Jeanne Dunning: Tom Thumb: Notes Towards A Case History

Launch date: May 16, 2002, Artist Web Projects


In her first web-based project, Jeanne Dunning follows the adventures of Tom Thumb as he travels between the inside and the outside of the body. Tom is swallowed by a cow, a fish, and a wolf, feeds himself through a hole leading directly to his stomach, and reaches his hand inside the stomach of another.

Flash is required.

Tom Thumb: Notes Towards A Case History, part of Dia's series of Artists' Projects for the Web, launched May 16, 2002. A German translation was provided by Magazin4, Vorarlberger Kunstverein, Austria.
Funding for this series has been provided by the New York State Council on the Arts. 
In 2020, this project was reprogrammed in HTML5 because Flash is no longer supported by most browsers. The initial 2002 Flash version can be viewed here and the German Flash version can be viewed here.

Launch project

Launch project (German version)

In her photographic work, Jeanne Dunning has frequently started with familiar and seemingly innocent objects (mundane body parts, fruits or vegetables), and transformed them into the unfamiliar and the suggestive. For her first web-based project, Tom Thumb: Notes Towards A Case History, Dunning again begins with something familiar -- a fairy tale. By drawing our attention to particular elements of the story and bringing in eccentrically related historical research, Dunning implies a reading of Tom Thumb's tale that is idiosyncratic, suggestive, and weirdly compelling. The artist leaves the viewer pondering distinctions between fact and fiction and perhaps wondering which is more fascinating.

Assembled by Dunning from sources dating as early as the 15th century, Tom Thumb: Notes Towards A Case History presents Tom Thumb's story as it was told before certain elements, perhaps considered inappropriate for children, or simply distasteful, were elided from the tale. Dunning's version includes episodes in which Tom is regurgitated by a giant, inadvertently swallowed and defecated by a cow, and is thwarted in his attempt to ravish the queen. She also includes a collection of related anecdotes that weaves together the recurring motifs of Tom's story while evidencing some rather remarkable coincidences. For example, at one point in Tom Thumb's story, he is swallowed by a wolf then cut out of its stomach. Hence, Dunning tells us of a man named Tom and his doctors, Dr. Wolf and Dr. Wolff, who contributed to medical history by studying the hole in Tom's body that led directly to his stomach. And we read that one of Freud's most famous case studies is about a man with life-long bowel problems who was afraid of being eaten by wolves. Copious illustrations from these widely varied sources visually reinforce the text.

To tie together these disparate narratives, Dunning employs a rebus, a device most frequently found in children's stories, in which pictures are substituted for words. The words thumb, throat, stomach, bowels, hole, wolf, cow, and fish are sometimes replaced with brief animations that serve as links to key places in the site's other narratives where those words occur, allowing the reader to jump from one story to another. These animations are of hand shadows or shadow puppets. The use of hands, appropriate to a story about a man named after a thumb, also recalls Dunning's series of photographs of hands creating cave-like spaces that suggest other bodily orifices.

Dunning's interest in the divisions (or lack thereof) between the inside and the outside of the body drew her to the Tom Thumb story. Tom's epic travels repeatedly take him into throats, stomachs, and bowels as he re-enters and escapes from the inside of the body. For anyone acquainted with Dunning's Puddle photographs which picture bodies covered with oozing flesh-colored liquids, the image of Tom running home to his mother covered in bodily fluids will seem oddly familiar.

By inviting us to look at Tom's story as a case history, Dunning suggests parallels between Tom's life and the stages of infantile development described in psychoanalytic theory. She traces Tom's journeys through the oral, anal and phallic stages, his repetition compulsion, and finally his arrival at the Oedipus complex. Dunning relates how recipes from the 14-16th centuries use the terms stomach and womb interchangeably, reinforcing the notion that Tom's repeated return into stomachs is a misguided attempt to return to the womb. Tom stays trapped in these infantile stages of development until, after finding himself aroused by the queen, he attempts a more direct path towards his goal. However, instead of successfully negotiating the Oedipus complex and so growing up, Tom's grappling with the Oedipal stage precipitates his death.

During the six months following the project launch, tiny excerpts from Tom's case study will spill into the margins of Dia's main web site, an appropriate space considering the diminutive and marginal stature of our hero. Continuing Dunning's practice of blurring borders, these transgressions may confuse visitors looking for information about the museum. Hopefully, however, visitors will be intrigued enough to follow these teasers straight into the heart of the project, a detour with serendipitous discoveries. In this sense, Tom Thumb: Notes Towards a Case History is a microcosmic reflection of the unsuspected journeys we take while surfing the web.


Jeanne Dunning

Jeanne Dunning was born in Granby, Connecticut, in 1960. She lives and works in Chicago.

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