to. It is this empty theater that is the domain of Brooklyn-based artist Lori Nix, who imagines the barren buildings and empty set-pieces of the post-apocalypse in a stunning series of dioramas which have now been collected in her new book, The City.
As a girl growing up in Kansas, Nix found herself surrounded by the destructive force of Mother Nature. "Each season would bring its own little natural disaster," Nix tells Co.Design. "Tornadoes, hail storms, blizzards, drought and the seasonal insect infestation: in May there would be june bugs, July and August would bring grasshoppers, and in the fall there would be wooly worms." Combined with a fondness for the disaster and sci-fi movies of her childhood (Planet of the Apes, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and Airport '75), the idea of the apocalypse made an indelible impression upon her, which influences her art to this day.
The subjects of Nix’s dioramas are the places around us that will still be there after we ourselves have gone away. A dilapidated biology class, chairs askew, with a single plastic skull presiding over an empty room. The isolated biosphere of a greenhouse turned rainforest. A large computer mainframe overrun by red mold that makes everything look like diseased, bleeding flesh. An aquarium that has become a vine-covered lagoon inhabited by fish that broke free from the tank. An empty laundromat, lights flickering, the walls cracked and the ceilings mildewed. Each of these dioramas explores the everyday world but through a glass that views the future darkly.
According to Nix, her dioramas are not modeled after real places, only inspired by them. "I don’t try to replicate a specific space," says Nix. Instead, ideas come to her while reading the newspaper or walking around New York City, or they’re plucked from her memories. "For example, the Laundromat draws on all the dingy spaces where I did my wash in college." There is also a good deal of research involved. "If I want to accentuate a particular aspect in a model, like the big open central space in Library, I research not just libraries, but other public spaces (banks, museums, churches, or hotels) that have that quality."
Once she has decided upon the subject of her diorama, Nix creates rough sketches with her assistant, and sets the color palette. Every diorama needs a scale, and so Nix will figure how big the finished diorama will need to be in relation to a reference object such as a miniature desk or chair. They then create a shopping list of supplies, strip existing props and materials (when possible) from earlier dioramas, and start the laborious process of crafting the finished model out of pink foam, wood, plaster, paint and hot glue.
Completing a diorama requires a grueling amount of labor: "Work harder, not smarter" is a motto of Nix’s workshop (the other is a question innocently asked by the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey: "What are weekends?") Even when a diorama is complete, it only looks finished from a certain angle, a fact that Nix once had to explain to the curator of the Museum of Art and Design in New York. But her dioramas don’t need to be finished at the edges. They only need to be a cohesive world as far as the perspective of her 8x10 camera is concerned. When the diorama has been lit and photographed to Nix’s satisfaction, she strips it bare of anything that can be re-used and throws the rest away.
It seems a shame that Nix’s dioramas molder away in some landfill somewhere, but perhaps it’s appropriate. Like the dioramas themselves, Nix’s work concerns itself with a world that has been thrown away; once cared-for homes and buildings, now ownerless, that exist only to crumble.
The City is available for purchase now from Decode Books.