(‘supersize me’, ‘down-sizing’, ‘sizing-up’; the matter of size…)
An idea for an exhibition exploring the rhetoric of size…
The noun ’size’ (how big or small) can also be read as a verb ‘size’, as ‘to size something’. So to do something with something’s size, or even to size something up (to apprehend or understand something) may, without violence, be read as a form of sizing, of taking, and perhaps altering, even in the act of mental appropriation… in this, however, there may be violence.
Size matters… Believe it. From the height gained by hat wearing (top-hat), power-dressing, high-heels and big hair to the full belly (not now quite so fashionable as it was in times of famine) broad chest, large chest and bloated muscles to the aggrandized statures, precisely the aggrandized statues, and other representations of deities, saints and immortals, a veritable orgy of hyperbole, or exaggeration, in the world of the image, of the visual field, of our perception (and so judgment) of the world around us. The history of massive statuary attests too the dominance of this trope,
The opposite too matters.
Meiosis (making things smaller than they actually are, or in comparison to things of a similar or proportionate size) also gives a range of meanings which differ from those of the hyperbolic or the mean, the merely normal… (the term often used for this later relation is ‘litotes’, but this is not the opposite of hyperbole, but the result of employing a negative, ‘not’, in relation to a given predicate, ‘not big’ for example). Indeed to make smaller a given image is not to diminish its meaning, rather to change it, or intensify it, so rendering it more precious; as we can see in our popular image genres as attested to by the sale of prints to hang on domestic (as well as corporate) walls: portraits, images of scenery, house, courtyard, patio, plants and flowers… The history of the icon, as well as the miniature memorial portrait attests to the qualitative profit attending diminishing quantity.
So in the world of the image, in the photographic image, often computer-processed, we have seen an increase in the size of images, of big photographs in galleries (but with very few of the opposite tendency… of compression, miniaturisation or meiosis). Some images are rendered huge; we are clearly meant to be impressed - but is this art? Clearly those with the means, the wealth at their disposal can easily increase the size of an image, with the concomitant augmentation of the cost of the material involved, and so fill a given space…. Overwhelm our vision in an attempt at rousing the qualitative effects we usually call the Sublime, aroused, called into being by the quantitative means of a simple increase of size… (any putative increase in the quality of meaning though may not be so simple, or may just be rhetorically… gross).
Yet this is not just a ploy by those whose images stand in need of aggrandizement in order to catch our attention and batter us into aesthetic submission. Some enlargements do indeed have a point to make; feel apposite and meaningful. Perhaps open our eyes to an effect we had not been aware of before. A little reflection will render us all capable of distinguishing whether the given use in question is appropriate or simply an act of visual bullying.
‘Good’ and ‘bad’ uses? Judgment in art is everything. Without it there is only hype and advertising - and worse, exploitation of subject matter for profit (personal, political as well as economic) all under a suitable ideological cover….
Good. See the recent history of sublime effects from Ansell Adams; definitive black and white photography in full sublime mode, heir to the religious landscapes of art history across the world: to Andreas Gursky, where colour landscapes celebrate a mimetic sublime not entirely free from irony and indeed often inciting a sense of satire (the ‘blow-up’ as parody, one, no doubt, intentional effect of excessive hyperbole; the other is the more gentle and original ‘pastiche’, where a new sense is created out of old material, present in a new way; this sense is usually attributed to Postmodernism). The images produced by Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky are often conceptual in nature, aiming not just at the viewers’ emotions, but also at their intelligence (at least this is the claim of the best of conceptual art, as when it is not completely dominated by the post-conceptual shock, pun or gimmick). Such images are often also constituted, or constructed, that is, artificial in varying degrees from alteration to complete fabrication (so now with images as with music, where we also find a technology where citations of sound, ‘found sonic objects’, may be altered or just fabricated anew in the chopping and enveloping of sound).
