Altering one single property often changes everything. This is something most of us know is true, regardless of our occupation or lifestyle – a single typo makes the algorithm go wrong, replacing one ingredient makes a different type of cake – changing one variable makes a whole new equation. It makes sense, then, to also talk about oversized art as one of those peculiarities that go from familiar to strange in a glance. When everything seems to be just the way we know it, only in an unnatural scale, the effect on our perception might be more powerful than any other. Large-scale art, especially the representational kind, evokes the uncanny in the spectator, much like Freud described it in his essay Das Unheimliche. It makes us feel drawn by the familiarity, but also perplexed by the unknown, all contained in a single image.
Big Statues, Big Heroes
Art is a perfect tool to challenge and test human perception. Investing in large-scale sculptures or monumental buildings has always been a good way to exercise power, to amaze, or sometimes simply to inspire. Big has been seen as equal to mighty. Statues and sculptures in Ancient Greece and Rome were thus made to be larger than life, most of them representing mythical beings, heroes or Gods. Some of them belong to the list of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, such as Phidias’ statue of Zeus or the Colossus of Rhodes. Architecture was no exception, having the pyramids and the ancient temples in mind. It appears that, quite literally, physical greatness has always signified great importance. During the Renaissance this pattern was repeated all over again – the difference in scale, according to which an ordinary man is apparenty smaller than Michelangelo’s David, aims to represent the protagonist in a dominant manner.
Large Scale Never Went Out of Fashion
In the 20th century, people’s view of the world was practically turned inside out, which was particularly vividly embodied in the arts. The notion of an artwork’s physical presence has changed, challenged by new ways of representation. In 1947, even the very idea that big equals powerful was problematized by Mies van der Rohe’s statement that “less is more“, even if it did not directly apply to size but rather to abundance. However, art that is physically big never actually went out of fashion, even if it did change form. Master sculptors from the last century, such as Henry Moore and Alexander Calder, introduced abstract sculptures that were large and massive, even if they lost their figurative character. Oversized imagery had a big come-back during the Pop Art era as well, and finally even today, deliberately large, close-up portraits seem to be a trend when it comes to visual arts. How can it be, that the one thing that hasn’t change since antiquity is the overwhelming power of the large scale?
The actual presence of an artifact, be it a piece of jewelry or a building, is what gives us that satisfying feeling of knowing it. We can actually tell how much space it takes up, and whether it is something we can hold in our hand or something we can inhabit. Even today, when the significance of matter has been brought into question and somewhat overarched by technology, we cannot underestimate physical presence that still works with our instincts. Our senses react faster than our mind, informing us that something is bigger than us, stronger, greater. However, while we allow ourselves to be affected by appearances, our cognitive part works with the meaning of that which we see. Because of that, the meaning of an oversized piece can become as many different things as we deem possible.
Oversized Object in Pop Art
This brings us back to oversized objects in Pop Art. One of its pioneers, Claes Oldenburg, became widely known for his three soft large-scale sculptures that became very popular over time. Floor Burger, Floor Cone and Floor Cake were all made with help from Oldenburg’s wife, Patty Mucha, as part of an installation in 1962. Each represented exactly what their titles suggested. Playing with the dual nature of consumerism was one of the movement’s main agendas. Thus, oversized stuffed sculptures of junk food were irresistibly touchable, just like their real-life prototypes are addictive and tasty. The spectator is now face to face with a re-appropriated giant version of a meal that comes both as a joke and true statement, precisely because of its size. You cannot ignore it and you’d really like to touch it, but you can definitely not eat it. In favor of Pop Art where everything gets turned into a cartoon version of itself, the burger is yet another double agent – both critical and laudatory of consumerist culture.
Sculptures in Terrain
Of course, there are different ways to be ‘big’. Oldenburg’s burger was about 15 times larger than an actual burger, Michelangelo’s statue of David is roughly 3 times bigger than an average male figure. What about the artworks that do not aim to replicate shapes and forms from the world that surrounds us? Richard Long and Robert Smithson, individually known as the key land artists, both created works that measured miles. As Land Art is essentially concerned with the relationship between landscape and art, it goes without saying that the scale of their works was shifted from human to aerial – the whole planet was one big white cube. These principles are seen in similar practices of their contemporaries and successors, such as Dennis Oppenheim, or in the environmental artworks conceived by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Rarely did any of their works have aesthetic precedents in real life or nature, yet their size was one of the crucial elements of their artistic value. In relation to the landscape that they created, land artists deployed the non-human scale, as if their work was actually part of nature itself (clearly larger than anything human).
Big, as in, Immersive
Art has been on a trans-media journey for a long time, meaning that large scale is not only reserved for sculptures and landscapes. The second half of the 20th century, and all of the 21st as we know it so far, was pretty much marked by the most engaging type of artistic expression – installation, or as it was called in the time of Allan Kaprow, environment. As Boris Groys once pointed out, “the material support of the installation medium is the space itself“. It is no coincidence that installations are interchangeably called environments then, since they literally “fill up” the space that contains both the spectator and the exhibit itself. They will almost certainly be site-specific to a great extent, so the size of installations varies, depending on the size of the venue. What makes them big, however, is their immersive character, as they often seem to accentuate the volume of the space, turning the space itself into a remarkable piece of art for as long as the show’s running. For the visitor whose sense of big and small is likely to be upset by the isolating environment, an installation may appear even bigger than it actually is. Many people experienced Olafur Eliasson‘s Weather Project as larger than it was, even though it was clear that the Sun in Turbine Hall was merely a simulation. Same could be said for Anish Kapoor‘s Marsyas, which took place in the same exhibition space. When something becomes your physical environment, so that it quite literally contains you, it is as if the roles are reversed – instead of it being exposed to you, the artwork consumes you.
Ways To Understand Oversized Art
Finally, instead of focusing further on big objects and landscapes in general, let us get back to the oversized. If something is oversized, it means that it is an alternate version of an original that exemplifies the usual size. Apart from the sculptures we’ve already talked about (and many alike, such as Koons’ balloon dogs, or Ron Mueck’s enlarged heads and bodies), many faces have appeared close-up on large canvases in recent years. Both in photography and painting, a line of portraits are made to be hyper-real and enlarged, often seeming to be cropped by the format. The trajectory starts somewhere with Roy Lichtenstein’s distressed heroine from the 60’s, moving on with Cindy Sherman’s theatrical photographs in the 80’s, Jenny Saville’s grotesque portrayals of human corporeality (conveniently coinciding with Lucian Freud’s) in the 90’s and it still keeps on trending. It remains unclear whether this approach aims to depict the heroic character of the sitter, to emphasize one’s unique identity, or quite the opposite – to zoom in the image so much, that it ceases to be part of a person, and becomes a universal unit that binds us all together, a tissue, a patch of skin or a single piece of hair.
Editors’ Tip: Overs!ze: Mega Art & Installations
Scale of one’s environment has a huge impact on how we perceive the world a constantly evolving process of interaction and observation that starts during everybody’s first years as a small child in a world scaled for adults. Overs!ze features the best of installation art on a grand scale all around the world. These enormous pieces encourage imagination in new ways. The designers, sculptors, and installation artists featured in these pages discuss considerations such as weather, wind flow, method of installation, time constraints, budgets, transportation of the piece to the site, materials used and their durability, and the process of site selection. The finished projects interact in symbiotic or contrasting methods with their surroundings in carefully controlled ways to create new spatial meanings.
- Freud, S., (1919), Das Unheimliche.
- Groys, B., Politics of Installation, e-flux Journal #2, January 2009 [January 28, 2017]