When Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he modeled his narrative on fairy tales and used nonsense as a means to astonish and contradict expectations of his Victorian audience, rejecting their sense of reason, moral code and need for a realist literature. In his dream world of marvelous encounters and juxtapositions, he described a variety of irrational shifts in scale – from large to small and vice-versa – to illustrate how scale affects our knowledge of reality.
We are all familiar with those passages where Alice tries to brings her body size under control by swallowing some mysterious potion from a bottle or taking a bite from a small cake. Or, in a striking episode of shifting scale relationships, we find our heroine, nine feet tall, shedding tears because of her plight. But all of a sudden, she is reduced in scale and is found floating in her own ocean of tears.
Alice’s fluctuating dimensions raise interesting questions concerning the role of scale in describing situations or objects. How do we know if something is small, large or miniature? At first, it appears simple. To understand anything small or miniature requires its opposite – something large, or at least a norm to measure or compare them. A small object is usually thought of as being less than average in size. A miniature object pushed “smallness” further away from “largeness” and refers to something greatly reduced in scale. What is important to understand in characterizing the size of objects is that we can’t use any one of these terms without considering all of them. Consequently, if we lose sight of these scale connections, we find ourselves in the relativistic world of Alice where scale becomes fugitive and evasive.
Historically, there seem to be many examples of large-scale projects, such as the monumental bronze doors of Bernward or Hildesheim, or Lorenzo Ghiberti’s gilded bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, and, more recently, there is Albert Paley’s architectural ironwork or Gray Griffin’s gates. Common to these works isn’t simply a drive towards monumentality; these artists all share a love for detail and precision, which renders even monumental work intimate and human. If man was the measure of all things for the Classical Greek, for the metalsmith and craftsperson in general, the hand has been the measure of all things. By working on a small scale or in the miniature, the metalsmith shares in a tradition that finds its roots in Paleolithic ornaments such as the detailed incised relief of a bison executed in antler horn, the Gemma Augustea, the interlace decoration of the Sutton Hoo purse lid, Cellini’s Saltcellar and Carl Fabergé’s intricate eggs. In all of these examples, it is apparent that detail, precision, patience and a labor-intensive activity is involved in the act of producing a miniature object.
In trying to understand how the miniature ticks, let’s refer to writers, the cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who have studied why artists and writers have been fascinated with creating miniature worlds. Lévi-Strauss feels that miniatures are inherently esthetic, but this isn’t just a matter of curtailing the amount of materials and resources that go into the making of the object. What we consider to be large-scale works are also related to the miniature through a referential process. When we experience the Sistine Chapel frescoes from below, we seem to be swallowed up in the immensity of Michelangelo’s heroic and large-scale project. However, if we take the position that Michelangelo has painted a model or miniature of the Church’s conception of genesis, we realize what he accomplished: he made the Christian universe intelligible to us by giving us a greatly reduced version of God’s creation.
But what value is there in reducing the scale of an object or image? In effect, the miniature or small-scale model tends to satisfy our belief that we have something under control by helping us understand the actual object. This process of understanding the actual object is accomplished by sacrificing its “sensible dimensions” for “intelligible dimensions.” If we were to pick up a miniature version of the Empire State building and turn it over and over again in our hands, we are basically turning it over and over again in our thoughts. This helps us to clarify and define our ignorance of the sensible dimensions of a structure that in its totality is incomprehensible to our eyes and mind by helping us to organize and control our responses to the object under scrutiny.
Bachelard, on the other hand, discusses the poetics of the miniature and its capacity to enlarge our vision from the smallest of details by intensifying the space we are observing and isolating the viewer from the active world. For example, when we look through a magnifying glass at a blade of grass, we move across a threshold of a world of ordinary dimensions into the world of the miniature where images, multiply, evolve and pull us away from the banalities of ordinary life. The magnifying glass not only intensifies our experience but also frames a new and poetic world for us to experience. By emphasizing the imaginative power of the miniature to metaphorically engage our minds, we experience an ever-widening spiral of connections.
Another aspect that touches on the miniature has to do with the notion of fantasy. It is apparent that in looking at the fantastic, a great deal of our “hesitation” as well as our acceptance has to do with our view of reality. What we find improbable and unbelievable emerges from our normal expectations. This, of course, varies from culture to culture. But how do we enter fantastic realms? It seems necessary to have some sort of device, literary or visual, indicating to us that we are in the presence of the fantastic.
Our fascination with Alice’s miniature world has a great deal to do with collective assumptions about the “real.” The paradox inherent in fantasy, however, is how conventional references are used to express the unconventional. In fantasy the inanimate can be animated and the rules of reality suspended by a variety of devices that are pertinent to the miniature: playing games with scale relationships; the transferring of power and control over the object to the viewer and maker; the emphasis on intensifying space by means of miniature details; the generation of meaning through metaphor.
