Adventures in Lilliput

by Dr Alicia Foster, art historian and writer

Manipulating scale - miniaturising or magnifying - has been a device used to specific effect at different moments in cultural history. In Gulliver's Travels (1726) the satirist Jonathan Swift created the island of Lilliput whose inhabitants, only six inches tall, fight and feud, their aggression and self-aggrandisement made ridiculous by their minute stature. Swift used miniaturisation to criticise humanity - it was a device by which he could, like his hero Lemuel Gulliver, literally look down upon the moral smallness, the ultimate irrelevance, of the society around him. For the Victorians, men with mutton chop whiskers and crinoline ladies, the great strides towards progress - the glitter of glass palaces and the hum of new machines - took place against a backdrop of poverty, danger and the death of god. Terrors accompanied the delights of modernity, and some escaped from the baleful eye of the camera lens into miniature worlds, fantasies of tiny creatures - natural and supernatural - in books and paintings. In art over recent decades there has been a trend towards similarly extremes of proportion - from the monumental macho metal abstractions of the 1960s and 1970s, to the vast enlargement of small objects - think of Mona Hatoum and her Mouli-Julienne - to The Chapman Brothers' hellish tableaux of toy Nazi soldiers. And now, in this exhibition, we see the making of entire miniature worlds.

There is, about The Miniature Worlds Show, a Victorian aesthetic, not necessarily in terms of a return to the modes and media of Victorian art making, but a summoning up of the wider cultural atmosphere of the nineteenth century - the exhibition poster that looks like a flyer for a Victorian circus or music hall show, the beautifully crafted things, the seductive/creepy fairy story atmosphere of some pieces, the obsessive fascination with other, inner worlds that unites all of the artists, and the concern with nostalgia and memory. And our memory of the Victorians, our understanding of them, has shifted in recent years - beyond clichés of a repressive, philistine society, to an awareness of the richness and nuance of Victorian culture, and of the crucial role that the idea of the past had for them. Victorian nostalgia was not all sugary sentiment; it played a potent role in creative thought. For the illustrious figures of the age - from Charles Darwin to JMW Turner - nostalgia and recollection fuelled the imagination1. Looking backwards, paradoxically, gave this great age of progress its forward momentum. Remembering allowed the debris of experience, buried in the memory, to resurface, be organised and put to use in the mapping of new territories - real and imagined. And by the end of the Victorian age, with the work of Freud, the private interior world of memory gained a new significance - the child came to be seen as an adult in miniature, the experiences of the infant, long ago, the key to the mysterious pains and anxieties suffered by the full-grown patient. The work of the analyst - to unlock the door into the inner world of the analysand, to let light in to a darkened room, strangely furnished with a bric-a-brac of memories, desires and fantasies.

And we have, in this exhibition, works that attempt to excavate, materialise and set in motion private worlds: miniaturisation, then, evoking both history (the toys of childhood, our infant selves, our Victorian ancestors) and the individuality and idiosyncrasy of interior life. Working against the perceived rationality, universalism and reductivism of the modernism that dominated the twentieth century, and the high impact, slick, often large-scale art of recent years, we have, enacted in all of these works an intimate relationship between one individual and their intensively crafted art - and although these pieces are all finely made, they are never slick.

Adam Humphries makes exquisite, fragile environments modelled on tiny bits of rubbish - a twig in bud, screws, scraps of paper, even dust - that he has collected. These enigmatic objects are carefully arranged to appear as if carelessly scattered or swept into a heap. Rubbish was the central metaphor in perhaps the greatest novel by the greatest novelist of the Victorian age. Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) centres on the tangled inheritance of one of the enormous dust heaps that were the waste products of Victorian London - the author's satirical critique of the role of money in the chaotic urban society around him. Even the titles of some of the works in The Miniature Worlds Show notably Andrea Gregson's Wonderland and Tessa Farmer's Parade of the Captive Hedgehog, recall the overwrought decadence of Victorian fairy literature and fairy painting - most obviously the obsessively detailed, dream-like scenes conjured up by the patricide Richard Dadd from his cell in Bethlem Hospital.

Dadd's teeming pictorial world has often been interpreted, in the light of his biography, as filled with sinister intimations. And these contemporary miniature worlds have a chill, an unsettling edge about them. In Paul Collinson's paintings toy cars crash and menacing shadowy figures lurk. Liz Dawson shows alien landscapes of writhing natural forms, mysterious plants and strange flashes of colour. In Michael Whittle's work a precisely delineated, personal symbolism is painstakingly laid out, culled from wider belief and thought systems but irredeemably warped by his own sensibility. His Licks of the Faithful is an intricate, organic, erotic repeat pattern like some delicate yet demented wallpaper. And looking into Andrea Gregson's perfectly fashioned doll-sized scenarios - housed in narrow boxes perched high on long legs so that you have to peep inside - there is sometimes the impression that violence has taken place. Headspace has padded walls - suggestive of an asylum cell - its floor littered with fragments. Her Wonderland appears like a magical toy theatre; a frozen world of spiky forms in white silhouette.

Nature - which Darwin and his nineteenth century colleagues were so busy exploring, categorising and theorising - is represented here physically in the use of plants, animals and insects. Laura Youngson Coll has made a sooty black Yggdrasil tree - the World tree of Norse myth - from which teasels, spindly stalks and stamens sprout, while in Swarm nasty little birds with trailing tail feathers infest a plug socket. Tessa Farmer uses the bodies of real animals - a stuffed hedgehog and insects; hornets, bees, wasps, flies - to construct her Parade of the Captive Hedgehog. The poor animal is being ridden by a ghastly fairy crew, balanced upon its back in a ramshackle contraption of bones, while yet more tormentors hatch out from a broken eggshell. Farmer's working processes - sometimes burying and then exhuming animals - and her use of taxidermy, recall the macabre procedures developed by Victorian naturalists, memorably, Beatrix Potter. In order to make a serious study of animal anatomy - women not being allowed at this time to train professionally - Potter would boil dead creatures for hours until only the skeletons remained. Frustrated in her scientific ambitions, she used her observations to illustrate the stories she wrote for children. Victorian children had an unprecedented range of literature with which to beguile, thrill and terrify themselves, from the bloody pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales, to Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, a dream-world of perverse irrationality, peopled with talking animals and Alice herself, a little girl who shifts in scale, growing so large that she fills up an entire room. And remember the danger that stitches like a dark thread, binding Beatrix Potter's deceptively pretty books - made small for tiny hands to hold - the wicked gentleman fox attempting to lure na•ve Jemima Puddleduck to her death in the house full of feathers, the enraged mice smashing up the dolls house.

We are the children of the Victorians in that we inhabit the modern world they created. But although today, in the Western world, we have more, materially, than ever before, the comfort of our lives historically without precedent, we see potential danger and destruction everywhere, we are afraid of our fallible bodies, of our environment which seems to us, by turns, idyllic and blasted, confusingly both threatened and threatening. No wonder, then, that these artists should take refuge in the worlds they have created to play out the fears, the fantasies, of our age in miniature.

 

1 See Ann C Colley, Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture, New York, St Martin's Press, 1998