Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Mouse Mansion

As you walk down into the Children’s section of the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam, among the colorful books, lights, and displays, you will quickly find The Mouse Mansion. If you draw nearer, you will find that within the larger-than-life glass display towering above is a sculpture that offers a peek into the lives of vivacious rodents.

Karina Content created The Mouse Mansion book series. She made her debut as a writer of adult books in 2000, and for those books she created life-size sculptures from paper, wax, bronze and textile to set the stage for her stories. Although text and sculptures are closely interrelated in her work, she typically only makes the text public and keeps the sculptures private. The Mouse Mansion series is her first work for children, and the majestic structure you see in the Bibliotheek is the first showcase of the sculpture that set the stage for her story.

There are more than one hundred rooms, each filled with mice living their lives. Or, an empty room allowing you to imagine the mouse who just left in a hurry to catch the marching band playing on the bottom floor of the Mansion. It includes a bakery, a sculptor’s workshop, children’s playspaces, closed front doors, toilets, studio apartments reminiscent of those in downtown San Francisco, and modest bedrooms reminiscent of those in Little House on the Prairie. With a fleeting scan any viewer is overwhelmed with the sight of hundreds of miniscule fragments of a new world. With more time, you can notice the young mouse brushing his teeth with a Colgate toothpaste tube similar to yours at home — but this one is no bigger than the tip of your fingernail. In order to absorb everything it is necessary to walk around the house — slowly and with scrutiny. If you move too quickly you might miss the white bra and panties hanging on a clothesline between two rooms. You might overlook the brown and white mice playing together outside.

My favorite room is the abandoned writer’s office. Amongst children’s bedrooms and a craftsman’s workshop, you can find a dark room with no mouse inside or nearby. Around her lonely typewriter are papers strewn across the table and ten or twelve petite sheets scattered across the floor. Her chair has been pushed aside, and I could almost hear her scooting it out and saying “I need a break.” In the corner of the room near the astoundingly packed bookshelf is a metal trashcan the size of a thimble (perhaps made from a thimble), full to the brim with crumpled up sheets. A few have fallen out of the can onto the floor. In this tiny room, Content creatively captured the emotions of irritation, confusion, and uncertainty – of a mouse, and one that is not even present. This is what makes this entire sculpture amazing. The world she invents is so nuanced and captivating that I wanted to find this struggling writer and get her a cup of coffee.

If you kneel, you can see a mouse-world natural history museum on the bottom floor, depicting skulls with miniscule placards organizing them. The scientist is in his study next door examining actual mouse skeletons. Throughout the sculpture the artist does an excellent job of using materials that scale down and mimic the human version of the scene, and represent it with remarkable accuracy. Content says: “If you look well, you will be able to see what kind of material the objects in the house are made of. Bottle caps are used to fabricate lamps, bicycle lights become bottles, seemingly enamel jugs and buckets are made of paper, and popsicle sticks change into wooden floors. I value the notion that children get to know the origin of objects.”

Content also builds separate scenes for the books, like a circus and hospital, which belong to the world of The Mouse Mansion but are not in this display. Even while standing on a chair, I could not see all that was presented here. Although the sculpture is too large for any adult, let alone a child, to view the whole thing without assistance, I chose to revisit this piece because I adore works and experiences intended for children. I often think adults could greatly benefit from observing what is frequently considered immature, silly, or naïve.

The viewer can see that Content’s aim is to create as familiar, comfortable, and quotidian a world as possible with a fictional and playful twist that everyone can indulge in. She delivers this — and more — impeccably. In addition, she makes the world accessible to children with each shrunken cupcake and towel. Her acute attention to detail in creating this structure accomplishes this as well, and she requires you to do the same as you peer inside. This is something children are especially successful at. She invites them to join in on the joy of learning about other’s lives, and through the largely door and window-less sculpture cultivates a feeling of openness and inclusion that demonstrates to any viewer the pleasure in embodying these values. As a result of her tolerant upbringing in the Netherlands, Content has created an inviting, exciting, and welcoming world. Since each room focuses on different lifestyles and cultures, it feels as if the viewer is able to meet the whole world inside The Mouse Mansion. The sculpture is not entirely autonomous, but rather a part of the book that features it. Every room tells its own tale, while at once being part of a larger story, reminding children and adults that our lives are just a series of little moments that we should always take the time to appreciate.

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