Small is beautiful?

Sylvette Babin

Things tiny and things gigantic — or every entity that greatly differs in size from that of humans — have an immense power to fascinate. Perhaps it is because small-scale objects inevitably call to mind the world of childhood and the numerous miniatures it contains (dollhouses, scale models, figurines) and, by association, the phantasmagorical universe of such fairy tales as Little Thumb, Alice in Wonderland, and Gulliver’s Travels. Or perhaps it is these miniature works’ fine details and apparent perfection that create a sense of wonder. As John Mack notes in The Art of Small Things, “Enlargement magnifies imperfection; reduction diminishes it. One aspect of the miniature is that it erases such physical defects and resolves them, in the eye of the beholder, into fragile beauty.”(1) But what lurks behind such frail beauty? Are miniatures really about ideal and marvellous worlds?

The small scale of miniatures allows one to take in that which in normal circumstances would exceed one’s visual capacities. Beyond such a utilitarian function, which makes models useful in such fields as architecture, cinema, and theatre, small-scale representations afford the possibility of a panoptic vision of things normally lying beyond the visual field. As a result, new perceptions of the world are sometimes engendered. When Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver observes the customs of the Lilliputians from his “giant’s” vantage point, that society’s shortcomings come into sharp focus. Although such microcosms, be they literary miniatures or small-scale artworks, seem merely to contain wonderful kinds of worlds, a closer look reveals, in many cases, that they are in fact the stage on which particularly sombre situations are played out.

This issue’s thematic section is devoted to the analysis of a few cases of miniaturization in contemporary art. Be it due to chance or to the nature of current artistic preoccupations, the majority of projects covered are three-dimensional or photographic. Here, the works’ delicate natures will no doubt initially catch one’s fancy, and to the inattentive viewer they might remain bucolic landscapes, quaint genre scenes, or even pleasant utopias. However, in many instances a more attentive eye will discover hidden dystopias. In fact, the works at hand are a far cry from the world of fairy tales, as these miniatures reproduce very real situations. Ecological disaster, the excesses of industrialization, historical conflicts, or the undermining of modernist architecture — such are some of the issues addressed by these works — which openly sustain a form of social critique. Moreover, the essays’ respective authors argue the case for the pertinence of the miniature in contemporary art from diverse vantage points. Thus, their potentially expansive readings of these minute constructions make use of such categories as the playful, the deceptive, and the simulacral; some texts also address the beholder’s relation the intimate.

In the final analysis, to broach the question of works in miniature is to change one’s relation to space. It may well be that miniature worlds have little impact on our understanding of them when we regard them from our human scale. A closer look is often insufficient. Since we cannot become tiny at will like Alice in Wonderland and enter into these small universes, we are compelled to make use of our imagination. We are thus required to constantly shift our attention to-and-fro: as giants we seize the work in totality; as Lilliputians we take part in the situations they present.

[Translated from the French by Eduardo Ralickas]

1. John Mack, The Art of Small Things, Harvard University Press, 2007, 12.


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