Prof. Motomichi Nakamura
Core Seminar 4D
January 31, 2018
Thaumatrope Art Piece Analysis
Bari Ziperstein, a Los Angeles based artist, photographer, and sculptor with an MFA from Cal Arts, as well as the founder of her houseware design line BZippy and Company, created in 2010 a piece simply titled Thaumatrope for LACMA— the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Ziperstein’s digital thaumatrope (as opposed to a physical one) was heavily inspired by, and served as a response to, a previous LACMA exhibit titled Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700–1915, which featured men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing from the 18th to 20th centuries in Europe on display for all to see. Ziperstein herself has remarked that her thaumatrope was inspired by: “collage aesthetics and the lens of feminist domesticity, as well as America’s love of excess and desire to collect”.
Ziperstein’s thaumatrope, conceptually, almost satirizes and builds upon the utility and visual aspects of the traditional Victorian thaumatrope, which often portrayed a bird on one side, and a cage on the other— each side containing a small bit of text that usually formed a riddle sentence when the optical toy was rotated. In an interview conducted by LACMA about her art piece, Ziperstein states that her Thaumatrope replaces the bird and the cage motif with a woman trapped by her gender roles, her domestic life, and the Victorian society of her day. The piece draws upon the history of women’s rights, women’s liberation, as well as feminism in respect to the metaphorical connection between a bird trapped in a cage, and a woman (who in the past was often compared to a bird) trapped in a cage of gender-based social stigmas. Thaumatrope was created specifically with today’s digital age in mind, and embodies a major upgrade from the low-fi Victorian thaumatropes of the past, while still managing to communicate an important message about the times we live in.
On one side of the thaumatrope is a photograph from a scaffolding from an art piece in the shape of a woman still under construction from the Sagrada Familia Catholic Church in Barcelona. Ziperstein says that this adds another layer of metaphor to her piece, in that it evokes the idea that women, now and in the past, were not merely trapped by social norms, but also seen by themselves and others as “works in progress”, as almost architectural, decorative objects admired for their physical appearance, and, usually, nothing more. She makes the connection between the way women’s clothing in the Victorian era was constructed, and the gender roles of women in that era, arriving at the almost implicit conclusion that the fashion across the Victorian era often reflected the confinement women had in regards to their domestic life. On the back side of the thaumatrope is an image of a door used in the 1980s to advertise how one can protect their home which Ziperstein got from traveling abroad, adding another layer of metaphor evocating the idea of a woman’s body as her home and her property, protected by the iron doors in front of her, but also contained and confined by them.
Justin Lebanowski, a friend of Ziperstein’s worked on the text on either side of Thaumatrope, which reads: “WHEN THE WELL DEFINED WOMAN CAME OF AGE, SHE HAD HER CHOICE OF DECORATIVE CAGE”, reiterating to the viewer the seeming illusion of freedom possessed by women in the Victorian era (and by extent now), who were confined by their gender roles, and given the “choice” to decide merely how exactly they could be imprisoned by those very roles and stigmas.
In my opinion, Thaumatrope as a piece in the LACMA was extremely well thought out and executed excellently in terms of conceptual basis and its digital, almost animated techniques, which blurred the line between a woman in construction and a woman imprisoned by a stuffy Victorian dress and an iron door of societal norms and stigmas. The poetic text around the art piece reinforces my viewpoint of its artistic merit. Though Ziperstein is an artist who primarily works in sculpting, photography, homeware design, all with a background in fashion and feminist ideas, I did not see her piece as a fashion statement as much as I saw it as a satirical, societal, and feminist statement overall.
When looking for a thaumatrope piece, it was difficult for me to find something that I was interested in. When I discovered Ziperstein’s piece, I decided to do a bit more research on it since I couldn’t really find anything else that caught my attention. Despite my lack of interest in studying fashion, fashion design, and clothing design, I still found myself surprised by the sophistication of such a simple art piece and the message it carried forward through the very way a thaumatrope works (in creating an illusion), and can appreciate the constantly shifting landscape of fashion design as a whole in relation to past social, cultural, and gender-based “norms”, now being deconstructed and scrutinized by the feminist movements happening currently. I can’t find anything to really criticize about this art piece, although I would like to see a physical version of this thaumatrope made so it better serves its purpose in satirizing the old Victorian thaumatropes, which were also physical in nature— not digital.
Link to LACMA interview:
Link to Thaumatrope in motion (scroll to the very bottom of the page):
Image (click on it to access the animation GIF):