Looking at Sonntag’s work, pedestrians might think of the tiny people in a long line of well-known films from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), to Fantastic Voyage (1966) or The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Or they might think of some successful 21st-century literary tales such as Killing Commendatore (Haruka Murakami, 2017), Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell, 2004) or Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series (2016-present), which all feature small people.
All these manifestations, though, are part of a bigger wave: in recent years, the smaller-scale has been enjoying a big and apparently enduring surge across the arts, from literature, film and television, sculptural installation and painting, to stage and theatre.
What is it about the miniature that transfixes us? In many ways, this trend might be a response to contemporary culture’s obese addiction to the overblown, the blockbuster and the spectacular. Or it might be a reflection of the way we now see the world largely through our phones’ tiny screens.
Certainly, we can’t ignore another influence: the gravity of the climate emergency and the need to achieve smaller ecological footprints (explored satirically in the 2017 film Downsizing, in which people wishing to reduce their impact and their living costs choose to be shrunk).
A 2016 Vogue article about visual artists rejecting “large-scale, bombastic installations” in favour of intimate subjects and techniques suggested all these shrinkages might be part of a worldwide reaction against globalism.
Sydney artist Natasha Bieniek sees her small paintings as “the perfect antidote” to casual, constant image consumption. Bieniek, painting on a miniature scale for the past decade, has been an Archibald Prize finalist several times, most notably for her 2011 matchbox-sized self-portrait October. It shows her lying on an intricately patterned carpet – incredibly painstaking to paint. It was the smallest painting ever entered in the prize.
Initially intrigued by how artists seem to feel the need to make large paintings in order to engage a viewer’s attention, Bieniek went in the opposite direction, making work so small you have to get up close to view it accurately. ‘‘That creates a one-on-one relationship between the viewer and the work,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s an unavoidable intimacy.’’
Bieniek also wanted to bring the miniature painting tradition of earlier centuries into conversation with the present. The present is obvious in her small landscape paintings executed on Dibond – a sleek material that almost looks like a shiny smartphone screen.
‘'[Smallness] creates a one-on-one relationship between the viewer and the work. It’s an unavoidable intimacy.’’
“As a culture, we are obsessed with recording and documenting our surroundings, and as a result we often experience our environments through screens,” Bieniek says. “Our phones have become an extension of ourselves. People instinctively reach for their phones and take a snap without truly absorbing their environment. I wonder how that is impacting on real experience.”
Even so, she embraces technology, seeing the camera and computer as vehicles for enhancement rather than as the assassins of painting. She uses digital for reference purposes, while her actual painting skills involve tiny fine-point brushes boasting 10 strands of hair. Her process is incredibly slow – multiple layers of sanding and priming, followed by about seven layers of paint, adding minute detail at each stage. In between, she uses a tablet to zoom in on source images. “It allows me to get to know my subject over a very prolonged period of time.”
The miniature painting tradition Bieniek honours so creatively, and which is continued by the Australian Society of Miniature Art, was popular in England and Europe in the 16th-17th centuries, and in Persian art in the 15th century. This was about the same time that tiny books began to appear. These highly collectable “micrographic” books are astonishing: tracing their history in her book On Longing, Princeton University professor Susan Stewart identifies the Diurnale Moguntinum (1468) as the earliest example – appropriately it is about infinite time, but “collapsed within a minimum of physical space”.
For many years, the book claimed as the world’s tiniest was 1932’s The Rose Garden of Omar Khayam, which fits on a thumbnail (others have since apparently been etched on a hair). Stewart notes such impossibly small things are “an affront to reason and its principle sense: the eye”, for we cannot read them without technological intervention.
More intriguing, though, is the way Stewart connects the miniature with childhood. “We imagine childhood as if it were at the other end of a tunnel – distanced, diminutive and clearly framed,” she writes.
It was as a five-year-old that contemporary Istanbul artist Hasan Kale first began to paint. But when he was an adult in the 1990s, his painting began to downsize – and now you can see his Istanbul skyline painted on butterfly wings, or his version of the Mona Lisa on a pumpkin seed.
Described gauchely by London’s Sun newspaper as Turkey’s “Microangelo”, Kale produces gorgeous work that is as small as a grain of rice, meaning you need a magnifying glass to view it. These works featured in a 2018 book Think Small: The Tiniest Art in the World, by Eva Katz, bringing Kale to wider fame.
Responding to questions via email, Kale recalls a day in the 1990s when he became obsessed with the idea of how small he could go with a painting. That night, he went to the kitchen and got a dried bean, which he worked on for two days without sleep. With more than 350 tiny painted objects now to his name, he says the artistic journey that started then now brings him great daily riches: “Every object that I make came with its own teaching. Different paint options, working discipline – and great patience.”
