Dan Baines

Fairy Rings and Monstrous Things

Filtering by Category: TV/Film Work

The Cabinet of Curiosities Challenge Part 1

Well over a year ago a very special client sent me a huge parcel. Inside the mystery package was a large wooden doll's wardrobe box.  The uninspiring red stained box from around the 1960s then sat in the studio staring back at me for months like a blank canvas.  After months of batting e-mails back and forth many great ideas were hatched but I still couldn't get past the sheer size and plain facade and so it remained in the studio gathering dust while a very understanding and patient client waited...

And waited...

There comes a time as an artist when the subconscious mind whirs away in the background and comes up with a solution to the creative block you've been trying to figure out.  It then pushes the ideas back into your conscious mind and the blank canvas starts to take shape. For me, the penny dropped at this year's Doomsday when Andy Cooper and Nik Taylor did their lecture on how they created a cabinet of curiosities attraction in 3 weeks. If they could successfully turn something like that around in a matter of weeks surely I could take this box that has haunted me for so long and finally do something with it!

The huge wardrobe box in its original state

The huge wardrobe box in its original state

The most distracting thing about the box was the horrible red finish, it felt like a creative fog bank that I couldn't see past.  I proceeded to sand the lot off in a satisfying cloud of sawdust.  I then blasted the bare wood with a blow torch to highlight the grain,  applied a few coats of wood stain and then set fire to the whole thing.  The box finally took on a new lease of life and my creative juices finally began to flow.

One of the criteria for the box was that prior to the performance it had to be chained and locked to give the impression that something dangerous was safely contained within.  The chain and padlock would then unlock and fall with a loud bang as if opened by unseen hands all done with little or no intervention from the performer.

Simon Drake produces a very nice self opening padlock but the method would not work with this box as it needed to completely fall off with a loud thud.  The only other method I knew was developed by Roni Schachnaey and used an ungimmicked lock. I decided to go with a modified version of Roni's haunted lock but I would need to experiment with making the chain also break and fall.

After several hours tinkering I nailed it and the once normal antique padlock finally became 'haunted'.  The lock clicked open and hit the studio table with a loud crash followed by a tangle of rusty chain.  I put a big fat tick on the client's wish list and readied myself for the next task.

With the exterior almost complete I opened up the wardrobe and looked at the huge expanse of empty space.  This was by far the largest prop I'd ever tackled.  Like most huge tasks, the best way to approach them is to break them down into smaller manageable parts.   The wardrobe consists of four sections so over the next few blog posts I'll be covering each section individually until I finally arrive at a complete portable Cabinet of Curiosities. 

The client's 'want' list includes (in his own words) -

  • A portable bookshelf for the Doppelgängers. It would need some sort of buckling or removable strap to hold the books in place on the shelf

  • For the two drawers underneath, I was thinking that the top one would just remain a functional drawer, but maybe the bottom drawer could be home to your Ghost in the Machine?

  • I like the clothes hanger bar and was only thinking of using it for hanging pendulums and perhaps the Ceseral Spirit bell on a string for a performance option. If you can think of something better for it - or a reason to get rid of it - I'm listening.

  • A display section with little pouches with instruments and alike. I would also love to have several rows of your miniature phrenology heads along the back. I think those are brilliant.

  • All the backings of the case need some sort of base decor. Velvet? Satin? Flocked wallpaper?

  • I love that there is a mirror in this box, with a shelf in front of it. I wish there was room to do some sort of two-way mirror effect, but there probably isn't. The frame should be a bit more decorative -- perhaps an oval frame over the existing mirror would set the mood.

  • The drawer under that shelf, I was thinking, could be a velvet, padded drawer for transporting whatever 'delicate item' was required for that performance (haunted key, artifacts etc). I also have one other idea, for one of your fantaxidermy creations, but I'll add that in it's own section at the bottom. Under the drawer? I don't know.

  • I woke up one night and realized that I would like you to create a very special mummified fairy... a nightmare. It would be incredibly cool if he had "caught one" and could display it. I just picture one of your fairy pieces, but squatting on his haunches, like the nightmare from Henry Fuseli. Maybe it's captured and dried out in an antique glass lantern.

  • This was something that could go in that padded drawer, carefully removed for display on the table or on the shelf in front of the mirror.

Stay tuned and see how this develops!



My work goes on tour!

I've been aware of Guillermo del Toro's 'At Home with Monsters' exhibition since the news was announced and I blogged about it a few months back..  Due to the vastness of his collection it never even crossed my mind that some of my work that resides in Bleak House would be included.

