Tiny minds

Why minia­tur­ism is get­ting big­ger every day

The Observer Magazine - - Contents - Si­mon Garfield’s In Minia­ture: How Small Things Il­lu­mi­nate the World is pub­lished by Canon­gate at £14.99. Buy it for £12.89 visit guardian­book­shop.com

At the end of last year I made my­self eight inches tall. I had seen the movie Down­siz­ing , in which Matt Da­mon shrinks him­self into a place called Leisure­land, and I’d thought, “How hard can that be?” It turns out, not hard at all. I paid £199 to be pho­tographed in a small white bell tent at West­field shop­ping cen­tre in Strat­ford, east Lon­don, and was told to stand on a round white disk and keep per­fectly still. As I froze the white disk be­gan to ro­tate slowly, and a bank of 14 cam­eras on a pole took about 400 pho­to­graphs of me from top to toe. The whole thing lasted less than a minute, and when it was over I watched the lay­ered images ren­der­ing on a dis­play screen at the back of the tent. Once the pho­tos had com­bined to re­for­mat me back into a whole per­son, the 3D image was sent to a 3D printer, and within a few weeks I was made into a sand­stone com­pos­ite.

The first sight wasn’t un­nerv­ing, as I had ex­pected, but re­as­sur­ing: it was a good like­ness. Re­ceiv­ing my model was a lit­tle like un­box­ing an Ac­tion Man, al­though I couldn’t bend its arms or legs, and I wasn’t quite so ripped. The re­ac­tion from those who saw it un­pre­pared was dif­fer­ent: they were as­ton­ished. There was sur­prise that such a thing was pos­si­ble, and ad­mi­ra­tion for the de­tail. They com­mented on the ac­cu­racy of my hair, and the creases in my jacket and jeans. And al­most ev­ery­one wanted one of them­selves or their fam­ily or their pets.

This is the minia­ture’s mo­ment. Jessie Bur­ton’s muchloved novel, The Minia­tur­ist , was a best­seller and a re­cent BBC adap­ta­tion. In March 2017, the most no­table sale at the Euro­pean Fine Art Fair in Maas­tricht was a Dutch doll’s house con­tain­ing 200 17th-cen­tury sil­ver or­na­ments (the ask­ing price was €1.75m). Four months later, a minia­ture por­trait of Ge­orge IV by Richard Cosway sold at Christie’s for £341,000, many times the pre­vi­ous record for the artist. Ear­lier this year, a 19th-cen­tury French porce­lain doll sold in Mary­land for $333,500, a world record for a doll at auc­tion.

What can pos­si­bly be the ap­peal? The an­swer lies in our de­sire for mas­tery and elu­ci­da­tion. The abil­ity to en­hance a life by bring­ing scaled-down or­der and il­lu­mi­na­tion to an oth­er­wise chaotic world – a world over which we may oth­er­wise feel we have lit­tle con­trol – can­not be over­val­ued. The fas­ci­na­tion of hold­ing in our hands some­thing com­pletely re­alised at an im­pos­si­bly re­duced scale is a wholly ful­fill­ing one, and the sat­is­fac­tions of in­quis­i­tive ob­ser­va­tion will never tire. At its sim­plest, the minia­ture shows us how to see, learn and ap­pre­ci­ate more with less.

I’ve writ­ten a book about the role of the minia­ture in our lives, and I’m not sure I’ve ever tack­led a sub­ject as big. The minia­ture world em­braces con­trol. The toys we en­joy as chil­dren in­vest us with a rare power at a young age, con­fer­ring the po­tency of adults, and pos­si­bly giants. Toy cars and dolls and plas­tic con­struc­tion kits are not merely pli­able in our hands; they ren­der us con­querors. We may never have such do­min­ion over the world again, un­less we con­tinue the play into adult­hood.

As adults, we bring things down to size to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate them. Some­thing too big to vi­su­alise at full scale – a build­ing per­haps, or a war – may be ren­dered com­pre­hen­si­ble at 12:1. Artists, sculp­tors, set de­sign­ers and po­ets all work in minia­ture be­cause it en­cour­ages greater scru­tiny and deeper par­tic­i­pa­tion. Minia­ture items help us imag­ine grander schemes. A sig­nal box on a model rail­way is eyed with needling pre­ci­sion, and with the care we would sel­dom ap­por­tion to one at full size. Ar­chi­tects of fu­ture cities must first scheme in model form, and the model may be the only proof that they at­tempted such a thing.

