Ho Rui An
Size matters. Even the most mundane and insipid object can inspire awe by its magnification. In this sound-bite society where our mental spaces are cluttered by an overload of innumerable, incidental, incoherent and ultimately inconsequential pieces of information, we have become so desensitised to the subtleties of our aesthetic realities that only the spectacular, sensational and scintillating can capture our attention. Given this contemporary condition, going big has become the predominant strategy for practically all fields of cultural production.
At the present moment, the Burj Dubai has dwarfed the Taipei 101 at 818 metres. Several kilometres away lies The World, a man-made archipelago of islands constructed to resemble the world map. At the other side of the world, land artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are moving one step closer to their ambition of wrapping the universe as they attempt to suspend 5.9 miles of silvery fabric above the Arkansas River. And next month will see the release of Avatar, the film with the largest budget in the history of cinema, directed by budget buster James Cameron of Titanic fame no less.
But as much as the gargantuan thrills us visually and imaginatively, its diametric opposite, the miniature, is similarly able to excite us and inspire awe. And that seems to be the assertion put across by Eniminiminimos: Artists Who Make Things Small II, the exhibition curated by Michael Lee that is now running at the Jendela at the Esplanade. It presents itself as the antithesis to the ongoing “size fetish” in the contemporary world and unsurprisingly, some of the works displayed are so infinitesimal that they are only visible under the magnifying glass. Works like these inevitably reinforce a personal opinion of mine that these days art can only be horrifically big, or ridiculously small. Nobody bothers about anything in between. This leads to the bigger question – what’s with this perpetual obsession with superlatives of scale anyway?
The monumental and the miniature, despite being polar opposites, fundamentally arise from our negotiations with our perceived smallness in the universe, particularly in a time when increasingly advanced space technologies paradoxically only serve to emphasise the sheer magnitude of the unknown. Estranged in the wilderness, we gaze into the canopy of stars with an overwhelming, ineffable sense of awe that is uneasily melded with a latent terror – the terror of an ultimately unknown, formless and boundless universe that is beyond the comprehension of our mortal minds. In the words of Immanuel Kant, it is the sublime which is “absolutely great”.
(Left: The Sagrada Família: In construction since 1882 and projected to be completed only by 2026.)
To cope with these unsettling anxieties, artists either choose to monumentalise or to miniaturise. The former strives for transcendence by attempting to surpass our human limitations and imagined boundaries via an ambitious, vertical conquest. Conversely, the latter attempts containment by painstakingly reinforcing boundary, delineation and completeness. Despite being driven by the radically divergent methods of transcendence and containment, these two stereotypes of artists are identical in the way they both attempt to control and author a reality that remains so unknown.
(Right: Dissolution of entities (2006), Thomas Doyle, Mixed-media sculpture)
Perhaps the works that manifest most explicitly this consciousness of our inherent smallness in the cosmic order are the two sculptures by Thomas Doyle. There is a quiet desperation that characterises the intricate worlds of Doyle’s art. In Dissolution of entities, we see an adult and a child being consumed by the ground. They are frozen in time, permanently embalmed in their striding postures. Only parts of their bodies are visible. The child, in fact, remains mostly hidden in the detritus of nature.
Meanwhile, in Bathing in the last light of Polaris, an estranged man is in mortal peril, as he clings onto a piece of driftwood to stay afloat in a vast, open sea. The works of Doyle represents our most primal and irrational bodily fears pertaining to the caprice of the natural world – the fears of shipwrecks, bottomless pits, being swallowed by quick sand, being buried alive and being crushed by rocks. The miniature size of the work creates a compact image that is all the more intense. It appears like a distant nightmare from our childhoods, utterly far-fetched but profoundly traumatic.
(Left: Houses (2006), Suki Chan, Balsa wood and paint.)
The work is aptly placed in close proximity to Suki Chan’s Houses and Chun Kai Qun’s Nevermind Nirvana. Chan’s work features the similar motif of objects being consumed by their environment. The miniature houses in her installation appear to be sinking into the gallery floor, in an uncanny subversion of the home as a place of familial comfort. The desolate landscape is deeply reminiscent of the cataclysmic disasters around that world and possesses an almost alarmist caution on the potentiality of an apocalypse.