And if the image is diminished, meiotic… small; ‘small is good’? Then we may have a case of the lodgment of the sublime in the fragment, the miniaturisation that condenses; so producing the sacral object as icon. Indeed the image as object; where the materiality of the image, its means of material expression augments the meaning or aesthetic value. As if the aesthetic mass was conserved when the physical object that carried the image was reduced in size.
Both rhetorical forms, of course, manifesting the ritual element of art, its framing (in choice of material, in frame and in gallery space) also calling forth the sacrifice of the time of the viewer, the time of the experience that evokes its ‘specialness’ or ‘set-apartness’ – its inheritance or evocation of the force of the sacred.
Bad. The enlargement of an ordinary image to make it arresting. A second glance will reveal its inflated and empty character. (Much advertising.)
And in between; the very real difference that enlargement makes…when is it legitimate to do this… when is the result good art and when bad? Pretending sublimity; adding grossness. (Ironically whilst making small may also have the effect of pretending preciousness – making large or small may be becoming ‘precious’!)
What is most suitable for small scale art and what large? What should we enlarge and what should we diminish in size? Otherwise put: when to employ the trope of Hyperbole and when Meiosis?
Art History indicates several prior uses and possibilities (based upon received codes of viewing). Religious and political aggrandisement may be appropriated to elevate something hitherto regarded as below consideration; elevating details or the ‘lowly’; so offering them a newly found, or newly suggested, elevation of aesthetic status – and by these means other forms of status are also implied. Certain effects of the sacred, not least that of eye-raising, may be attained in this way… Conversely miniturisation also carries an effect of sacralisation; as a making precious (in the best sense); the sense here is of a portable icon – a portable object representing, encapsulating, a larger field of meaning, condensing a vaster field of emotional significance (more akin to a metaphor, or symbol, such as the image of a rose, or of stone – or indeed the use of these words as employed in poetry). If Hyperbole flattens us with the presence of something that is meant of overwhelm us, a gigantic, gargantuan intrusion or imposition; then Meiosis suggests a small window whose every detail is important, significant, a small opening onto another (vaster) world.
In the case of small portraits we have a similar range of effects as compact, intense or closed landscapes (a piece of value preserved). By contrast large, open landscapes, or political portraits - a big Mao face (encompassing value imposed). The rhetoric of the Face; the philosophy of the Face; the presence of a person, commanding obedience, respect (the maintenance of ‘Face’ as in honour code or signifying social position), and (after Levinas) the possibility of our benevolence and protection. A history of the appropriations of which can be found first in the religious, then the political portrait.
So the history of poster art, of political art, also apes that of the religions politics once aimed to replace.
Big. Landscapes, gardens portals, views… the ‘wall’ removed, as in the theatre, and more recently the cinema (and even more recently, in a technological progression which is largely quantitative, in the case of the expanded television screen), where one wall is dedicated to the illusionism of access to another place…
(But also miniaturised landscapes; gardens or even the potted plant as compressions, image props for the memory or for belief… ideals translated into the language of the image (the culture that is Nature tamed)).
An exhibition exploring these effects would include at least one ‘blow-up’ (or better two, one landscape and one face) as well as some small… and medium images (the inclusion of different sizes would help to demonstrate differing affects… the effective rhetoric of differing sizes). There would be no need, however, to frame or even to print a big reproduction, in many cases, especially if just experimenting (even if the experiment is in didacticism), a wall projection will do.
What is the suitability of certain images for enlarged projection; landscapes, architectural features and portraits, - as before, poor pictures are not improved by enlargement, neither, interestingly, are most nudes – again, too gross? Certainly staged nudes and attitudes look yet more staged, more unnatural, so giving the picture a false or forced air…
Bottom line. A change of size will always entail a change of meaning (a difference in signifier = a difference in signified); the point is, is it apposite, appropriate, worth it, does it contribute, and so, say, something worthwhile? (It is interesting to note that many enlarged colour photographs would simply look like everyday snapshots, Kodak, Polaroids, if they were left at their ‘original’ or ‘normal’ size… finally, pragmatically, the viewer must decide whether anything of significance has been added by the increase in size.)
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013