From the writings of Lévi-Strauss and Bachelard, we realize that not everything rendered in miniature is a small-scale replica. Jewelry for example, contrary to its intimate and personal associations, does not necessarily miniaturize anything. It can both reduce scale either as a homologue or metaphor, or it can enlarge our vision and intensify experience.
Alan Burton Thompson’s jewelry and Harriete Estel Berman’s miniature sculptures are stylistically different, but they do share some common ground when it comes to exploring the miniature and fantasy.
Thompson’s assembled and fabricated jewelry is nostalgic and contemplative in nature. When one picks up any one of his pieces of jewelry one is immediately thrust into a detailed and intimate childlike world of miniature dimensions. However, there isn’t the sense of oversaturating the spatial field with minutiae. Instead, there is a studied placement of a few detailed references and an emphasis on certain formal themes: insets or frames-within-frames to isolate and juxtapose miniature forms and other small objects; a vertical ordering of his compositions and metaphorical associations of journeys and childhood memories.
The frame of Boat (1987) suggests the shape of a miniaturized canoe. By reducing the normal size of a canoe and juxtaposing it to normal-sized fragments and objects, Thompson has transformed its function as a means for physical conveyance to that of a metaphorical container for viewing its poetic contents.
The allusions to the notion of a journey and the objects in its hull are resonant with references to childhood and memory. The canoe’s elliptically shaped contour frames its precious cargo of isolated pieces of shells, opal fragments and a cameo set behind a spoon balanced on the narrow edge of its rim. These remnants and the cameo loom large in comparison to its tiny transport. The canoe, like a vertical ovoid lens seems to magnify the bric-a-brac. The oar/spoon partially echoes the configuration of the canoe and serves as a repoussoir device, pulling us into the compact and intense space of the interior. Once inside this metaphorical vessel, we find the reflective properties of the shells and opals burst with light and highlight the cameo floating above.
The cameo’s location at the canoe’s tip has affinities with Egyptian mummy masks and Faiyum portraits of the deceased. But the reverential and iconic importance of the cameo also registers another connection that can be traced to the fetishistic use of objects as souvenirs or memento mori. Like a variant of Egyptian magical boats symbolizing the rejuvenation of life after death and journeys into the underworld, Thompson’s “boat” symbolizes a journey back in time to recover childhood and to rekindle once again “. . . the gaze of a child confronted with something new, whatever it be, whether a face or a landscape, gilding, colours, shimmering stuffs, or the magic of physical beauty….”
The concave tableau capped by an elliptical arc in Escape (1988) displays a tiny rocket, grounded among some mini-high-rise buildings, as it thrusts upwards towards the pearl moon. When handled, the rocket slightly quivers and produces a pendulous effect against the reflective properties of the glittering darting about on the gold-leaf surface. By compressing our field of vision, Thompson metaphorically “escapes” the pull of the adult world and enters a poetic world where meanings and associations begin to multiply.
This brooch can be likened to a “distant miniature,” one that does not atomize anything, that is far away. It allows us to “possess” the intelligible dimensions of a landscape or objects we see in the distance. As children and adults we have all experienced “measuring” or framing a distant view between our fingers. Under these circumstances something very large loses its sensible dimensions. Forms lose their tactile and plastic qualities and are fattened, thereby reconciling distant and disparate things.
In both works we can actively participate by metaphorically taking “hold” and reassembling fragments into an intelligible and poetic world where sensible dimensions are shattered and the child’s gaze begins to materialize. These private spaces can be examined and handled intimately, as if we were examining the contents of a child’s pocket after a day’s quest for the marvelous.
Harriete Estel Berman’s miniature tableaux over the past few years have consistently expressed her concern about the status of women in society. She focuses her attention on the domestic plight of women and the myths attached to their roles in her miniature sculpture series titled, “The Family of Appliances You Can Believe In.” These appliances tend to function as surrogates, even alter-egos, ironically mirroring the conventional roles of women. By making highly detailed miniature appliances, she allows the viewer to closely inspect interiors and surfaces as if seen through a powerful lense. Once one enters these mini-worlds, issues that seem unwieldy and large, such as alienation in suburbia, the nightmares of consumerism and the ever-present Barbie Doll syndrome, are “reduced” to manageable proportions. Her humorous use of metaphor, inversions of scale and displacement intensify our experience by drawing us into the details of her meticulously fabricated objects.
Prior to this “appliance” series, Berman was involved with fantasy tableaux. Her move to demystifying the myths connected to domestic roles doesn’t negate her relation to the structures of fantasy, however. She disrupts the function of appliances, using them as transformative devices and signs to indicate we are in the presence of the fantastic. Her toaster, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner or microwave oven tend to operate in the same way that Lewis Carroll’s magic door or mirror did, to indicate that one had entered a fantastic realm. Romantic, Symbolist and Surrealist artists and writers, such as Friedrich, Mallarmé, Redon, Dali and Magritte, all used the window emblematically to refer to fantastic worlds and the mind’s interior. In works such as Eating Out of a Refrigerator, Side-By-Side Role Modeling or Reaching Through the Window of Infinite Myths, all dating from 1981, Berman employs conventional doors and windows to upend our expectations. Upon opening any of them, we enter a world where normal values and scale are subverted.
