16. January 2017

Both Alberto Giacometti and Bruce Nauman closely concern themselves with the dimensions of their sculptures and works. But size cannot always be precisely measured.

By Lisa Beißwanger

Artist, title, year, material, dimensions and place. These are the facts normally provided on a work of art. When looking at the illustrations of three-dimensional works the measurements are indispensable. Sometimes the introduction to the picture of an additional yardstick is helpful, for example by including a person as often happens in exhibition views.

But even with these aids on viewing the originals surprises are nonetheless repeatedly experienced. For example, when first visiting the “Giacometti-Nauman” exhibition it may be that Giacometti’s “Homme qui marche” (1960) appears very much larger than expected, while the bronze heads of Simone de Beauvoir (“Tête de Simone de Beauvoir”, (1946/47)) and others appear surprisingly small. Nauman’s “Lighted Center Piece” (1967/68) could well have been bigger, while the “Corridor with Mirror and White Lights” is so narrow you could almost mistake it for an ordinary room divider.

The sculpture without limits

But if you ask a child for their impressions on matters of dimension the assessment would presumably be totally different. After all, the dimension of a sculpture is not just a fixed quantity that can be expressed in centimeters and cubic centimeters, it is always also relative, depends on the viewer’s position and their individual perception.

The more often you face the works in the exhibition the less surprising they are, and, by contrast, the more natural the dimensions given them by the artists. We become accustomed to them. And tend to forget that apart from the aesthetic and thematic decisions sculptors make they also always have to make a decision on the scale to apply. Unlike painting, which is normally defined by a specific canvas size, sculpture need not heed such restrictions. This is all the more the case when a sculpture is designed independently of an architectural setting.

Size and importance

This independence applies to most of the sculptural works by Giacometti and Nauman. In such instances sculptors can rely on certain conventions such as the use of ideal human proportions or perspective according to significance, in other words, size increases in relation to the importance of the subject. But neither of these artists seem to be interested in such conventions. So what is the scale which they apply to their works?

For Alberto Giacometti finding the right size for his figures was something with which he concerned himself his entire life. Although he normally worked classically from a model, he described again and again how the figures seem to have almost shrunk away beneath his hands, or if he practiced great self-discipline they might become larger but were then very thin and fragile. Attempting to explain this he said he had tried to portray exactly what he had seen. In other words, it was his personal, subjective perception, his own scale he wished to apply to his sculptures.

No matter how close

What is interesting is that Giacometti had evidently so honed his sculptural view that everything he saw became a sculpture. He described how when walking through Paris, street scenes would freeze to become three-dimensional images, and that from a distance of 15 meters a person only looks to be 10 centimeters tall. Giacometti took this radical, subjective type of scaling one step further by not only expressing the physical distance, but also the perceived emotional distance between himself and his fellow men by drastically reducing the mass of his sculptures. This led his friend existentialist Jean Paul Sartre to comment in a famous interpretation that you could not get close to Giacometti’s sculptures no matter how physically near you were to them.

In terms of materiality and aesthetics Bruce Nauman’s sculptures are not nearly as constant as the figures by Giacometti. Moreover, Nauman would never dream of making different-sized versions of the same sculpture, or have his personal impressions and experiences define the proportions of his works. Nonetheless, he too always applies the same scale for his sculptures and installations.

Pausing and waiting it out

One means of tracking down this scale is to consider his creative process. In interviews Nauman repeatedly described situations in which he stayed in his studio and waited until the work came about “as if by itself”. In other words, the creative process does not involve the wrestling so typical for Giacometti, but is rather a certain handling of material, which suggests a connection to Duchamp’s ready-mades. That said, Nauman is expressly not content with simply declaring an ordinary item to be a work of art. Rather he repeatedly produces casts and hollow molds of his found material, which automatically entails his dealing extensively with their dimensions, and the dimensions in the room.

For example, his “Shelf Sinking into the Wall (…)” (1966) is just a standard shelf, which he has complemented with plaster casts of the underlying hollow spaces. “Ten Heads Circle | In and Out” are painted molds of human heads. For Nauman the size of things is the size the items themselves provide. This is especially true for Nauman’s own body, which also acts as material and scale as soon as he enters his studio.

When your own body is the material

This is proven equally by molds taken of his own body such as “Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals” and molds of individual body parts like “Device for a Left Armpit”, which ultimately become independent sculptures. Similarly, according to Nauman the various corridor installations are also based on the dimensions of his own body, especially when it concerns their walkability or the positioning of mirrors or cameras. The ideal observer of these works would have exactly the same physiognomy as Nauman himself.

Both in the literal and figurative sense the scale that Giacometti and Nauman apply to their works varies greatly. Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures are based on his own eye for distances, connected with his personal and emotional experiences of the unbridgeable distance between himself and the world. This subjective approach results in the sculptures being separated from the physical size of things and variable scaling, which neither excludes the terribly small or the terribly large. This points to a spatial concept like the one Maurice Merleau-Ponty devises in his Phenomenology of Perception, in delimitation to the idea of a scientifically, objectively measurable space.

Not every space can be measured

By contrast, Bruce Nauman relies on the dimensions of his own body and other items, and he never exceeds or falls short of them in his works. This implies a radical affirmation of external dimensions, in the sense of the mathematical space that can be expressed in figures and is independent of subjective perception. It is no coincidence that many of Nauman’s works, including those incorporating his own body as material, resemble scientific experiments. However, what both artists do have in common is that they do not seek the size of things in an ideal image or rely on external information, but rather have each developed their own individual personal scale whose starting point is always their own body and their own environment.