Issue 26: The Size of Art
Small, medium, large, wrong
Last year, in an essay about public art for the National Gallery of Australia publication The Annual, I wrote that “many art works are the wrong size. Often, they’re too big, a small idea turned into an enormous sculpture which gets in the way. There are murals that should be a single line of poetry and enormous abstracts that should not be fabricated from steel for large city squares but made from Plasticine and eventually lost down the back of the couch. By the same token, there are plant pots that could be spectacular railway terminals and seashells that should be sculpture gardens. Sometimes, it’s you that’s the wrong scale, not the artwork. Your mood might be shrivelled, for example, or your head might be swelled with pride. And anything can seem insufferable when you’re hungry; that’s when a plate of pancakes makes for a great monument. ‘Sometimes’—as the artist Ben Kinmont titled his ongoing art project in 1998—‘a nicer sculpture is being able to provide a living for your family.’”
Perhaps all this has something to do with a tug-of-war between embarrassment and ego. It dogs my work. On one side is a team pulling for these newsletters to be shorter and who believe a couple of chapters in my last book should have met the garden shears. Opposing them is the feeling that my band should be playing at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale, not at my kitchen table.
It’s not easy to know what the most appropriate size for an idea should be. How does an artist or writer sense how much is enough? Why do some artists not seem to understand when they should stop, or when to do more, even when we’re all so used to knowing when something is too much of this and not enough of that? When is the wrong scale the right scale, as in the over-the-top, the baroque, grotesque, melodramatic? When should an idea remain just an idea? (Not everything should be made.) Then there’s the problem of people with vested interests pushing an artist to do more. To make it bigger, longer, taller. And when an institution starts wrapping an exhibition in publicity, brochures, catalogues, talks, and late opening wine and nibbles events, when the hype cycle begins whirring, the effect it can have on an art work is like one of those moments in a cartoon when a ten-foot tall thug in a raincoat and hat is revealed to be five small kids stood on each others shoulders, hiding inside adult clothing.
When a work of art is said to be short or small—that is, when it leaves the audience wanting more—it’s often a subtle compliment, an acknowledgement of modesty or poetic restraint or erotic power. But a work that’s come out of the studio too big or too small can equally be described as “thin”, “shallow”, “flimsy.” Often when people complain about the size of an artwork, they’re talking about bloat—the movie that they believe is too long, the book that’s too big—unless, that is, the endurance required in order to make your way through the sheer tonnage of paper, to do a straight five hours in the cinema, is what we’re supposed to be impressed by. It’s a question of haggling over time: how much did the artist give to their work, and how much of yours are you going to hand over?
Just as big can equal dumb, jewel-like miniaturism or poignant fragmentation can seem precious. There are times when an artist says, “here are some clues, you figure out the rest” and inhabiting the space they create can be part of the work’s pleasure. (If there’s no room provided for the viewer, if every comma and brush mark is annotated, it’s like being cornered by an insufferable monologist at a party.) But there are other instances when it really is the artist’s job to do the maths. Gaps and silences aren’t always signs of taste and intelligence.
Sometimes self-doubt, or lack of it, makes it hard to find the right size for an idea. Sometimes it’s blunt economics. Expensive materials, not enough time, no money to pay people to help. Or too much cash and no-one saying no. Or it’s the scale of the subject that makes a mockery of the art: no-one, no matter what they claim, will ever make a work of art that can adequately describe the mystery of consciousness.
One of the problems with talking about scale is that language currently has no sense of proportion. It’s the Age of Hyperbole. The vocabs have been cranked up to eleven. Politics and PR have run-down once powerful words through overuse. ‘Radical,’ ‘urgent,’ ‘essential,’ ‘subversive,’ ‘devastating,’ ‘heartbreaking,’ and other terms once saved for love and war are now applicable to sourdough scented candles. The language of revolution is the language of the middle-brow: pietistic, unimaginative, self-serving, spouted by men on podcasts sermonizing about politics and drizzled over every new sneaker drop. If you think the word ‘interesting’ is dull, think about how empty the term ‘revolutionary’ sounds. In neglecting the control of mid-range words—good, solid, workaday words which help tug life into perspective—every sentence has become a spectacular son-et-lumiere on ice, a Tate Modern Turbine Hall commission, a Frank Gehry-designed museum. Awesome, meaningless.
