The Small, Strange Worlds of Karine Giboulo

The artist statement is a most dissatisfactory document and Karine Giboulo’s is no exception: “Karine Giboulo creates colourful miniature worlds in which depictions of reality and flights of fantasy mingle.”

Granted, Montréal based Giboulo does create miniature worlds, but to simplify her work down to a mingling of reality and fantasy is one of those truth-filled lies that artists are compelled to use in order to fit a simplified art world narrative.

What Giboulo actually does is create worlds depicting the uncomfortable inner monologue any sentient human living in the western world has on a daily basis as they navigate a world intricately and inextricably interwoven with consumerism, exploitation and dread, but one in which we still must buy something to eat and something to wear, no matter the human cost to get it into our grubby little hands. I admit, that’s a bit of a mouthful for an artist’s statement.

A survey of Giboulo’s work is currently on display at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg until Jan 26, 2014. Setting aside the slight incongruity of programming this type of show amid the arboreal beauty of the showcase of Group of Seven works, this is a body of work that speaks to the human condition, but also to the landscapes we inhabit.

Giboulo makes narrative sculptures, crafting figurines from Sculpty modelling clay (grown-up plasticine) and housing her masses of plastic humanity in a variety of abodes.

The show opens with a series of transparent plastic globes, “life bubbles” that hang from the ceiling. Through the clear plastic walls we see a bisected world, with a view of both above and below ground. It’s a world populated by humans, animals and anthropomorphised creatures somewhere in between. Bears drink beer and watch TV in their dens while above ground the world appears apocalyptically barren – humans in suits accosted by wolf-headed humanoids under a buzzard’s keen eye.

As you move through the exhibition, the bubbles become buildings and rooms studded with windows offering voyeuristic peepholes that reveal scenes that juxtapose the intimate and the luridly dark.

And then, as though you’ve simply been offered a series of amuse-bouches to this point, you are presented with the banquet table: room-filling installations featuring a similar cast of characters.

Giboulo’s work leans heavily on research and a journalistic impulse. For the work All you can eat (2008), she travelled to China and posed as a businesswoman to gain access to factories in Shenzhen. The resulting work – a food processing plant that produces ribs and wings from pigs that fly – is a sprawling narrative depiction of life in the sites of production of much of what feeds the consumer culture of the west (and rest).

In an accompanying essay Giboulo writes: “When I returned from China, I began to work like the young Chinese in the factories. I created figurines without pause, seven days a week, from morning to night, until I finished All you can eat.”

The work is at once amusing and terrifying; an attempt to connect the lives of these young Chinese workers, who work, live and love in the factory to the material objects that inhabit our own intimate spaces.

Her most recent work in the show, City of Dreams (2013), is a sprawling urban landscape that resembles a Rube Goldberg machine whose sole purpose is to generate plastic bits for a massive landfill. Giboulo’s figures depict the streets of an Indian city and the massive discrepancy in wealth between the haves, envisioned as gluttonous bears lounging poolside, and the have-nots toiling in the landfills. The installation, a result of a residency in Mumbai, is bright and clean, machine-like in its construction of buildings connected by ramps, all in primary colours. Mirrored surfaces not only evoke opulence but also force the viewer to become part of the installation. Your face reflected back as you observe (consume?) scenes of poverty and everyday life.

Giboulo’s work derives its power from its seeming naivety – the primary palette, the plasticine figures – but the intimate scale demands you to look closely, and the intricate narratives demand you think about each and every individual depicted.

Karine Giboulo’s Small Strange World(s) runs at the McMichael Gallery to January 26, 2014.

Curated by Sharona Adamowicz-Clements.