This Miniature Theater Set Memorializes the World's Worst Disasters

Fantastic and tragic events coalesce in this miniature set piece by Kaitlyn Schwalje.

by Andrew Salomone
Feb 15 2017, 3:03pm

The full scene displayed in A Stage for the Worst of Times. All photos: Alexander Lewis

Lead image: The full scene displayed in A Stage for the Worst of Times.

Rather than try to forget about tragic events, one artist decided to commemorate them. A Stage for the Worst of Times is a miniature theatrical set created by Kaitlyn Schwalje from handcrafted objects and portraits to memorialize shocking occurrences, like The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the taxidermy of endangered animals, and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Schwalje tells The Creators Project that A Stage for the Worst of Times is really a celebration of her infatuation with catastrophe. "The events, artifacts and people depicted in the space are all long held points of fascination. For example, I have obsessively been following the search efforts for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 since the plane's disappearance in 2014. I have studied the barnacle development on found parts of the plane to see if it was consistent with the amount of time MH370 would have been in the water."

A detail of The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Using materials like polymer clay, gold leaf, foam board, resin, glitter, and acrylic paint, Schwalje lovingly crafted each of the objects by hand. "In the construction of the objects, I wanted the pieces to have a bit of preciousness about them. While the stories behind the objects are quite heavy the objects themselves are playful and cartoonish, some covered in glitter and gold." In addition to the sculptural objects, Schwalje drew several portraits of famously tragic figures. "Within the set are miniature charcoal portraits of Klaus Kinski, Bobby Fischer, Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, and Kim Peek, polymer clay models of Space Shuttle Challenger, Malaysian Airlines 370, and Germanwings Flight 9525."

Portraits of Klaus Kinski and Kim Peek

Despite its title, Schwalje says that the work celebrates the extraordinary nature of these events, not just the tragic aspects. "Each object embodies qualities of both disaster and of spectacle. The life of Kim Peek, for example, depicted in miniature portrait, was marked by extreme ability and disability. Known as a 'megasavant,' Kim had every zip code in the United States memorized but struggled to tie his own shoes." Other occurrences depicted in the work include: The Voyager Golden Record, Alexander Mcqueen's butterfly hat, whale bones, cacti, and a Honeywell flight recorder.

Germanwings Flight 9525

As the daughter of a safety engineer, Schwalje admits that her father had a profound influence on the project. "When I was growing up he'd bring home his cases and tell me these horror stories; carnival funhouse malfunctions and accidents involving chicken processing machines. And with each of these stories we'd rip them apart. We'd pick apart coincidence and missed opportunity. Who was at fault or how something could have been prevented.  We looked at disaster not as isolated events but as products of human systems, believing that the way we fail and the way we react to failure speaks to our beliefs and behaviors. We liked to think of ourselves as disaster anthropologists instead of gawkers."

Alexander Mcqueen's butterfly hat

A Stage for the Worst of Times isn't the first time that Schwalje has highlighted the catastrophic significance of a group of small objects. In Seeds Under A Microscope, Schwalje was inspired by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, a facility that stores seeds for a potential "doomsday" scenario. Schwalje documented seeds using an environmental scanning electron microscope in order to give a new understanding to the seeds by displaying the diverse topography of their surfaces when seen ultra close-up.

In A Stage for the Worst of Times, Schwalje once again works in miniature, creating her own seed vault of tragedies. "'The collection' is a reoccurring theme in my work. In the same way a research scientist needs lots of data to draw any meaningful conclusions, I too draw from many examples in order to exhaustively explore a theme. This encourages the practice of spotting patterns and unusual connections amongst seemingly dissimilar things, whether they be people, events or objects. Presenting the theme of disaster as a collection also gives many access points through which to engage the stories behind the objects. Every item has a story. This was also the case with my previous project, Seeds Under A Microscope. Every seed in the vault has a story as to why its there; stories about international scientific effort, natural disaster and warfare. If you ask the right questions an encyclopedia of knowledge can be uncovered. Both works can be thought of as a visual index of historical disaster stories."

Zebra taxidermy

The Voyager Golden Record

See more of Kaitlyn Schwalje's work on her website.


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