Meanwhile, an apocalypse seems to have already occurred in Chun’s dioramic installation. The work is eerily morbid and screams of the expressionistic angst characteristic of Chun’s works. Essentially a forest ravaged by what seems to be a series of disasters, the gore only gets more explicit as you examine the glut of visual details at close proximity. What appear to be the flames of a group of candles are actually miniature human figures on fire, akin to figures of sacrificial martyrs upon an altar. From a distance, the shades of mahogany used on the landscape are uncannily surreal and reminiscent of swollen, infected flesh. This is nature in its most untamed, capricious and violent form.
(Right: Nevermind Nirvana (2009), Chun Kai Qun, Diorama installation)
Tan Seow Wei’s drawings in The Petri Dish Series are so microscopically small they occupy a small spot on a petri dish and are only fully visible when viewed via a magnifying glass. Through the lenses, we become accidental voyeurs of private activities depicted in the drawings. The work can be seen as a witty remark on the increasingly invasive mechanisms of control that the state employs in an attempt to monitor and regulate what happens within the private sphere. The work is situated in close proximity with a complementary piece by the same artist, The Specimen Bottle Series. While the human subjects in the former work are unconscious objects of voyeurism, those in the latter are entirely conscious of the public scrutiny and thus appear rigidly inanimate, vacantly suspended in a specimen bottle and devoid of human agency.
(Left: Events (2008), Justin Wong, Flash animation.)
A similarly cheeky turn can be observed in Justin Wong’s flash animation, Events. The animation features sequences of peculiar face-offs between big and small people, symbolically representing the contestations of power between the dominated and the dominator, the slave and the master, the human and the omnipotent. A particular sequence even shows a “blow job”, with a little man appearing like a phallic object that thrusts in and out of a giant’s mouth, in an ultimate display of emasculation and submission. With the figures all dressed up in corporate attire, the sequences unfold like uncensored, contemporary updates of fairytales and mythologies, with each sequence often ending with a gory twist that inverses the power dynamics. In one of the ten “events” featured, a cavalcade of little men are seen supporting the body of a giant and lifting him away as a hostage, almost like a scene from Gulliver’s Travels. The body of the giant eventually proves too heavy for the little men to handle and comes crushing down upon them as blood splatters. Ouch.
Such a sense of play can also be seen in nofearsam921’s A Sparrow in the Studio. In his video, the artist attempts to recreate Joao Onofre’s Vulture in the Studio, except that finding a vulture to play the part was a remote possibility for the artist who works in Taiwan. Instead, he roped in a sparrow as a surrogate and recreated the studio in a miniature form. The bewildered sparrow finds itself clumsily enormous in the new environment, ricocheting around the room and often crashing onto the invisible fourth wall. The work addresses issues of mimicry and simulation, but for most of us, it was simply good fun and amusement. Check out a “spoof” of the video that was created by the artist here .
(Left: The World Unexposition 1945-2008 (2009), Michael Lee Hong Hwee, Model installation: Shown here is Rem Koolhaas' unbuilt Hyperbuilding.)
In Michael Lee’s The World Unexposition 1945-2008, proposed architectural projects that were never realised are recreated as white paper models. With each model created according to the same scale, what we witness upon the plinths is akin to a miniature, autonomous universe alternative to our own. We approach the white phantom-like models with a particular ambivalence. We regard the spectral figures with poignancy as they lay elevated on the plinth like stillborns with a quiet indignance at their miscarriage. Simultaneously, we are excited by the “what ifs” that come to mind with the sense of possibility the imagined cityscape provides.
The exhibition succeeds in expanding the ways we consider the notion of the miniature, compelling us to consider beyond the rigid considerations of physical size and proportion, to contemplate it in terms of the “attitude and strategy of detailed representation”. The intricacies of the miniature necessitate prolonged audience engagement, as we slow down our pace and examine each nook and cranny in detail. They demand a unique form of physical interaction that is deeply experiential, immersive and personal.
Eventually, we emerge from Lilliputland feeling a little bigger and with a newfound sensibility for the finer things in life.
Eniminiminimos: Artists Who Make Things Small II is currently on display at the Jendela at the Esplanade from 6 November 2009 to 3 January 2010. Admission is free. Exhibition images courtesy of the curator.