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Simon Garfield – In Miniature

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Lofty meditation on the fascination of small things that rather misses the point

Image of Simon Garfield – In Miniature

Robert Zemeckis’s forthcoming film Welcome to Marwen is based on the true story of Mark Hogencamp, who in 2000 was badly beaten by thugs and left for dead. In coping with the aftermath of his assault Hogencamp retreated into a world of his own, building a wartime village in his backyard peopled by Action Man and Barbie-sized figures. Suddenly he was back in control of his world and, in make-believe at least, the bad guys (dressed as Nazis) would always lose.

Human beings have long been fascinated by miniaturisation – from exquisitely painted portraits of centuries past to model villages, Airfix kits, doll’s houses, war gaming, train sets, fridge magnets, puppet theatres and architect maquettes. Enthusiasts are very often not children.

Take Slinkachu (aka Stuart Pantoll) whose work, writes Garfield loftily, “brings miniaturisation to the realm of art”. His photographs are instantly recognisable. He takes the tiny figures used for train sets, customises them and places them in telling funny/sad situations in city streets – miniature firefighters surround a cigarette butt that seems as large as a fallen meteorite. His themes include “social dislocation, a quest for individuality in a homogenous world, the pursuit of pleasure in an atmosphere of threat,” opines Garfield in this short, disappointing book that cries out for more and better illustrations.

According to the writer the fascination we have for seeing our world in miniature is concerned with more than just playing (or playing God). “We bring things down to size to understand and appreciate them. Something too big to visualise at full-scale – a building or a war – may be rendered comprehensible at 12:1”. We also use miniatures as a powerful escape from the tedium of the everyday. What kidult has not sought solace in childish things?

Garfield’s book is not all guff about toys and puppets. Take the extraordinary case of wealthy Frances Glessner Lee who became the “mother of forensics”. In the early 1930s she helped establish the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine. Lee put her fascination for doll’s houses to use when she created imaginary crime scenes – a tiny corpse lying on the kitchen floor. At the time police investigators took a somewhat cavalier attitude to crime scenes – moving or mislaying evidence or giving only a cursory glance before making notes. Lee’s miniatures were a teaching aid to get the investigators to look closer and improve their deduction skills.

In Miniature is at turns revelatory and philosophical and yet the chapters often seem disjointed, like a series of related magazine articles. Garfield seems to side with the incredulous critics of Vitra miniatures. The company, which makes classic modernist furniture has, as a sideline, Barbie-sized chairs that have proved to be highly collectable and cost anything between £200 and £700 each.

When the author visits Hamburg’s ever-expanding Miniatur Wunderland – the biggest model railway in the world – he is shockingly dismissive. “I couldn’t decide whether Miniatur Wunderland was stupefyingly impressive or stupefyingly deranged … I was unnerved by the hundreds of thousands of work hours spent on something so seemingly pointless”.

There’s a famous photograph of Hitler and his master architect Albert Speer admiring a maquette of Germania’s Great Hall a projected building that was to be the largest covered in the world and the centrepiece of the capital of the Third Reich. The photograph encompasses some of the fascination miniaturisation holds – things that Garfield doesn’t seem to mention – this fantasy, control, godlike power, and creating perfection in miniature.

Maybe you can’t control your life or the world around you but you can have fun and be the god of small things. And then put them back in their box or the display shelf.