On my wall there’s a print of a photo by Andreas Gursky called Chicago Board of Trade II. It depicts The Windy City’s stock exchange as a bewildering blur of frantic activity, with individuals barely identifiable unless you squint to pick them out in their jaunty red jackets or white shirts. And if you unfocus your eyes and stare at it for long enough, it transforms from a richly detailed scene featuring hundreds of human beings into a colourful collection of abstract, Pollock-esque splashes.
The original piece, to which my little print does scant justice, first mesmerised me in a passageway at Tate Modern. It was hard to imagine any order emerging from the chaos in the scene, despite the fact it showed people at work, performing a job; and this sense was enhanced by the fact that it was literally bigger than me and everyone else gazing at it – it was about two and a half metres wide and almost as tall. It was, in the real sense of the word, awesome. (I’ve argued elsewhere about my hatred of the word ‘awesome’, but here it’s justified.) It was probably bigger than the wall in my flat on which my print hangs. I felt dwarfed by a massive picture of hundreds of little people, and I loved it.
A few years later I was at Tate Modern again to see Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment exhibition. It comprised 14,000 white boxes, stacked in seemingly random configurations, all over the Turbine Hall. It was weird, and I wasn’t sure if it felt like art to me. But it was big, and overwhelming, and the kind of thing you don’t see everyday. Again, I liked it because it made me feel small.
Being made to feel small, for many, probably has negative connotations. It’s a common lyrical trope in pop music, and it’s come to have more of an emotional than physical resonance. But I think the physical sensation of feeling small, whether in the face of nature, or art, or architecture, is one of the most inspirational things a human being can experience. Like magic, or technology, it gives a sense of wonder. I might feel differently if King Kong or Godzilla came thundering down the street towards me, but thankfully that’s unlikely to happen.
Why do I like to feel small? Maybe because it’s stirring to be exposed to big (unthreatening) things over which you have no control, which you can’t fathom. Things that overwhelm you physically, but not emotionally.
Everyday life requires you exert control. You have to get up at a certain time, get to work, actually do work, remember to eat, look after kids, pay bills… Maybe it’s a perspective thing. Sometimes you just want to be wowed and remember that there are bigger things than remembering to take out the rubbish. Although landfills can be quite a spectacle, too.
There’s an appealing madness in man-made big stuff, too. What kind of lunatic would create The Eiffel Tower? 19th Century Paris had its fair share of pressing issues – here are ten of them, for example. And yet, for some, a gargantuan metal phallus to mark the 1889 World’s Fair took precedence.
I’m a sucker for big art, in a pretty ignorant way. I’m not sure I even have any other criteria by which to judge big art, except for that I like its bigness. Take The Writer by Giancarlo Neri, which was exhibited on London’s Hampstead Heath a few years ago. This was, simply, a massive table and chair.
It got a lot of people riled up. Was it art? Was it an eyesore? I went to see it and thought it was great, mainly because – well, when else are you going to see a bloody massive table and chair in the middle of a field? It was ridiculous, and something I’ll probably never forget. Lots of other people evidently felt the same, since there were plenty staring at it in wonder/confusion. I also found it interesting that one of my first thoughts on seeing it was, “I wonder if I could climb that?” (I couldn’t, but I hear others did.) I like to feel small, but maybe I feel urged to challenge the things that make me feel that way, as they have to really earn it.
“To make us feel small in the right way is a function of art; men can only make us feel small in the wrong way.” — E. M. Forster
I like this quote. But what about small women who like really tall men?
I always feel small when I’m about to fly somewhere. It’s still a shock to round a corner into a departure gate and see a hulking great metal bird sitting there, as if it’s waiting to eat you. Of course, the feeling of smallness is demolished once you take your seat, when (unless you’re flying posh class) your cramped surroundings suddenly make you, and whoever’s next to you, feel like an imprisoned giant.
Nevertheless, is there anything more amazing than being rammed into a crappy seat and staring dolefully out the window at featureless tarmac and scrub, before taking off and suddenly, out of nowhere, the sea appears over your shoulder? It looks like it goes on forever, and then you remember that what you see is only something like 0.1% of all the bodies of water on the planet.
(Confession: sometimes when I’m on a beach and I’m staring out at the vast, endless sea, and I think about how many unexplored regions there are beneath the surface, and how many waves there have ever been… Well, I wonder how many human bodies there are under the sea. There, I said it.)
You can’t help but feel small looking at the sea, and it blows my mind to think about its size. 70% of the Earth’s surface is water. There are mountain ranges under the Pacific Ocean. The sea is deeper than the land on earth is tall. The sea floor goes down a couple of miles or more. As you read this, the human race is the most advanced it has ever been – and yet experts reckon we’ve explored 7% of the sea floor, tops. It’s so dark down there that for years we thought nothing could live there – but loads of things live there that we know about, and probably even more that we don’t. And so on.
Nature’s always going to win out against man-made structures when it comes to making you feel small. But man can document nature pretty effectively, and perhaps no photo has had an impact on the human race like 1968’s Earthrise. The first photo of Earth from space, it was taken by the Apollo 8 crew, who were the first people to orbit the Moon.
And if you want to feel small, quotes from cosmonauts, astronauts and astronomers on the view of the Earth do a grand job. Here are some of my favourites:
“Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. ‘What do I see?’ I replied. ‘Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.’” — Vitali Sevastyanov, Soviet Cosmonaut
“As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.” — James B. Irwin, Apollo 15
“I think the one overwhelming emotion that we had was when we saw the earth rising in the distance over the lunar landscape . . . It makes us realize that we all do exist on one small globe. For from 230,000 miles away it really is a small planet.” — Frank Borman, Apollo 8
“It’s tiny out there… it’s inconsequential. It’s ironic that we had come to study the Moon and it was really discovering the Earth.” — Bill Anders, Apollo 8
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” — Neil Armstrong
I suppose nobody has ever felt smaller than those who have been into space and looked back at our planet. But while looking at the sea or a massive chair might imbue you with a sense of majesty at the abilities of both Mother Nature and man, this surely is a different feeling. To be able to see your planet and everything you’ve ever known hanging there, like a conker waiting to be smashed? Armstrong’s awe must have been laced with a fair dose of helplessness. While David Bowie’s Space Oddity wasn’t written about the moon landings, on reading Armstrong’s quote I couldn’t help thinking of the line: ‘Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.’
(If you want a nice long dose of feeling infinitesimal, I’d recommend watching In The Shadow of the Moon, the 2008 documentary which features interviews with NASA astronauts who went to the Moon. If you’re in the UK, it’s available on 4OD.)
I find that beyond pictures of the Earth, my mind is unable to latch onto most other space wonders in any meaningful way. I mean, how do you get your head around the fact that there are solar flares bigger than our planet? A centuries-long storm on Jupiter that is, again, bigger than Earth? That doesn’t make me feel small. It doesn’t make me feel anything, except thankful for Britain’s mercurial but considerably less life-threatening climate.
Do you like to feel small? What does it for you – skyscrapers? Stadiums? The Grand Canyon? I’m keen for new ways to get smallness hits.