This week, the Metrograph Cinema in New York announced that they were going to be showing Matthew Barney’s Cremaster film cycle. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the nutshell is that it’s five films composed of spectacular and surreal scenes—of extreme duration, often involving the transference of various fluids and oozes—that allegorize the human body. Their iconography is occult, built from layers of modernist reference and Masonic Americana, the kind of symbolism which, if the films were made today, might accidentally give birth to an ugly new conspiracy cult. On seeing the announcement I thought back to the hours I spent watching them when I was in my twenties, fresh out of art school, how seriously I took the experience. (The series totals about seven hours.) Now in my late forties—all other considerations about the films aside—I wonder if I would give that time over again. For the time being, I don’t need opera. Scale—the film’s duration in relationship to where you are in your life—is sometimes right for only a moment, not in perpetuity. I once spent two days watching all thirteen hours of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 at the National Film Theatre in London. I wouldn’t do that again because I doubt I could ever replicate the intense feelings it left me with; the uncanny sense of intimacy, of being deeply involved in the lives of the actors on screen. It felt so surprising first time around, and would be ruined by expectation with repeat viewing.
The Barney announcement reminded me that in the late 1990s I went to a late-night screening of Cremaster 1 at what was then the Metro Cinema on Rupert Street in Soho, London. I was sat on the front row. About halfway through the film, the fire exit doors, which were located next to the screen, burst open. A man ran in wielding a fire extinguisher and drenched everyone in the first few rows in foam before running back out into the night, laughing hysterically. It happened so fast we were left in shock. But then a cinema full of people wiping white foam and gunge from their faces and clothes struck me as a Barney-esque image. Perhaps this was the most brilliant pairing of a prank with a movie, the right sized joke. It became my favourite memory of the Cremaster experience.
I also once spent six hours stuck on a barge drifting down the Detroit River, in subzero temperatures, part of a group invited to watch the making of Barney’s film River of Fundament some time around 2010. The experience was both miserable and fascinating. Maybe one day I’ll write about why, but not for now. Every so often a memory or minor anecdote like that springs to mind, and I note it down, with the idea that it could be fitted into a piece I’m working on, or developed into something bigger. Scaled up. It’s like finding a nice ingredient you think might work in a meal. Maybe you’ll throw it in the salad that night, or perhaps you’ll pickle it and find a use for it months later. I keep a list of those ideas—often they’re minor facts I’ve come across in a book or magazine, something odd that I can’t shake from my head—and the one thing they have in common is that I have no sense of their potential scale. Will this be a book or a sentence? Essay or song? Documentary film or text message? Should it be a picture instead of words? Is it best made by someone other than me?
When the director Nicholas Ray began writing a screenplay, he would give it the working title “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” It’s a good starting point. I rarely know what the size and shape of a project will be until I try working it up—I’m a stranger to it. Only then do I discover that an idea will not stretch, or is too capacious to give it coherent form, or—best case—will lead me somewhere completely new.
For instance, I once read that on George Harrison’s 21st birthday in 1964, the Beatle received some 30,000 cards and gifts. These included a pair of doors sent by a group of fans in Hove, to accompany the traditional symbolic birthday keys they assumed he’d be sent. Allegedly a warehouse had to be rented in order to store Harrison’s unopened presents. I’ve long wanted to write something based on the image of a warehouse full of neglected gifts, but I suspect that once I get going, I won’t have much to say. Similarly, I recently read a magazine feature about women working in the upper echelons of the British intelligence services. A sentence leapt out at me. It mentioned that MI5 employed retired theatre professionals to advise on disguises. Surely that’s a sitcom, I thought, but would I ever get around to writing it? There was also a period when I wanted to make something—a short story, a script, again I’m not sure—titled ‘The Day Jobs of Philip Glass.’ It would imagine an average working day for the composer in the 1970s, before he became famous, when he worked as a removals man, a plumber, an artists assistant, a domestic house cleaner and as a taxi driver. But then I read the account he gave of those jobs in his memoir, Words Without Music, and the idea felt superfluous.
In the 19th century, medical staff at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, would cover the floor of their operating theatre with sawdust to absorb blood that spilled during surgical procedures. The surgery fell into disuse and was boarded up in the 1860s, where it remained intact and undisturbed until it was rediscovered in 1956. In 1962 it opened as the Old Operating Theatre Museum. By then, the congealed blood and sawdust had become so compacted underneath the floorboards that a cement cutter was needed to saw through it. My friend, the late artist and writer Brian Catling, once told me—and this is possibly apocryphal—that the rectangular, hollow space beneath the floorboards had molded the dried blood into a perfect geometric block, like a grisly minimalist sculpture. I want to put this image into my next book, and I don’t think its form—a couple of sentences at most—needs inflating. It’s already the right size. It doesn’t need to be a five-screen video installation. By contrast, there’s something my grandma said in passing to my Dad many decades ago. It’s a remark no more than a sentence long, barely an anecdote, concerning an incident that occurred when she worked as a nurse in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence. With time and effort put into research, it could easily grow into a play or a novel.