Think Small chronicles 23 other contemporary artists whose work fits into the palm of your hand. Among them is Florida-based artist Joe Fig, whose handmade sculptures of tiny artist studios feature realistic human figures modelled in polymer clay before being painted with oils. He says working in a small scale manipulates the viewer to come closer to inspect a work.
“This effect creates a godlike perspective, allowing one to peer down to an entire scene from above,” Fig says. “I’m not sure what it says about the world, but it does appear like a miniature stage. People are fascinated by things in miniature.”
Fig says all the tiny details he executes are critical. “The hardest part is making a miniature space believable, so the viewer really feels like they are there and not just viewing a ‘dollhouse’.”
That effect of entering a tiny world is not to be underestimated. Lia Purpura writes in her essay On Miniatures about an experiment conducted at the University of Tennessee’s School of Architecture, where participants played with scale-model rooms that were one-sixth, one-12th and one-24th the size of full-size models. Afterwards, the researchers found that scale radically altered participants’ perception of time: they estimated that 30 minutes, for example, was experienced in five minutes at one-twelfth scale, and in 2.5 minutes at one-twenty-fourth scale.
Audiences at some recent Melbourne theatre productions may have experienced a similar feeling of distortion: in Robert Lepage’s 887, the sets are made of small-scale buildings that are used to great effect as a focus for telling his autobiography, while the Australian Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland cleverly used set designs to make the performer seem to shrink in the famous “eat me, drink me” scene. Likewise, in its production of The Nutcracker, sets expanded to make the dancers seem smaller in a “shrinking” scene.
Miniatures took a more grisly turn in the work of American doctor Frances Glessner Lee – the so-called ‘‘mother of forensic science” – who recreated true crime scenes during the 1940s and 50s as training tools for police investigators. Her dioramas, which are still used for teaching purposes, are now considered works of arts.
Seeing any of these examples, we might find ourselves recalling significant childhood memories of play-time, when we felt “big” and godlike alongside our toy dolls, houses, or Lego scenes. No surprise some recent filmmakers have traded on this effectively – if not always charmingly. While dollhouses were used as a potent metaphor in The Miniaturist (2017), they were terrifying sites for Toni Collette in Hereditary (2018) and Amy Adams in Sharp Objects (2017). And who can forget those frightening dollhouse-sized old people – small enough to climb under a door – who chase Naomi Watts to dementedness in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive?
Happily, Australian actor/filmmaker Amy Elizabeth Price has a more comic view of the dollhouse world. A fan of the classic dog-contest comedy Best in Show, Price’s new mockumentary My Little Life goes hilariously into the competitive world of dollhouse culture.
My Little Life tells the story of a dollhouse enthusiast (Price) set on winning a contest for her incredibly detailed miniature home and its occupants. To make the model, Price got her electrician father to do all the wiring (“as complicated as a real house”) to light it up. Then she filled it with tiny furniture and a couple (bought randomly online yet spookily resembling herself and her on-screen husband).
But it was the real dollhouse enthusiasts and contests Price encountered during her research that most amazed her. “It was this whole untapped world, and the more I looked into it, the more amazing it seemed,” she says. “People were so passionate about it… and so disheartened [at losing contests] because they spend so much time on their entries.”
Living part-time in Los Angeles, Price also found out about events such as the annual Chicago dollhouse convention, and she is keen to visit the world’s biggest dollhouse mecca – Kentucky’s Great American Dollhouse Museum, which boasts hundreds of antique and artisan-sculpted, historically dressed citizens in a town fitted out with everything from a factory district and an industrious Shaker Village to opulent mansions.
Closer to home is Pendle Hall, a grand dollhouse now on display as part of Melbourne Museum’s scale-bending Mini Mega Model Museum exhibition. As with all small homes, the imagination of the viewer is inevitably drawn inside Pendle Hall, a fully furnished mini-mansion that took 40 years to make. Felicity Clemons invested incredible detail in the 21-room, four-storey model, started in the 1940s – so much so that, standing before it, we cannot help but inhabit it with our own imaginations. And that, perhaps, is the most enticing thing about the world of the miniature: the small-scale seems to give us permission to return to that distant chapter of our lives, childhood, and to try and recapture the innocent, big-eyed way we once viewed the world. From that knee-high perspective, didn’t everything look enormous and amazing and magical?
The Mini Mega Model Museum exhibition is at Melbourne Museum until August 21.