Last week I received an e-mail from a curatorial assistant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) along with a photograph of the Ectometron I made for Guillermo a number of years ago. To my utter befuddlement he told me that my work was part of the exhibition and that he wanted the caption information for the display piece! To be part of the exhibition and to be selected as an influential piece from such a huge collection is both an honour and privilege, it's almost beyond belief.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Insight Editions. The 144 page volume is edited by Britt Salvesen, Jim Shedden, and Matthew Welch with contributions by Guillermo del Toro, Keith McDonald, Roger Clark, and Paul Koudounaris. The hardcover catalogue is $29.95 and is available at the LACMA Store and Art Catalogues. It's not available just yet but should be around the 31st July when the exhibition starts.

Following its presentation at LACMA, the exhibition will travel to its co-organizing institutions: the Minneapolis Institute of Art (February 26 – May 21, 2017) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (September 30,2017–January 7,2018).

Here's everything you need to know about the exhibition...

(Los Angeles—April 26, 2016) The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is pleased to announce Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters (July 31–November 27, 2016), the filmmaker’s first museum retrospective. The exhibition explores del Toro’s creative process by bringing together elements from his films, objects from his vast personal collections, drawings from his notebooks, and approximately 60 objects from LACMA’s permanent collection. The diverse range of media—including sculpture, paintings, prints, photography, costumes, ancient artifacts, books, maquettes, and film—totals approximately 500 objects and reflects the broad scope of del Toro’s inspirations.

“To find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal. To be moved by genre. These things are vital for my storytelling,” said del Toro. “This exhibition presents a small fraction of the things that have moved me, inspired me, and consoled me as I transit through life. It’s a devotional sampling of the enormous love that is required to create, maintain, and love monsters in our lives.”

“By bringing del Toro’s notebooks, collections, and film art into museum galleries, we acknowledge the curatorial aspects of his approach to filmmaking,” says Britt Salvesen, curator and department head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and the Prints and Drawings department at LACMA. “On one level, he carefully constructs and stages his films in the manner of an exhibition. On another level, he fills their plots with commentaries about the social, psychological, and spiritual power of objects. In this retrospective, as in his extraordinary filmography, del Toro demonstrates the energizing effects of cross-pollination.”

Michael Govan, LACMA’s CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director, says, “This retrospective is a wonderful example of Art+Film at LACMA. Del Toro encourages us to ignore our traditional art-historical narratives and hierarchies of high and low culture, just as he blends and reinvents conventional genres in his films. With his ability to collapse time and space, history and fiction, nature and fantasy, he taps the latent potential at the core of our institutional mission.”

Exhibition Organization

Guillermo del Toro is organized into eight thematic sections. The exhibition begins with Childhood and Innocence, exploring the central role children play in many of del Toro’s films. Often, these children can perceive alternate realities and give expression to unfiltered emotions in ways that adults cannot. Del Toro does not insulate his young protagonists from fear, abandonment, harm, or even death. At some level, del Toro’s films endlessly revisit his own childhood, which he felt was marred by a strict Catholic upbringing and bullying classmates but redeemed by books, movies, and horror comics. He began drawing at a very young age. To this day, del Toro maintains his early habit of keeping a notebook at hand to record ideas, phrases, lists, and images. Resources for his films, these journals are also essential to his evolution as an artist.

Victoriana, the next gallery, references the Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian ages, as well as latter-day interpretations of the Victorian era. Charles Dickens, the quintessential Victorian writer, inspired the name of del Toro’s personal residence, Bleak House, a curated space from which many objects in the exhibition are borrowed. Dickens’s blend of realism and fantasy, fascination with the city, sense of humor, and predilection for taxonomy, multifarious character types, and intricate plot twists resonate in del Toro’s films. This gallery also demonstrates del Toro’s interest in the Victorian relationship to science, in which humans attempted to exert dominion over nature through meticulous categorization. As suggested by his extensive collection of insect specimens, images, and trinkets, del Toro has inherited a fascination with such creatures, although the insects in his films tend to break free of human control in spectacular ways.

Visitors will subsequently experience a version of Del Toro’s Rain Room (not that Rain Room), a favorite spot in Bleak House in which del Toro has installed a false window and special effects to simulate a perpetual thunderstorm.

The next section explores del Toro’s interest in Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult. His films are full of puzzles, talismanic devices, secret keys, and quests for forbidden knowledge. Many of del Toro’s characters are scientists, contemporary successors to the monks and alchemists who explored the boundaries between the holy and unholy. He cites the influence of H.P. Lovecraft, the idiosyncratic American writer whose work is considered foundational for the genres of horror and science fiction. Lovecraft’s vivid evocations of madness, transformation, and monstrosity continue to be a major source of inspiration; for the last decade, del Toro has been attempting to adapt Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness (1936) for the screen.