We would strug­gle to ed­u­cate our­selves without the minia­ture. Mod­els have been part of the in­tel­lec­tual ar­chi­tec­ture of mu­se­ums for more than 200 years, and it is of­ten the spa­tial en­counter with these ob­jects that make a child’s first en­counter with a mu­seum mem­o­rable. The sat­is­fac­tion of ob­serv­ing small things be­comes a de­sire to make small things, and both stages ad­dress the hu­man need for com­pre­hen­sion and or­der. We live in a huge and doomy uni­verse, and con­trol­ling just a tiny scaled-down part of it re­stores our sense of or­der and worth. We may not play in the World Cup or the Ry­der Cup, but there is al­ways ta­ble foot­ball and crazy golf. What is a drone if not a mod­ern re­mote-con­trolled model aero­plane? And what is a globe if not ev­ery­thing we un­der­stand about the lay of the land?

I think we may also strug­gle to ed­u­cate our­selves without the ama­teur. The world ad­vances on en­thu­si­asms and in­ge­nu­ity from the shed and the garage (the steam en­gine, the per­sonal com­puter), and un­til their work is ap­pre­ci­ated and val­ued they know only pri­vate pas­sion and fa­mil­ial dis­ap­proval. But the minia­ture as­pires to art: at its best, it may of­fer up the il­lu­mi­nat­ing and pro­found. At the very least, it may ex­pand our per­cep­tion of the things the mind only thinks it knows.

Soon af­ter I be­gan ex­am­in­ing the scaled-down world I found I had fallen down a rab­bit hole so in­fi­nite that I feared I might never crawl out of it. I once re­garded with sus­pi­cion the sign on the door of the doll’s house em­po­rium near my home that says: “This is not a toy shop.” For what else could it be? When I en­tered I found tiny ten­nis rac­quets with real string­ing, and jars of Mar­mite so small that even a mouse wouldn’t be sat­is­fied come teatime. The shop per­formed that fa­mil­iar minia­ture trick: it had in­deli­ble be­lief in its own ex­is­tence. And be­cause ev­ery­thing was minia­ture, noth­ing looked small. I left the shop be­liev­ing that the cars out­side were jug­ger­nauts, and the pil­lar box was the size of the Guggen­heim.

Worlds within worlds ex­isted long be­fore those sug­gested by Lewis Car­roll or quan­tum physics. The his­tory of the minia­ture stretches back to the an­cients, and its path tracks an ir­re­duc­ible line. Lu­cretius had it right when he ob­served, “A small thing may give an anal­ogy of great ‹

‹ things, and show the tracks of knowl­edge,” and the art di­rec­tor Ge­orge Lois had it right too when he claimed, “The only thing that gets bet­ter when it gets big­ger is the pe­nis.”

I spent time with Egyp­tian shabtis, the pot­tery fig­urines de­signed to se­cure a life free of toil in the af­ter­life. I stud­ied the wooden model of a slave ship that has­tened the end of the slave trade in the UK. But al­most in­evitably I was drawn to the ob­ses­sives, those men with their train driver’s caps and their tiny mod­els in sheds and at­tics, with their wives long gone… And their wives with their own china mad­nesses, their lit­tle toy fam­i­lies, their smooth hedge­hog col­lec­tions, their trea­sured things in felt. We cre­ate small uni­verses in which we may bury our­selves to the ex­clu­sion of all else. Block­ing out real life for a while – al­ways the pre­req­ui­site of the ded­i­cated do­mes­tic hobby, from doll’s house mod­eller to jig­saw en­thu­si­ast to adult book colourist – may be con­tem­pla­tive, med­i­ta­tive, blink­ered and es­sen­tial. The peo­ple crouch­ing over tiny de­tails as if the world de­pended on it are only do­ing it be­cause their world does de­pend on it.

