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The Infinite in the Infinitesimal

By
July 15, 2009

How is it that miniature works can express so much? For Suzanne Menghraj, an exhibition of tiny objects conjures thoughts of philosopher Gaston Bachelard, homes designed for low-emission living, dinner in a shed, and the infinite.

2362158709_673b284966.jpgTom Friedman’s work was exhibited at the New Museum here in New York during the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002. Friedman—not to be confused with the New York Times columnist—may be a relatively well-known artist, but I wouldn’t be familiar with his art if a friend hadn’t taken me to see it when it was in town. My friend thought I would appreciate the tiny scale of much of the artist’s work: a self-portrait carved into a tablet of aspirin; hundreds of assorted items—a hanger, a pipe, a pretzel, and an airplane, for example—made out of Play-Doh and arranged in a circle 183 centimeters in diameter; all the words in the English language (as of 1995) written on a 91.5 centimeter squared sheet of paper. And I did appreciate the scale. Friedman’s miniatures gave me the experience of being transported not so much by the look of what I saw—the degrees of likeness, the shapes, the colors, the handwriting—as by its limitlessness, the infinite in the infinitesimal.

The tenderness I felt for my friend as we toured the exhibit was overwhelming. That he’d brought me there suggested he had noticed something I hadn’t about what moves me. No matter how airy the exhibition space, I usually find museums and galleries confining. Even if the particular response an exhibited artwork elicits isn’t programmed, the idea that one ought to have a response seems to be. Art, when I go out of my way to take a look at it, tends to paralyze rather than free me, especially when presented in the bleached rooms of large buildings. So I was surprised to be genuinely—as opposed to dutifully—moved (if it’s possible, in general, to be anything but genuinely moved) by Friedman’s minuscule renderings and their conjuring of what the exhibition’s curator called in the exhibit pamphlet “the full expressive capacity” of things. Dan Cameron, the curator, used the phrase in reference to mundane objects like a tablet of aspirin (pared to reveal something far more remarkable than a human head), a pencil (shaved into an unbroken spiral of wood and lead), a daddy longlegs (fashioned out of clay, hair, fishline, and paint), a hanger (too small to hold a coat). I’ve been thinking of Cameron’s description not because Friedman depicts the mundane, but because his depictions are often really tiny. I’ve been wondering how miniature versions of things, mundane or not, manage to express so fully what their full-size prototypes cannot.

I should get something out of the way. To be small is not necessarily to be cute. Cuteness is, for me, an unbearable quality. Even children, with all their endearingly un-childlike behaviors (as when they court each other or curse), deserve an adjective more dignified than “cute.” I understand that teddy bears take as their provenance not so much bears as a 1902 bear hunting incident involving Theodore Roosevelt. But I would guess that for most people, teddy bears no longer bring to mind Teddy Roosevelt. To the extent that they denote anything at all, today’s teddy bears are simply diminutive and soft-featured and therefore accessible forms of bears—bears which, when actually encountered in the wild, might not attack you, but are not so cute. Watch the footage in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man of a bear standing on its hind legs and then think about the way teddy bears coddle us. To be cute is to be manageable, easy on the sensibilities. When I am told I am cute, I instinctively make myself unmanageable.

friedman.jpgWith cuteness out of the way, small things are free to take on significance. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard seems to have thought so. The chapter of The Poetics of Space he devotes to miniature is quick to put aside the idea that to discuss miniature is merely to discuss scale (the teddy bear as tiny little bear): “The geometrician,” he writes, “sees exactly the same thing in two similar figures drawn to different scales. The plan of a house drawn on a reduced scale implies none of the problems that are inherent to a philosophy of the imagination.” And before the chapter gets fully underway (if you’re willing to wade through pedantry to get to poetry, which you sometimes have to do with Bachelard): “Platonic dialectics of large and small do not suffice for us to become cognizant of the dynamic virtues of miniature thinking. One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small.” Bachelard isn’t interested in replica and would probably balk at my earlier use of the words “version” and “prototype.” What interests him are the imaginative, expansive uses—not the accessibility and faithfulness to form—of very, very little things. He’s talking about the big stuff, the awkward extensions of the mind miniature facilitates. I can only assume that because Friedman’s untitled aspirin self-portrait is tiny and, characteristic bowl cut aside, doesn’t look discernibly like Friedman, Bachelard would see in it a chance to do what he extols throughout The Poetics of Space: daydream. He might have imagined the aspirin head summoning its dispersed body parts and, once re-embodied, boarding the Play-Doh airplane, not because the idea is cartoon cute but because it’s absurd. The proportions are all wrong. The aspirin head alone is bigger than the airplane. What’s bad for proportional relationships is, in Bachelard’s view, good for the mind.

I was surprised to be genuinely—as opposed to dutifully—moved (if it’s possible, in general, to be anything but genuinely moved) by Friedman’s minuscule renderings.

Bachelard also expresses in The Poetics of Space a deep appreciation for huts, places he sees as small and therefore intimate enough to invite reverie and the creation of new realms it entails. I imagine he would hold in similarly high regard the dwellings I first read about in a February 2007 New York Times article and have since become further acquainted with through Mimi Zeiger’s recent Rizzoli book, Tiny Houses. The book presents images of homes that have less than 1,000 square feet of floor space. The structures are designed to help their inhabitants make as small a carbon footprint as possible, but it’s clear from interior and exterior images as well as the brief descriptions of each small edifice that the accommodations the homes make for the mind are no less remarkable than those they make for the environment. Naturally, the book and its photographs are tiny, so it requires some vision to imagine what it’s like to be in one of these houses. But in a few cases even the hint of a detail says a lot about what small spaces make possible.

