Of Mice and Dread

Ingvild Eiring makes her living as a costume designer and stylist in the Norwegian film industry. In her spare time she creates dioramas where mice face their nightmares.

“A few years ago I visited the curiosity shop Loved to Death in San Francisco,” Ingvild says, describing the genesis of her creations. “The shop had an exhibition of dioramas made with taxidermied animals. I’ve always been fond of this style of diorama from the Victorian era, but seeing these done in the present made a huge impression on me, and made me want to try my hand at it too”.

What was originally intended to be a single diorama has since grown into ten carefully crafted scenes, each drawing on various aspects of Ingvild’s interests.

“My main influences are the Beatrix Potter books I’ve loved since childhood, and the horror films I came to love as an adult. The diorama work is also an outlet for my long-time interest in Victorian aesthetics,” Ingvild explains, sitting in front of shelves crammed full of horror books, comics and films.

The choice to populate her “Penny Dreadful”-inspired world with mice was a logical one for Ingvild, who has had a dozen rats as pets through the years and is intimately familiar with rodents.

“The ideas come from all directions. The kitchen scene is inspired by my great grandmother’s pantry. The ghost in the cupboard and demon in the cellar are characters that came from just playing with clay. Other times I see a scene in a film or series, and get a flash of what it would look like with mice instead of men. For example, a scene in “The Knick” became the diorama where a mouse is hauled away in a straightjacket”.

Ingvild’s process is meticulous. Each room takes between two and four months to complete, depending on how elaborate it is and the amount of free time her film industry workload allows her. During times when there’s little film work, she devotes up to 12 hours a day to her rodent nightmares.

Her process is as much a labor of love as it is of painstaking attention to detail, ever-evolving as she develops new ways to expand her scenes and the world they take place in.

“The first two rooms I created do use some commercially made elements, such as furniture. I doubted whether I would be able to make a miniature fireplace or chest of drawers on my own. But gradually I learned what I was able to do, and today pretty much everything is handmade”.

The rooms provide the foundation – the atmosphere – for each scene, calling the viewer to explore every meticulous detail.

“The room always comes first. It all starts with seeking out the right wooden box for the room. I make a sketch where I try to figure out where to place windows, furniture and so on. This can be quite a puzzle sometimes. Then I start work on the ceiling, wallpaper and flooring. These are made from lollipop sticks, cardboard, old cigar cases and swizzle sticks I (ahem) source from my local coffee shop. I paint, print, polish and upholster. And while it is a lot of work, I also find it relaxing to work with my hands”.

The effect is one of organic presence: nothing seems artificial about them, despite the fact that they are clearly created. Part of that comes from the compelling figures of the costumed mice. She describes the process of bringing them into being.

“The next step is making the mouse heads. I listen to music I think is right for the personality I want to portray, and sometimes when the pinhead eyes go in I think ‘ah, there you are!’ As for the bodies, I first make them out of steel wire so I can work out how to place them in the room. But the finished mice are made from oven-baked polymer clay”.

“Most time-consuming of all is the tailoring. Everything is carefully researched (‘what sort of uniforms did orderlies in Victorian asylums wear?’) and then sewn by hand. I spent a lot of time selecting the fabrics, lacing, buttons and so on”.

The illusionary power of the Ingvild’s work makes each scene seem like a moment frozen in time, like a cell from an animated film, or an old photograph found in a thrift shop. That’s no accident.

“A lot of what you see in my dioramas is based on the bric-a-brac left by my grandparents. They were very thrifty: saved everything and left drawers full of buttons, screws, watch parts, jewelry, and other odds and ends. A dress might be made from the lining of a jacket my grandmother sewed in the 1940s, a belt buckle might become a picture frame and so on”.

“And while I might paint or patinate them, I do find that these antiques have a personality of their own that always shines through. Using them is also a way to keep my grandparents’ memory alive and incorporate a part of their history in my work”.

So is there some sort of deeper meaning to these dioramas? Ingvild laughs.

“I just want to try to give adults the same sense of wonder and magic that they got when they encountered toys as children. But creating these scenes of dread are also therapeutic for me, in the same way that I find horror films. It is a way to face your worst fears and try to overcome them”.

 

Ingvild Eiring by Julie Loen.
Collodion wetplate.