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Scale in Contemporary Sculpture

Enlargement, Miniaturisation and the Life-Size


Rachel Wells


Farnham: Ashgate, 2013

Hardcover. 282 p. ISBN 978-1409431947. £60 / 64€


Reviewed by Charlotte Gould

Université Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle



The exhibition of Ron Mueck’s sculptures in Paris at the Fondation Cartier this year allows for a perfect illustration of what Rachel Wells sees as a new trend in contemporary art, that of the prevalence of contemporary works which explore scale. While a consideration of scale and proportion is inherent in the very act of creating art, what Scale in Contemporary Sculpture actually approaches is the artistic and economic context in which many contemporary enlargements of figures, miniaturisations or life-size representations are created today, and more specifically in Britain. This makes the book a very welcome volume on nineties British art, yet one which dares not speak its name by failing to be specific about this particular geographical background. Many articles and some books have been written about the specific context in which the nineties British art scene emerged and its controversial critical reception (see John Roberts and Dave Beech, The Philistine Controversy, as well as a series of books on the subject by Matthew Collings), so a look into more formal aspects is a refreshing approach.

Scale is a paramount notion in characterising artworks in so far as it defines how viewers interact with them not simply in terms of verisimilitude but also comparatively to the physical space occupied by the human body. Scale is relational, as well as contextual, it provides a frame that helps us place objects within the physical world. Rachel Wells suggests that the post-Cold War era in which we live has provided the background in which explorations of scale have flourished, first because it has been one in which capitalism has had the upper hand – with consumerism being reflected in the gigantism of some sculptures –, secondly, because a postmodern take on explaining, or not, the world, has meant Western societies have been gripped by hermeneutic anxieties these changes in scale can address. The interest demonstrated by contemporary artists in this notion has recently been explored in two British exhibitions: “Size Matters, Exploring scale in the Arts Council Collection”, a touring exhibition in 2005-2006, and “1:1” at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge in 2006. Indeed, the literary references peppered in the book also tend to stress a specifically British interest in the idea: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but also Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Three American artists, all tackling the monumental, Claes Oldenburg, Charles Ray and Jeff Koons are presented as titular figures of this sculptural trend, but this in a chapter entitled “Precedents”, meaning that the real subject is the one that follows, the Young British Artists (YBAs) and their take on scale. While the notion could have been addressed as a universal category affecting the approach of geographically and historically diverse art practices, Rachel Wells wishes to advance a general theory of contemporary scale extrapolated from mainly British case studies. The heuristics of the notion of scale as defined in this book – and in this regard its title is rather deceptive – does not focus on what might be termed “world art history”, but rather uses the notion of scale to talk about British art in the 1990s and beyond, and more specifically, to address the Young British Art (YBA) phenomenon. Surprisingly, the author seems loath to admit as much and leaves the term YBA out of her title. What is therefore most striking about her demonstration is that she should have dedicated a whole book to a movement she does not seem to find deserves art historical treatment. This is how she briefly presents the YBAs: “Now viewed as a reactionary post-Thatcherite phenomenon, much of the ‘yba’ artwork seemed designed simply to unnerve and alarm its viewers, and to be provocative without demonstrating a clear purpose or justification” [40]. This sweeping statement is easily explained by the fact that her principal source for contextualising the group is Julian Stallabrass from the Courtauld who directed the PhD from which this book is derived. His well-known extreme dislike of the informal grouping is here transcribed as a factual, validated art historical appraisal of the artists concerned – probably this book’s central flaw.

Wells sees YBA’s main difference with Pop as Pop having assimilated pop culture into art, while YBA seems to have turned art into pop culture. YBAs are presented as having been compliant to everyday mass media, while satire was available to Oldenburg and kitsch to Koons. This is of course something of a misrepresentation, especially when commenting upon the work of dozens of artists with careers spanning more than two decades. Strategies of infiltration of the common culture have of course been used by YBAs, but not necessarily so as to renounce art.

Scale in Contemporary Sculpture therefore strives to search for redeeming features in the artists it presents or to justify its author’s interest in some of these artists by stating that they were merely on the “fringe” of the movement. The book looks into the work of Ron Mueck, Mona Hatoum, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Damien Hirst (invariably described as “unsubtle”) and Marc Quinn. But Wells then introduces the distinction she makes with Mark Wallinger, Gavin Turk, Michael Landy, Elizabeth Wright and Angela Bulloch who, although they might have been categorised as YBAs (something very few artists have ever claimed to be), have, according to Wells, used exaggerations of scale in order to illuminate a relationship between measurement and meaning, contrary to a more postmodernist compliance on the part of their contemporaries who have simply embraced the end-of-century distrust of any such stable value systems. The author thus shows some degree of naivety in concluding a paragraph thus: “Re-scaling anything that is portentous or poignant seems to exaggerate its issues and suggest a particular agenda on the part of the artist” [50]. YBA, contrary to its predecessors would offer “a postmodern self-reflexivity in its satire of its own consumption as art” [55]. The dismissal of the group then turns to a somewhat stronger accusation: “It is not surprising that a reactionary tendency such as ‘yba’ responded to a normalisation of ‘otherness’ by in some way flaunting a politically incorrect and rather complacent uninterest in ideas of hybridity and displacement” [57]. These are passages in which the damning voice of Stallabrass, author of High Art Lite in 1996, transpires.