Movies, Comics, Pop Culture delves into del Toro’s obsession with cinema, from B movies and horror films to directors Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel. Del Toro’s voracious appetite for film is matched by his enthusiasm for comic books and his admiration for a wide range of illustrators such as Moebius (Jean Giraud), Frank Frazetta, and Richard Corben. He has directed several comic-book adaptions, working closely with Mike Mignola on two films based on his Hellboy series. Always, del Toro refuses to abide by the traditional hierarchies between high and low culture.

Frankenstein and Horror reveals del Toro’s lifelong love affair with the tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. He first absorbed the story as a child, via James Whale’s 1931 film, impressive in its Expressionist-inspired visual beauty. As a teenager, he read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), which emphasizes the monster’s essential fragility and vulnerability. The story became a touchstone for the young del Toro, who identified powerfully with the creature’s outsider status. The filmmaker now finds in Frankenstein an analogy to his directorial approach. Like the monster, his films are amalgams of used, discarded, and diverse source materials, given new life and purpose.

Del Toro’s fascination with monsters of all types is showcased in Freaks and Monsters. He sees some monsters as tragic: beautiful and heroic in their vulnerability and individuality, they mirror the hypocrisies of society and bring to light corrosive standards of perfection. Though he identifies with the tragic type of monster, del Toro is also adept at creating truly terrifying ones. He begins by thinking of a monster as a character, not simply an assembly of parts. It must be visually convincing from all angles, both in motion and at rest. In his notebooks, he constantly records ideas for distinguishing physical features that may come to fruition only years later. In addition to drawing the initial concepts, he is closely involved in fabrication—he entered the movie industry in Mexico as a special-effects artist—and has often expressed his preference for practical effects as opposed to computer-generated imagery.

The final section is Death and the Afterlife. Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the late 1960s and 1970s, del Toro had a number of disturbing confrontations with death, seeing corpses in the street, in a morgue, and in the catacombs beneath the church. His strict Catholic grandmother instilled in him the notion of original sin and even submitted him to exorcisms in a futile attempt to eradicate his love of monsters and fantasy. The pursuit of immortality—promised in Catholic doctrine as the reward for following the church’s teachings—is often seen in his work as a misguided, arrogant desire, destined to bring about the downfall of those caught up in it. Del Toro’s films often include characters acting entirely out of self-interest alongside others who are forced to make sacrifices. His flawed or damaged characters frequently find purpose in community: they take responsibility for their own survival and that of the individuals and environments around them.


Since its inception in 1965, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has been devoted to collecting works of art that span both history and geography, in addition to representing Los Angeles's uniquely diverse population. Today LACMA is the largest art museum in the western United States, with a collection that includes over 130,000 objects dating from antiquity to the present, encompassing the geographic world and nearly the entire history of art. Among the museum’s strengths are its holdings of Asian art; Latin American art, ranging from masterpieces from the Ancient Americas to works by leading modern and contemporary artists; and Islamic art, of which LACMA hosts one of the most significant collections in the world. A museum of international stature as well as a vital part of Southern California, LACMA shares its vast collections through exhibitions, public programs, and research facilities that attract over one million visitors annually, in addition to serving millions through digital initiatives such as online collections, scholarly catalogues, and interactive engagement. LACMA is located in Hancock Park, 30 acres situated at the center of Los Angeles, which also contains the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum and the forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Situated halfway between the ocean and downtown, LACMA is at the heart of Los Angeles. Location and Contact: 5905 Wilshire Boulevard (at Fairfax Avenue), Los Angeles, CA, 90036 | 323 857-6000 |

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Guillermo del Toro's Bleak House Exhibition

The highlight of my career without a doubt is not only completing a series of private commissions for Guillermo del Toro but delivering them to Bleak House and getting a personal tour of his entire collection as well as Bleak House 2.

From July part of his collection will be featured at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Although I have no idea if my work will be part of the 500 selected pieces you can see Dolly Darko and Crookes' Residual Ectometron in his book 'The Cabinet of Curiosities'.

Though the house serves as inspiration and a point of reference for del Toro, his wife and daughters want no part of it. They don’t live in Bleak House or Bleak House 2, which serves strictly as a work space. But there’s certainly an audience for his beloved collection. The exhibit will live at LACMA between July and November. After that, it will head to Minneapolis, Toronto, Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris, and New York.


© Dan Baines 2016