This artist re-created her Montreal apartment with more than 500 miniatures

There's tiny art hiding in the drawers, the fridge … even the couch. Take a tour of Housewarming, a new exhibition on now at the Gardiner.

For Housewarming, artist Karine Giboulo brought her COVID isolation to life inside the Gardiner Museum

Photo of an ordinary kitchen, or rather a replica of one inside Toronto's Gardiner Museum. Visible: a fridge with its door slightly ajar, kitchen sink, round kitchen table and chairs, open oven. Tiny objects appear to rest on all surfaces, inviting a closer look.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

Galleries aren't cozy places per se, but it's easy to imagine Karine Giboulo making a trip to Toronto's Gardiner Museum and feeling completely at home.

Giboulo's an artist from Montreal, and in late October, she installed a new exhibition on the Gardiner's third floor (Housewarming) — a show that doubles as a sort of pandemic diary of her early days in lockdown. There are reflections on her day-to-day life, but also the various social issues that weighed on her mind as she worked from the relative privilege and safety of home: food insecurity, climate change, elder care, etc.

She's re-created her home, room for room, inside the museum. It's not a perfect dupe of her actual two-bedroom suite, nor is it meant to be, but visitors are encouraged to poke around the spare furnishings as if they've crashed an open house. Peek inside her fridge, her medicine cabinet — even the couch.

Each corner of the gallery contains multiple dioramas, many of them resembling gently satirical scenes, like New Yorker cartoons in 3D. An Amazon package left in the foyer contains a warehouse of masked workers; a table-top hockey game reveals the COVID-era anxieties of a school-aged child.

And Giboulo sculpts these tableaux from colourful polymer clay — Sculpey, in fact — a crafting-aisle staple that the 42-year-old artist began using more than 20 years ago, when she switched her focus from making large-scale paintings to miniatures.

More than 500 tiny figures have been installed inside the Gardiner, including at least a dozen that serve as the artist's own mini-me's: find her tiny doppelganger swimming in the bathroom sink or peering in a bedroom mirror. And as Giboulo tells CBC Arts, she considers Housewarming her most personal work to date. 

In the past, she's turned her attention to things happening far from home. For All You Can Eat, a 2008 diorama about globalization and consumption that can be found in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, she travelled to China and toured a factory in Shenzhen. Democracy Village, a model of a Haitian shantytown, was based on her travels to Port-au-Prince.

She told us more about Housewarming when we reached her by phone in Montreal.

Top down photo of a bathroom sink filled with a sculpture resembling a tiny person floating in aqua-blue water.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

CBC Arts: Hello! How's your morning going?

It's quiet here in Montreal. I'm at home — my real home. (laughs)

I feel like I've been there! The show's floorplan is a bit like going on an apartment tour, so I wanted to ask: where did that idea come from? 

Well, it's a good question. I can't say exactly how it came to me, but that was my first idea: the home. And after, I started doing work to fill it.

The shape of my home is a bit different [than the Gardiner exhibition], but it's basically the same. It's all the same rooms that I have at home. 

Photo of Housewarming, an exhibition at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. The room reveals two open doors. Visible through each are a bed and bedside table (left) and a table with a child's toy truck (right). Between the doorways is an aquarium on a small table. It appears to contain a miniature orca whale performing a trick for a row-boat full of people.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

Tell me more about how this project began. When did you begin working on it?

I started work, I would say, at the very beginning of the pandemic — like a month after the first lockdown.

What were those early days like for you? From the show, I gather you live with your partner and your child. It's just the three of you at home?

Yeah, the three of us and a little dog. At first, I was like everybody: I was in shock, I would say. And after a few weeks, I said, "I'm going to start to work."

Normally, I would be at my studio, but I began to work at my kitchen table, and I kept doing that. I never stopped working from home. I kind of enjoy it, actually.

My process: usually I have a general idea to start, and I do some research and everything. I start to work physically on a sculpture when I have a good idea in my head. It appears and I start. 

Photo of a kitchen sink. A miniature figure of a woman tends to a tiny clay vegetable garden in the drain.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

I understand you often travel as part of your research process. So if the pandemic hadn't happened, would you have been abroad in 2020, 2021? Had you planned to be working someplace?

I had just finished a project with a filmmaker, so I wasn't planning anything yet. 

It's unique that you turned your attention to home, though, when so many of your past projects have looked at what's going on around the world. Why did you begin documenting your experience of the pandemic?

I always work in documentary, and since I couldn't contact anybody, I decided to do something about my own experience. I started to work on a documentary about what's going on around me, basically.

I think the grocery bag and the Amazon box were the two first works.

Mini figurines of people are lined up on a white countertop to access a printed reusable grocery bag. The figures push empty shopping carts and wear winter clothing and face masks.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Mike Patten)
Closeup of a miniature figure offering a banana to a queue of other mini figures, lined up outside a printed re-usable grocery bag.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Mike Patten)

At the beginning of the pandemic, the stores were locked down and we couldn't buy anything. For the first time in my life, I bought from Amazon, and in my neighborhood, there were no cars except the Amazon drivers.

I decided to make that work because, you know, those people were working like crazy in crowded spaces for us to have our non-essential objects.

You've made so many figures for this exhibition — more than 500. I imagine you must have your oven on constantly if you're working from home.

Yeah, exactly. (laughs)

How did you find room for all of the figures? Where did you keep them?

As I was working from home, I basically wrapped the figurines and put them in boxes. I also have a big garage/workshop space in the countryside, at Sainte-Émélie-de-l'Énergie where I grew up, [so I put] some elements in storage and I also have a storage place in Montreal. 

Top down photo of a round white kitchen table. On its surface: a smiley face coffee mug , a bowl of oranges, a plate of peanut butter toast and an open laptop. A miniture figurine appears to vanish into a swirling void on the laptop screen. Other mini figures in Hazmat suits appear to blast the food on the table with plumes of disinfectant spray, depicted as balls of fluff.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. At centre, a replica of her home office. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

You mentioned that you came out of the lockdown experience to discover you love working from home. What about it really works for you?

I like to say that I'm in a creative bubble, you know, just me. It's hard to explain, but I like that — that bubble. I'm in my world. I plan to do more work about my own experience.

The exhibition covers such recent history, and we're still technically living through the pandemic. What do you hope visitors take away from seeing this show? 

I hope to create conversation with people, and I hope that they have a good time and that they enjoy the visuals. 

Top-down photo of a pink chest of drawers. One drawer is open revealing a diorama of miniature figurines. Another clay figure rests on top. It's of an old woman in a rocking chair, knitting with a magenta ball of yarn that is as tall as she is.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Toni Hafkenscheid)
Diorama of miniature figurines. The figures are garment factory workers, seated at seemingly infinite rows of sewing machines. They wear face masks and pink smocks and kerchiefs.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

Yeah. The show, to me, was very playful. Just the idea of discovering something hiding in a set of drawers or inside an Amazon box: there's this element of surprise and delight to everything. 


Why is that sense of playfulness or humour so important to what you do? 

I always try to balance the range of emotions, you know, and I think it really reflects part of my personality too. I don't want it to just be dark. Being playful is part of who I am, I think.

Photo of a box diorama of miniatures. The figures are factory workers in a fish processing facility. They wear smocks and blue face masks and hair nets and appear in infinite rows, cutting pink slabs of fish at white tables.
Karine Giboulo. Installation view of Housewarming at the Gardiner Museum. (Mike Patten)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Karine Giboulo. Housewarming. To May 7, 2023. Gardiner Museum, Toronto.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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