If you’re talking about scale, you have to talk about perspective: how one object appears in relationship to another. There’s a photograph made in 1936 at the The Museum of Modern Art, New York, by the photographer Edward Steichen, then the highest paid commercial photographer in the world. It depicts a neat white gallery, in the middle of which sits a young woman wearing a dark short-sleeved dress and hat. She’s perched elegantly on a set of low, stepped plinths, the sort museums use for displaying large ceramics or design classics. Surrounding her are vases filled with long spears of delphiniums, rocketing high over her head like fireworks, threatening to riddle the room’s clever blankness with petals and sticky pollen. The photograph records MoMA’s first and only exhibition dedicated to flowers, and it was Steichen—President of the American Delphinium Society, Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France gold medallist, later Director of the Department of Photography at MoMA—who had organized it. He cultivated the plants on his farm in Connecticut, and had them transported to New York City, where they were displayed for one week only under the title ‘Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums.’
One room, one week. The right size. ‘Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums’ doesn’t exist in a museum collection. Only a couple of photographs and pages of publicity material remain as evidence that it happened. But it triangulates people, art and nature to provocative effect. It leaves me wondering whether one day botanical museums will be valued more than art museums. Because art can look after itself. There will always be someone to come along and make the stuff. But delphiniums? Once they are gone, unable to survive, destroyed by humankind’s vandalism of the planet, there will be no more delphiniums. Only photographs and paintings and drawings of delphiniums, and no matter how many of those artworks you have, none of them could match the scale of one single flower.
—I heard this on the radio the other day: The Superfly Bros. of St. Martin covering Another Star by Stevie Wonder. Gorgeous.
—A few weeks ago I recommended Ian Penman’s essay on Baudelaire for the London Review of Books, and mentioned that he had a book on Rainer Werner Fassbinder coming out. Well, now it’s here. Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors opens like this: “The very first thing to proclaim is: the absolute impossibility of summing up Fassbinder. I have no desire to be some kind of amiable, reasonable, encyclopaedic curator of the archive.” There’s a critic who understands scale. But in this short book is writing that does something all too rare in criticism: it makes you want to see/read/hear the work it’s talking about, and not only that, it makes you want to go out make something yourself.
—On May 23rd at Light Industry, NYC, Lisa Cohen is presenting A Provisional Account of Some Clothes On Film, “to show some of the ways clothes have mattered in moving pictures—and see what emerges.”
—The wonderful Bridget St. John is on a small tour in the northeast US, from the end of this month and into June.
—Last week I had a sneak preview of the compilation The NID Tapes: Electronic Music from India 1969-1972. It’s compiled by artist and musician Paul Purgas from a newly discovered archive of music at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and features tape and synthesizer words by little-known composers including Gita Sarabhai, I.S. Mathur, Atul Desai, S.C. Shama and Jinraj Joshipura. Strange Attractor Press are publishing a book to accompany the album, both of which come out later this year. In the meantime, there’s a superb documentary on the back story to the album, made by Purgas for BBC radio last year, which can be listened to here.
—Optimo Music have just released Cease & Resist: Sonic Subversion & Anarcho Punk In The UK 1979-86, a major compilation devoted to a seven year period of truly underground, economically independent, politically uncompromising anarcho-punk music. All proceeds will be donated to Faslane Peace Camp and the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Optimo say: “Not so far from Glasgow Faslane Naval Base is home to Britain's abhorrent Trident nuclear missiles. The camp has been there, protesting since 1982 and is still active to this day. We hope in our lifetime we will see those missiles leave Scottish soil. We have so much respect for those who have dedicated their lives to protesting these weapons and it seemed an obvious choice that the proceeds from this release should go to help them, and the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.”
—I am excited to learn that Cathi Unsworth has a new book out: Season of the Witch, a social and political history of goth. A future newsletter might come of reading this. Speaking of goths, Siouxsie Sioux went back on tour this month after a long hiatus, and The Cure began a tour of North America. Here’s Siouxsie and the Banshees, with The Cure’s Robert Smith on guitar, on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1982.
—RIP Rita Lee of Brasil’s great tropicalismo psychonauts, Os Mutantes.