The big idea behind small pieces of public art
New projects appearing around Dublin show that, when it comes to art, size isn’t everything
Where did all the small things go? Contemporary street lamps are plain, the little cast-iron shamrocks and curlicues adorning their older relations banished. Road signs are bland, utilitarian place-markers giving no sense of place; Luas stops are an exercise in exclusion of anything remotely fanciful or memorable.
The eradication of detail and ornament that ushered in Modernism began just over a hundred years ago in 1908. It’s starting point was a lecture, later published as part of a book, by Austrian architect Adolf Loos. In “Ornament and Crime”, he argued that ornamentation was degenerate, giving the example of tattoos: “There are prisons where 80 per cent of the inmates bear tattoos. Those who are tattooed but are not imprisoned are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed person dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before he committed a murder.” It was a remarkably influential essay.
At the same time, things have become bigger: buildings, roads, institutions, even art. Perhaps the two go hand in hand. Large roads call for large signs, where additional decoration could easily become florid. Huge gallery spaces engender similarly massive pieces of art, by the likes of Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor. The ambition of the Dublin Docklands project was to have given Dublin a sculpture by Antony Gormley, 46 metres high. As art gets bigger, the ornament often disappears.
There’s a difference between small and minimalist. Minimalist artists make their work to a human scale, or larger, so that you can find an idea or sense of something reflected directly back, without the distractions of imagery or pattern. At the opposite end of things, the miniature has the potential to distil, to draw the viewer in to contemplate a world in which everything is intensified. Think about the different ways in which we, for example, stand back from a life-size portrait in the National Gallery, or lean into a tiny cameo.
Loos himself wasn’t above a highly ornamental style of writing: “We have out-grown ornament, we have struggled through to a state without ornament. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, the capital of heaven. It is then that fulfilment will have come.”
Fortunately, what he hadn’t realised is that everything that happens is part of a cycle, and just as we are coming to terms with the flaws of the big (big government, big banking – you name it) so too are we finding again a space for the small. This is significant because the spaces we inhabit shape and inflect our ways of behaving, of thinking. It is easy amid the big to think that one’s own choices, decisions and actions have no bearing on society, that it is organisations and structures rather than people that make things happen. Amid the small, it’s clearer that we all have responsibilities.