The Finer Things

The Finer Things
by Ho Rui An

Bathing in the last light of Polaris (2004), Thomas Doyle, Mixed-media sculpture

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?

Essentially, our understanding of scale is an ontological necessity. It is via this cognizance that we conceive of our own relative position within the larger cosmic order. In the same light, we create forms with anomalies in scale as a means of reconciling the tensions that may emerge in our attempts at comprehending our cosmic place.

The Sagrada Família: In construction since 1882 and projected to be completed only by 2026

The monument and the miniature, despite being polar opposites, fundamentally arises from our negotiations with our perceived smallness in the universe. As much as it would be poetically symmetrical for our proclivity to create small forms to emerge from an egocentric perception of greatness and vice versa, contemporary realities point to a dominant consciousness of our pathetic insignificance and our perceived displacement from the centre of 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”.

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 while the latter attempts containment, painstakingly reinforcing boundary and delineation. The former sets his sights on the impossible and thus feels perpetually unaccomplished and unfulfilled while the latter emphasises completeness and an immaculate attention to detail. The former is often fueled by an impetuous anxiety that is coupled by a tentative hubris while that latter is cautious, controlled and calculating. Despite being driven by radically different temperaments and 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 perturbingly unknown.

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 driftwood to stay afloat in a vast, open sea. The tactile complexity of the waves renders the man almost imperceptible as he appears consumed by the seething ferment of the waters.

The estranged man actually bring to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where all the powers of the universe have appeared to be concentrated upon the sadistic punitive torment of the guilt-ridden mariner. 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.

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, which both possess deep similarities with Doyle’ works thematically. 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. In fact, only a tiny edge of the roof is visible for some of these houses. 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.

Nevermind Nirvana (2009), Chun Kai Qun, Diorama installation

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 appears to be the flames of a group of candles are actually miniature human figures on fire. From a distance, the shades of mahogany used on the landscape are uncannily surreal and reminiscent of swollen, infected flesh. The haphazardly rugged landscape also serves to reinforce this image of bodily decay.

Nevermind Nirvana (2009), Chun Kai Qun, Diorama installation

Instinctively, there is an uneasy psychological dissonance as we consider each detail of Chun’s diorama. With each human flame materialised as a physical, tactile object, the miniatures at times gives the semblance of perfectly harmless toys, which coexists disturbingly with the context of abject human decay and violence. At times, the diorama resembles an altar, with the human subjects assuming the roles of sacrificial martyrs – an interpretation that becomes sinisterly accurate when one learns that the work’s inspiration came from the “suicide woods” at the foot of Mount Fuji. This is nature in its most untamed, capricious and violent form.

While numerous similarities can be drawn among the three works mentioned above, the rest of the works in the gallery appear a little lost in a world of their own, as each of them addresses very different concerns.

The Specimen Bottle Series (2007), Tan Seow Wei, Mixed-media drawing installation

Tan Seow Wei’s The Petri Dish Series, previously seen and reviewed at Valentine Willie Fine Art, is seen here with 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 and vacant, suspended in a specimen bottle and devoid of human agency.

Poetic Crime Series - Tomb Raiders (2009), Tang Kwok Hin, Comics’ books, glass, MDF and anti-theft eye

Tang Kwok Hin’s Poetic Crime Series quite simply, poeticises crime. Encased within glass enclosures are miniature cutouts of human figures from comic strips, supposedly bank safe robbers and tomb raiders, in action, valorised like modern Robin Hoods. The use of the enclosure creates the appearance of a human menagerie. With parts of the glass enclosure obscured, one is only able to peer into the enclosure from certain angles and through peepholes. The presence of this restriction in fact further piques our curiosity and excites our latent temptations towards participating in this fictional realm of glamourised crime.

Poetic Crime Series - Bank Safe Robbers (2009), Tang Kwok Hin, Comics' books, glass containers and mirror

Events (2008), Justin Wong, Flash animation

A similarly comic turn can be observed in Justin Wong’s flash animation, Events. Playing on a small television screen, the animation is as deadpan as its nondescript title. 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 always ending with a gory twist that inverses the power dynamics between the big and small people. 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.

A Sparrow in the Studio (2008-2009), nofearsam921, Digital video

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.

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 ourselves. 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.

Seatings (2005-2009), Cornelia Erdmann, Digital drawing on slide film

My only qualm with the exhibition and its direction is how it appears as primarily an aesthetic exercise in regarding the miniature. With the exception of the works of Doyle, Chun and Chan, the comparatively disparate concerns of most of the other works meant that there was hardly any contextual material available for the audience to engage with the broader issues examined in the works. Some of the works exist more effectively as part of an artist’s retrospective than as a singular piece among works by other artists. Chow Chun Fai’s Repainting Infernal Affairs, for instance, may appear esoteric to one who is unfamiliar with Chow’s oeuvre. The artist’s concerns with regards to the myths surrounding image production and urban life, previously seen at a comprehensive exhibition at Osage Singapore, are inadequately surfaced in a single, representative piece. Meanwhile, Cornelia Erdmann’s Seatings and Daily Desires are such enigmatic art pieces that it is hard to regard them as any more than pretty small things.

But of course, such flaws are literally too minuscule to take anything away from a largely satisfying venture into the world of the miniature. 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.