The deep crazi­ness be­gan in the 19th cen­tury with the flea cir­cus, in which crea­tures with names such as The Great Her­man were teth­ered to jew­eller’s tiny char­i­ots and ap­peared to pull them for fun; they were ac­tu­ally try­ing to rid them­selves of the har­ness. The fleas also fought du­els (not gen­er­ally of their own vo­li­tion for their swords were sim­i­larly teth­ered), and ap­peared to jump through hoops. So pop­u­lar were these at­trac­tions in Lon­don, Ham­burg and New York that flea mas­ters vied for the pub­lic’s shilling with all man­ner of huck­ster­ism, in­clud­ing a news­pa­per story claim­ing that one star flea – a dare­devil on a mo­tor­cy­cle – had de­serted his cir­cus with a bout of de­pres­sion.

No less ex­treme, I en­joyed strain­ing my eyes with the en­thu­si­asts of the Minia­ture Book So­ci­ety, a group who will stop at noth­ing to bring great lit­er­a­ture down to size. The mem­bers, about 300 world­wide, are pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the artis­tic beauty of vol­umes of any sub­ject, but will also proudly sell you what was once con­sid­ered the world’s small­est book, a bound col­lec­tion of flower il­lus­tra­tions printed in Japan in 2013 at 0.7mm x 0.7mm. But such a feat now ap­pears huge along­side the minia­ture read­ing ma­te­rial ren­dered pos­si­ble by the dig­i­tal world, such as the en­tire open­ing page of A Tale of Two Cities re­duced by Stan­ford nan­otech­nol­o­gists to fit on the head of a pin.

Pins and nee­dles fea­ture a lot among mod­ern minia­tur­ists, not least the mi­cro­scopic en­deav­ours of Wil­lard Wi­gan MBE, whose hon­our has ac­crued from plac­ing, say, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs or The Last Sup­per within the eye of a nee­dle, or the as­tute and emo­tive work of Slinkachu, who aban­dons mi­nus­cule plas­tic model-rail­way fig­ures to their tragic or hi­lar­i­ous fate in the real world (a seem­ingly huge pro-Trump elec­tion badge pierces the heart of a tiny po­ten­tial voter; a man hangs him­self on a thin branch of vi­brant cherry blos­som).

And then I wasted a fair bit of time watch­ing some­one’s hands make tiny food on YouTube. Here, ev­ery­thing is re­duced in scale – the chop­ping board, the en­tire mis­een-place ar­ray. The spoons look very stupid when held be­tween the tips of two av­er­age-sized fin­gers, but try to sit through, for ex­am­ple, the minia­ture con­struc­tion of an egg-burger with car­rots and broc­coli by YouTube’s Minia­ture Space and not start sali­vat­ing. And you won’t be alone: at the time of writ­ing, this video has been watched 1,113,391 times. The in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia has val­i­dated and mon­e­tised all these tiny mad­nesses: a maker may no longer be dis­missed as just a sad or crazy per­son, they are in­struc­tional lead­ers.

At the end of my re­search – sel­dom ar­du­ous, it should be said – I won­dered where my own fas­ci­na­tion with minia­ture ob­jects had be­gun, and ini­tially I was stumped: grow­ing up, I wasn’t fond of Ac­tion Man or Lego, or build­ing things small. But then it dawned. One of the most trea­sured ob­jects I have from my late par­ents is a small and frag­ile sand­stone fig­ure with an Ishtar cap and up­turned arms made in Cyprus around 700 BC. I’ve been aware of it all my life, but I’ve only re­cently ac­knowl­edged its sig­nif­i­cance. It’s a fer­til­ity fig­ure, 5in tall, and I was con­ceived only a year or so af­ter my fa­ther brought it into our home. ■

We cre­ate minia­ture uni­verses in which we may bury our­selves

Lit­tle and large: (clock­wise from top) Matt Da­mon and Kris­ten Wiig in Down­siz­ing; Hay­ley Squires in the screen ver­sion of The Minia­tur­ist; a 19th cen­tury doll’s house

Bite sized: (clock­wise from top) Egyp­tian shabtis from the Mid­dle King­dom on­wards; three mi­cro­scopic art­works in the eye of a nee­dle, by Wil­lard Wi­gan

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