These Artists Are Tackling Big Issues through Tiny Works of Art
If you run into artist Curtis Talwst Santiago on the street, he just might pull a tiny sculpture out of his pocket. While it may look like a time-worn ring box, it doesn’t contain the kind of treasure you might expect. Once opened, a miniature world is revealed; a scene that, at first glimpse, is small and endearing, but given a closer look, packs a searing, emotional punch.
“We love looking down on the world like you would in ‘god mode’ in a video game, or through Google Earth,” Santiago explains, as he discusses the very small sculptures in his “Minimized Histories” series. One four-inch-wide box opens to display a minute boat, loaded with 50 or more passengers, that’s pitching precariously in stormy seas. After you get past the awe-inspiring intricacy, Santiago’s work will likely inspire meditations on fleeing refugees. “When something so large is brought down to such a tiny, boiled-down, concentrated moment, it’s shocking and fascinating all at once,” Santiago offers. “For me, that’s the impact I want my work to have, and I feel like miniatures do have.”
Santiago is one of a number of contemporary artists working on a very, very small scale. The choice may seem at odds with an art world that, in the past 20-odd years, has seen both the size and price of contemporary art balloon to epic proportions (Jeff Koons’s towering balloon dog and Carsten Höller’s suspended sculptural slide come to mind). But these creatives find they can communicate more effectively by tapping into the age-old allure of small, sometimes downright microscopic forms, which bear a shock value all their own.
Making art on a small scale is by no means a new feat; for centuries, artists have crafted at a pint-size scale to depict and communicate cherished, esteemed, and intimate subjects. As early as the 13th century, Persians used miniscule, intricate brushstrokes to illuminate both secular and religious texts. So detailed are these tiny paintings that at times museums have exhibited them alongside magnifying glasses for visitors to use—a testament to the artists’ small-scale craftsmanship. Elizabethans, during the 1500s, wore miniature portraits of lovers—objects meant to induce “private pleasure”—around their necks. And in the 18th century, the Vatican pioneered the art of the micro-mosaic: jewel-like patchworks, some packing as many as 5,000 pieces of enamelling into a single square inch, that depicted tiny likenesses of celebrated classical sculptures.
Contemporary artists forging small works build on this rich history. Santiago, for his part, translates scenes of art history and social struggle into dioramas that fit into the palm of your hand. Deluge (2015), the aforementioned boat piece, at once references a Michelangelo painting by the same name and mass migration, in general. Other boxes have connected slavery to the recent police killings of young black men. “There’s something about when you take a subject matter like that, and shrink it down to that scale,” he explains, “at first, people view it as precious, but then they start to read the story, and everything is put into perspective.” Indeed, it’s a moving experience to find that a work you initially read as “cute” or “sweet”—a knee-jerk reaction we generally have to tiny things, like the baby animals and miniature foodstuffs that spread like wildfire on social media these days—is in fact loaded with content that’s thorny, complex, and sometimes hard to stomach.
Other more established artists have long used this scale shift as means to shine light on weighty social quandaries. The rabble-rousing duo Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose work fuses age-old issues of violence and morality with a dose of scalding wit, have created dioramas representing hell, war, and climate change using miniature figurines. One piece, titled Unhappy Feet (2010), shows a cohort of what at first look like frolicking penguins plunging into dangerous, blood-spattered waters. “The main purpose was to invent a world devoid of the vicissitudes of human dignity,” explains Jake Chapman of their use of tiny figures. “To scale things down to the domain of play, and thereby rob death of its proper magnitude.” Indeed, at a miniature size, the harrowing scenes that the artists construct are more digestible than if they were rendered at full scale. But they also allow you to take more in. A bird’s-eye view of death and destruction can induce surprising, gut-wrenching dual feelings of responsibility and helplessness.
Some artists, though, more overtly embrace the cute-factor of miniatures, using small-scale models of interiors and everyday scenes to engage themes of facade, artifice, and identity. In the 1970s, Laurie Simmons addressed homogenizing female stereotypes with photographs of dollhouse-scale domestic scenarios—an overhead view of a woman sitting listlessly at a kitchen table, the ingredients of the perfect feast strewn in front of her, for instance. The photograph was printed at a small scale—3.5 x 5 inches—emphasizing the belittling, stifling nature of “perfect housewife” ideal.
More recently, artist Aleia Murawski’s tiny domestic environments have taken Instagram by storm. Her Sims-scale worlds, which readily reveal their artificial nature by showcasing the unfinished edges of walls or errant, life-size objects (a finger, a stick of butter), comment on our blind trust of images and identities that we encounter on the Internet. “Miniatures allow me to experiment with scale relationships and manipulate the viewer's perception,” she explains, from her studio in Chicago. “The fun and challenging part is to both create a convincing environment and to reveal its artifice by inserting body parts, foods, or bugs.”
Seattle-based photographer Christopher Boffoli also uses the scale shift between Lilliputian figurines and life-size foods, which dwarf them, to create dramatic scenarios that serve as metaphors for troubling social mores. In Pharmaceutical Memories (2013), for instance, a tiny woman is surrounded by a seemingly never-ending sea of pill-shaped candies—a comment on our contemporary dependence on prescription drugs, which is fueled, according to many, by a money-grubbing pharmaceutical industry.
The challenge of creating tiny work, and the concentration and dexterity it requires, is the initial draw for many artists working in miniature. “It was the challenge of figuring out how to miniaturize every step of the process that really drew me in,” explains Jon Almeda, a Tacoma, Washington-based sculptor whose sinuous ceramic vessels are sometimes as small as one-inch tall. Almeda’s pots are so small that they can perch on the facet of pencil and are dwarfed by a stick of chapstick; this is made evident by the artist’s Instagram account, which has attracted some 266,000 followers. “Any time you are working small it requires a steady hand, and this is especially true when manipulating a very fluid piece of clay spinning on a wheel,” he continues. When he throws his little gobs of clay, he uses the tip of his pointer finger to shape their elegant necks.
But Almeda’s sculptures are more than mere feats of process. His current series celebrates the large-scale work of under-recognized mid-century modern ceramics masters, like Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, and Rose Cabat. By reproducing their pioneering designs at one-tenth the size, or smaller, he uses his captive social media audience (first drawn in by the awe that miniatures inspire) to bring awareness to a weighty subject: the marginalization of great artists working in his chosen medium of clay.
The risk that all of these artists take—and take pains to circumvent and manipulate—is that of their work being fetishized, or not taken seriously, for being small. As Santiago’s work, for instance, gains more traction—it is currently on view in solo shows at New York’s Rachel Uffner Gallery and Philadelphia’s Lord Ludd—he is looking for ways to minimize these reductive reactions. “It will be the last boat I do, because these can become fetish objects, especially in an art market where my work is now being collected by people with a lot of wealth,” he says regarding Deluge. “The last thing I want to do, if I’m talking about slavery, for instance, is make a fetish object—something you look at for a moment, then close it and that’s the end of it.”
Santiago has also made the decision to remove figures from his most recent work. “Hopefully the absence of a figure makes your understanding of the situation a little more serious.” he explains. “If you’re looking at a slave market, and you just see the slave auction stone with a chain and an empty wagon—and there’s nobody around—it enhances the sense of tragedy.” Looking down at the scene from “god mode,” it indeed sent shivers down this writer’s spine.
“The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it,” French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space (1958), a meditation on the ability of creative output of all kinds to shift our perception of the world. “But in doing this, it must be understood that values become condensed and enriched in miniature.” He, like these artists, understood the conceptual, eye-opening power of smallness.