There is a trace of Marcel Duchamp’s irony in the way Berman uses language, humor and images. However, she strips away the esoteric verbal games and tension between images and words we associate with Duchamp. Instead, she calls on the world of consumerism and advertising by incorporating layouts, typography, logos and language associations in her subtle “role warranties: that provide the consumer with certain guarantees “for the life of any relationship” and that “will repair or exchange any role free of charge if found defective or unrealistic in material.” She uses warranties, ads and corporate fictions as pseudotexts to subtly attack institutional giants and their sales pitches and as ironic comments on the status of women. Unlike Duchamp, however, Berman fabricates all of her objects. She doesn’t enter the world of Duchamp’s readymades, where a functional, mass-produced object was ultimately turned into a precious art commodity. Instead, she miniaturizes her objects and uses preciousness and detail to bait the viewer into the not-so-precious domestic world of the homemaker.
Through her “appliances,” Berman often questions the sexual role of women. Machine metaphors have been used throughout our century to lampoon sexual activity and to characterize the male and female sexes. Artists such as Duchamp, Picabia and the Surrealists were fond of using machine metaphors in this fashion. Berman, however, makes her machine metaphors more explicit than Duchamp did. For example, Marry Me For My Hobart (1981) is a miniature replica of a Hobart mixer. It has a 14k gold ring hanging from the “nose” of the mixer and the words “Dream Whip” positioned on the face of the base. In combination with the words, the ring refers to the homemaker as a domestic and sexual slave. In Everready Working Woman (1982), the drill/mixer supplies all the cosmetics and needed Paraphernalia to play out the sexual fantasies that seem to be “expected” of the “wonder woman domestic wife” – spark gun trigger, wonder woman electric cord lariat, suction plug and a real drill chuck. And if one is into sexual and domestic bondage, Misstress of the Home Acknowledgments Bound to Modern Conveniences (1981) helps to accomplish chores with ease. This upright vacuum cleaner displays a nude woman in relief with hands tied to the top of the bag. Bound to her chores both domestically and sexually, the homemaker/sex servant literally has been sucked into the bag of this surrogate machine, her hands tied to the handle in a pose reminiscent of bondage photographs. As the description points out, it “beats as it sweeps as it cleans.” Even the title with its intentional misspelling illustrates the inherent tensions between the idea of a woman as a “mistress” and the “stress” of being a homemaker.
In Womanizer Kitchen Queen (1982), a blender capped by a crown is transformed into a critique of societal conventions as they apply to the stereotyped image of the homemaker/wife. It is basically a machine metaphor operating as a substitute for the homemaker and is controlled by 10 separately labeled buttons of expectations and functions: love, honor, obey, cherish, mix, blend, stir, cream, spread and bear. Language is used humorously to question marriage vows, sexuality and childbearing. The miniature ballerina, pirouetting to “When You Wish Upon a Star” is an important counterpoint to her critique of womanhood and expectations. She might signify an ideal realm, role model or even the “wish fulfillment” of a young girl. Like a miniature toy or an object in a reliquary, the ballerina is a precious memory of aspirations and dreams and quite separate from the purposes of the actual “Kitchen Queen” and its “womanizing” operations. The music box with its dancer encased in its transparent chamber is inanimate until activated. Once activated, the ideal realm of fantasy and enchantment is disturbed by the “reality” buttons of a woman’s functions.
In Berman’s work, it isn’t just the highly meticulous fabrication of miniature objects and the skill required to execute them that fascinates the eye and mind. She sets up a surrogate world of appliance/tableaux, moving us into a miniature dimension where the very small communicates larger cultural meanings. She can control these private, intense realms technically, spatially and psychologically. These cathartic objects, or surrogate icons of herself or women in general, let us participate, if only for a moment, in another world where functionality has been metaphorically upended and Alice’s “laws” are in operation.
Thompson and Berman are involved with the exploration of intimate and private spaces with details of varying degree. Their mini-worlds allow our imagination to participate by formal, metaphorical and/or projective means. By letting us slip away from reality to enter a miniature zone of reverie, or the absurd world of “applianced” personifications, we are able to relinquish our ties with the enveloping world for a moment. Like the artist who creates a miniature world to control and possess it, we can dominate it too. To synthesize detail, however, requires time and energy on the part of the viewer. In a society steeped in its own transience, these miniature objects ask us to decelerate and look at the world with new eyes.
I would like to thank the Metals Department and the School of Fine Arts of Miami University of Ohio for giving me the opportunity to explore some of the ideas presented in this article as a guest lecturer in their 1988 Visiting Artists and Critics Program, and to Jamie Bennett and his graduate students at SUNY, New Paltz, New York.
C.E. Licka teaches Art History of Southeastern Massachusetts University in North Dartmouth.