Wells then presents the next generation as a more subtle one because they are more interested in the miniature than in bold statements: Loris Gréaud, Sarah Bradbury, Akiko and Masako Takada, a claim which is not substantiated by any demonstration that small-scale might be superior to large-scale. The recent context for art commissions (she mentions the Tate Modern Turbine Hall and the Fourth Plinth Project which features on the cover of the book, but we could also think of the different spectacular projects funded by Artangel) have allowed artists to find enough space to explore scale large and small. Something which allows site-specificity as well as humour and pathos. The evocation of Michael Landy’s 1:1 reproduction of his parents’ house in the Tate Britain Duveen Hall in 2004, Semi-Detached, allows for a fascinating analysis of the work in terms of Landy’s father’s mis-measurement by the economy when he was made redundant and forced to spend his days at home. The same can be said about pages describing Elizabeth Wright’s similar-looking 1996 installation, Bungalow Showroom Gallery, a house built within the gallery according to the specifications of residents who in 1943 had been respondents in surveys asking them what their preferred form of rehousing would be when their area was claimed for compulsory purchase by the government, before actually being relocated to new towns and in high-density housing. Wells at this point stresses that the life-size, in the English language, is actually measured using the human body with feet, hands, etc.

But another rule also governs scale. As a visual effect, it is unstable. Because in sculpture, unlike in painting, the change of scale is geometrical rather than simply arithmetical, strictly observed principles can also be used to swell or shrink a sculpture, creating an effect which does not depend on mathematical adjustments. The final look of a work depends on context and vantage point. The renewed interest in Britain in public sculpture means the notion of scale is topical since sculptures are often viewed alongside a buzzing urban background. When investing landscapes and cityscapes, sculptors are able to play with our sight and use the environment to make sculptures appear bigger or smaller, making scale a visual phenomenon as well as a physical one. Outside of the gallery and studio, the artist is no longer faced with a placeless and thus scaleless vision, but a context in which scale is central.

Wells insists on the metaphorical nature of scale as opposed to the literalness of size in a postmodern culture. Postmodern theory is conjured here in so much as its mainly American and French references point to the gradual loss of meaning of the notions of scale and physical dimension in a context of fragmentation of point of view, with the post-Cold War era marked by feelings of incommensurability: “Exaggerations of scale can appear to epitomise such postmodern relativism: a three-dimensional miniaturisation or enlargement exemplifying the acceptance of a plurality of different scales, separate objects co-existing incommensurably, asking nothing further than acceptance of their destruction of a common ground” [43]. Yet, it is difficult to understand how exactly the author manages to draw the line between meaningful and unsubtle use of scale. Measurement should be a common language, but it not always is. As a falsely authoritative system which can claim to understand only through comparison but can never stand alone, it is difficult to read into it the qualitative emphasis Wells associates with the life-size. To illustrate this, she turns to the work of Duane Hanson, his presence justified by his having been collected by Charles Saatchi and exhibited alongside YBAs at County Hall.

One of the most interesting chapters concerns the problem of photography which, according to Max Horkheimer, shrinks the world, and for Paul Virilio creates claustrophobia by abolishing depth and distance. Louise Lawler is presented here as the paragon of the postmodernist photographer, but Wells also looks into the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto and into digitisation with Angela Bulloch’s representation of an enlarged pixel and Thomas Ruff’s jpeg series on 9/11, which reveals the pixel grid and thus focuses on image rather than on event, on the unreality of a catastrophe.

Over the past twenty years sculptors exploring scale have been fascinated with resemblance and difference, with comparison and relation. These notions, Wells identifies as also being the traits of metaphor. She mentions the similarity between scale and metaphor proclaimed by T.J. Clark on the subject of the “littleness” of some Jackson Pollock paintings, expressions of a Cold War sense of space: the instant convertibility of extreme sizes. But this chapter simply demonstrates that the metaphorical sense of scale is not always convincing. Then the notion of allegory is tried out: defined as a perpetual deferral of meaning by Craig Owens, it acquires, with Barthes, an obtuse meaning alluding to a signifier without signified. However, because according to the author explorations of scale tend to prompt a desire for significance, this allegorical lead seems disappointing: “While the life-size offers a faithful doubling that implies a desire for ‘true-meaning’, for what is inexchangeable, the proportional ratios of enlargements and miniaturisations offer, if not clear allegorical interpretation, at least an attempt that signals the desire for meaning” [175].

