Artists Contemporary art Fairs Switzerland

It’s big, but is it clever?

Supersizing can, at best, greatly enhance a work’s impact. At worst, however, it’s about ego and marketing

Adel Abdessemed’s Coup de Tête, 2011-12

This year’s Unlimited section is the biggest yet, with 79 works, including a 22-metre painting by Matt Mullican and a 30-metre-long sculpture by Carl Andre. The section’s expansion reflects a growing thirst for monumental art, a trend emblemised (and satirised) by Paul McCarthy’s Balloon Dog, 2013—the inflatable sentinel standing outside Frieze New York last month.

What explains artists’ burgeoning interest in gigantism? Jean de Loisy, the director of Paris’s Palais de Tokyo and curator of Anish Kapoor’s popular “Monumenta” commission in the French capital in 2011, explains that “some artists feel that to be in a public space or to make monumental art is a way of making them [part of a] collective, rather than belonging only to a small part of the world, the art world.” Large works allow artists to explore “symbolic meanings, but outside of the artificial space of the museum”, he says, “which is important for an artist who feels that art should have a social responsibility in the transformation of the world.”

But it can backfire. De Loisy cites the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed’s five-metre-high bronze Coup de Tête, 2011-12, in the Centre Pompidou’s forecourt last year, which recreated footballer Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. It was “a disaster”, De Loisy says. Notably, Abdessemed’s sculpture was shown close to a work by Alexander Calder which has a “a physical necessity” to be large in its interplay with nature, he says. “But when it’s just an enlarged image, it’s meaningless.”

Richard Serra has produced some of the most immense works of our time, but their industrial scale is crucial, says Lynne Cooke, who organised an exhibition of Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses” at the Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1998 and co-organised his 2007 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She explains that the dimensions of his work have “a direct relationship to the scale of those who look at it and walk around it”, as well as the urban environment around them. People “find them as exhilarating as they do oppressive—really enthralling—because they offer spatial experiences of a kind that simply weren’t possible before.”

The British artist Richard Wentworth has often expressed suspicion of large-scale works, famously declaring: “I find cigarette packets folded up under table legs more monumental than a Henry Moore.” For Wentworth, the phenomenon is inextricably linked to wider political and economic developments, leading to what he says might be “a terrible flattening out” of culture, with big, branded art created by a fabrication and production process that has recently become industrialised. In a phone interview with The Art Newspaper, he says: “I’m standing in a street of nice cars, one says Peugeot, one says Ford, another BMW, and I’m not sure that’s any different from something that says McCarthy or Hirst or Hirschhorn.”

Wentworth argues that the art’s exponential growth was inevitable in a globalised world with industrial lines of production. “Once you’ve got some large sheds, with ex-art students who are good with their hands [and] can do things, and there’s an economy that will allow that big blob to arrive in a field in China next week, and there’s that weird Russian money, etcetera—on a napkin, we could probably draw the map,” he says. A Room Full of Lovers, 2012, Wentworth’s response to Gaudi’s calculations for the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, shown at Unlimited last year, is the antithesis—rich and slow-burning, filling the room, but defiantly anti-monumental.

Ryan Gander, meanwhile, directly questions grand, public art. More Really Shiny Things That Don’t Mean Anything, 2011, which he shows in the “Sculpture in the City” programme in London from 20 June, was initially made for a public square in Warsaw. “The context [for that work] is the history of public art,” he says, “and whether that is art for the public, or whether it’s art for the commissioner but pretending to be art for the public—they’re quite different things.” Scale is just one artistic device, Gander says. “You can manipulate spectators in any medium in different ways,” he adds. “But monumentality is really quite easy to do.”

• Gianni Jetzer, the curator of Unlimited, is the moderator of a discussion on this subject with artists Oscar Tuazon and Latifa Echakhch on 13 June at 3pm

Richard Wentworth’s A Room Full of Lovers, 2012
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