One of the structures—S(ch)austall, designed by FNP Architeckten in Germany—makes me think of an old aspiration of mine, one I haven’t thought about in a while. More than the home I might one day own and have not ever really envisioned, I imagined the shed behind the home. From the outside, the shed would look like a shed. Paneled, red, maybe one small window. From the inside, the shed would seem to have been made out of one block of wood excavated to form a table for six; a wraparound bench (no room for chairs); and, to hold plates and bowls, a few shelves built into a one-foot-thick wall (the other walls wouldn’t need to be thick, as they wouldn’t contain shelves). I never got as far in my imaginings as an entryway—dinner guests might lower themselves in through the roof, which could be pulled down to the sides of the shed on clear nights not just for entry but also for air and a view of the night sky. The point was that this would be a very cramped dining space. Meals would have to be brought to the shed. It would be awkward to leave once you were seated. The dinner conversations would always be intimate and intense. Friendships would be forged and challenged in ways they wouldn’t be at a big table in a spacious room. Flavors would be sharper. Seated at this little table in this confined space, everyone would perceive more, feel more.

Before S(ch)austall—which means “look stall” or showroom (approximately) with the “ch” and pig (or literally sow) stall without it—was S(ch)austall, it was a pig stable built from stone in the 1700s. The architects constructed a timber frame within the existing structure—Zeiger calls the architects’ creation a “house within a house.” In the image of the structure that reminded me of my imagined shed, we see just a sliver of S(ch)austall’s interior from an outside perspective. It appears to be dusk. S(ch)austall is a little engulfed by trees and foliage. We can’t see the lamp that illuminates the interior and so the windows—including a low window where Zeiger tells us the pigsty entrance once was—glow. The only things that can be made out are a table and a chair or two, possibly three. I imagine two people sitting at the table, just out of the camera’s view, and wonder what they could be discussing. S(ch)austall’s size, its setting, its seeming mustiness, the glow that emanates from its windows together suggest something more than intimacy—they suggest emotional amplitudes of the sort my imagined shed might elicit.

It’s one thing to fully inhabit a small space, to physically and psychologically stock it with yourself, and see what dilations result. In these instances—in a shed or a tiny house or even a prison cell—our minds can be freed even as our bodies are confined. This was true for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

    But it was not the dirty floor, not the murky walls, nor the odor of the latrine bucket that you loved—but those fellow prisoners with whom you about-faced at command, that something which beat between your heart and theirs, and their sometimes astonishing words, and then, too, the birth within you, on that very spot, of free-floating thought.

    (From “First Cell, First Love,” an excerpt, included in This Prison Where I Live: The Pen Anthology of Imprisoned Writers (Global Issues))

The opposite circumstance—the little body in the limitless world—also gives birth to free-floating thought. I first experienced my own minuteness on a Ferris wheel in a beach town on the northern coast of Venezuela. I was traveling and barely understood how I’d ended up there on a Ferris wheel at night, dangling above a town I didn’t know, thousands of miles from anyone I knew well, looking out at the dark cliffs, ocean, and sky. The universe finally took on for me the full magnitude of its breadth and I felt impossibly small in it, much smaller than a component of the grain of dust that, as Bachelard tells us, the 19th-century scholar Gaston Paris said Tom Thumb split with his head and proceeded to pass his entire body through. I realized for the first time that I don’t matter very much in the scheme of things. It was a liberating thought.

I was traveling and barely understood how I’d ended up there on a Ferris wheel at night, dangling above a town I didn’t know, thousands of miles from anyone I knew well, looking out at the dark cliffs, ocean, and sky.

A book on Friedman’s art was published several months prior to the artist’s New York exhibition. In one section of the book, the critic Bruce Hainley writes a response to each of twenty-five Friedman works. Number six is on an untitled sculpture—a human figure just over half a centimeter tall and pictured in the book alongside a human finger, by which the figure is dwarfed. Hainley writes,

    The tiny figure makes his way across the expanse of the white wall: barren space surrounds him, valiant little man. Many probably don’t even notice he’s there, doing what he does, something important perhaps only to himself in his jeans and green top and bowl-cut mop. Untitled, 1999, painted wood, measures 0.6 x 0.2 x 0.1 cm. How is this sculpture a self-portrait—a chip off the old block, Tom Friedman, as well as a bow to the perhaps more famous, tinier Tom, Tom Thumb? […] Friedman’s figment statically sprinting his way through the hugeness around him isn’t resolutely miniature and isn’t at all doll-like. Miniature in relation to what? The figure in relation to his world is not any smaller than we are in ours, than the blip any human life would be in relation to time on earth. In many ways the figure is larger.

The more I think about miniature, the bigger the large in the small becomes. Even as Hainley writes about Friedman’s tiny figure, the figure seems to grow in stature. I suppose the first step toward the boundless, amplifying reverie Bachelard valued so much is to notice the infinitesimal in the first place. For Friedman to notice the expressive potential of a tablet of aspirin, for my friend to notice my own sensibilities, for me to notice how inconsequential I am: these are immense.

G

Suzanne Menghraj teaches writing in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program. “The Infinite in the Infinitesimal” is the fourth in a six-part series of nonfiction Menghraj is writing for Guernica with support from a Liberal Studies faculty grant. “In Praise of Failure,” her translation of Pierre Bayard’s introduction to Comment ameliorer les euvres ratees (Paradoxe) (French Edition), appeared in Guernica in May 2009.

To contact Guernica or Suzanne Menghraj, please write here.

Editor’s Recommendation:

Tom Friedman (Contemporary Artists)

Photos of Tom Friedman’s _Big/Small Figure_ by “Carla Michele”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/carlamichele/2362158709/ (top) & “Jon Frey”:http://www.freygallery.comy (bottom).

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