The sculptures under study explore difference and the perception of difference, as well as the uncomfortable position of seeming out of place in the context of postmodern incommensurability: “Scaled sculpture reveals a desire to prevent the disappearance of interpretation from the uncertainties of a present still dominated by the legacies of postmodern doubt” [177]. However, this is not a desire the author identifies in most of her case studies. By stating simply that exaggeration of scale either presents a critique of the commodity fetishism that has grown since the end of the Cold War, or can become complicit in it, the book does not provide a strong conclusion.

Author's response

By reading Scale in Contemporary Sculpture as a ‘welcome volume on nineties British art’, Charlotte Gould has misrepresented and overlooked the central concerns and arguments of the book.

Contrary to Gould’s suggestion, the book is not primarily about British art in the 1990s. The ‘YBA’ work made during that decade did contribute substantially to the trend in contemporary international sculpture that I identify: hence the dedication of a large section within the second chapter to it. There is no sense in which this contribution is masked or unacknowledged, as Gould implies. However, this section is not the only one to follow the section on ‘Precedents’ as Gould suggests is the case: throughout the rest of the chapter and the book I address artwork made between 1989 and 2012 by artists of many different nationalities, including, amongst others, Olivo Barbieri, Maurizio Cattelan, Jim Campbell, Thomas Demand, David Levinthal, Robert Kusmirowski, Louise Lawler, Roman Ondák, Thomas Ruff, Karin Sander, Laurie Simmons, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Do-Ho Suh and Akiko and Masako Takada. The reach of the book clearly extends beyond 1990s Britain. As a reflection of the text’s emphasis, only 10 of the book’s 60 illustrations present ‘YBA’ artwork from the 1990s.

Neither is it accurate to attribute what discussion there is of the ‘YBA’s to information that Gould has read in the book’s Acknowledgements pages. The discussion of the ‘YBA’s considers thinking on the subject by a variety of key writers. As well as considering Julian Stallabrass’s influential book on the phenomenon, I discuss analysis of the ‘YBA’s by Thomas Crow and Kobena Mercer, whose respective ideas on the ‘YBA’ relationship to Pop and to ‘Otherness’ are referenced but not correctly identified in Gould’s review. Neither their voices, nor mine, are that of Stallabrass. At no point in the book do I state that the ‘YBA’s ‘renounced art’.

As a book about scale in contemporary sculpture, the text proposes a key definition of scale and of size in the opening chapter that is used throughout the subsequent discussion – a definition which Gould overlooks. As a result of this definition, I am not concerned with looking into the effects of size but rather I address enlargement and miniaturisation together in one chapter because both present an exaggeration of scale. It is this exaggeration in either direction, alongside a persistent use of the life-size, that I claim is an international trend that has emerged alongside, and in part as a result of, accelerated global capitalism since the late 1980s. It is therefore not an accurate reflection of the book to suggest that it argues that consumerism is only ‘reflected in giganticism’, nor that miniaturisation is always superior to enlargement. Gould’s review also suggests a misreading of my discussion of the role that the body plays in the perception of scale.

Gould’s determination to read the whole book as a treatise on nineties art in Britain continues in her references to the third chapter, on the life-size. While its exhibition history alongside ‘YBA’ work is noted, Duane Hanson’s sculpture is not discussed because of Saatchi’s inclusion of it in a YBA exhibition. To suggest that it is, implies Gould’s own imposed agenda and reliance upon supposition rather than the book’s contents. The discussion of the life-size as related to the qualitative in Chapter 3 is a development of the definition of scale and size put forward at the start of the book. Further, I do not argue that measurement is a ‘falsely authoritative system’ – Gould is here quoting a view which I identify in the practice and writing of Mel Bochner.

There are further misrepresentations in Gould’s references to the final chapter and conclusion. With regard to scale and metaphor, I myself argue that the metaphoricity of scale, suggested by T.J. Clark, is not as accurate a description as its allegorical nature. This argument is made through a detailed discussion of Paul Ricoeur’s writing on metaphor and of Craig Owens and Hal Foster’s writing on allegory. Further, I do not suggest that the address of scale in the sculpture under discussion ‘prompts’ a desire for significance, but rather, as with allegory, suggests one. Given the theoretical context in which this sculpture has been produced, and which is discussed at length within the book but not the review, this conclusion is no small claim.  

The central argument throughout the book is that the trend of international sculpture that has emerged both during and because of the acceleration of global capitalism since the end of the Cold War, offers a form of resistance to the claims of a loss of scale, and a divorce between measurement and meaning, that are prevalent in postmodern theory. I conclude that as a recent international trend – ‘YBA’ artwork included – the address of scale in contemporary sculpture has insistently presented a reliance upon external difference that is at odds with the incommensurability offered by key postmodern theorists. While this is a conclusion that has been reached through close analysis of the artworks themselves, I do not attempt to neatly override the differences between the individual artworks by suggesting that they have all done this in the same way.


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