Monday, September 21, 2015

Tiny little me




It has become a family joke that I cannot stand near to large representations of the human form without getting more than a little freaked out.

It all started with David. Yes, that David - the rather beautiful statue of a young hero by Michelangelo. Not the original version, on display in the Uffizi in Florence; nor the copy that stands in the Piazza della Signoria - I've looked him in the eye, and did not blanch. In his original setting - under a blue Italian sky - he seems almost to scale; acceptably oversized, if you will. No, it was a plaster copy in the Victoria and Albert museum, on a grey London day, that made me feel rather wobbly.

There he stood, in all his six-packed glory; staring off into the middle distance in an inscrutable fashion (and not particularly as if readying himself to battle with lions and giants and bears, oh my, to be perfectly honest) and all I could think was 'TOO...BIG...FOR..THE... ROOM!' I found myself backing away, too discomforted to turn my back on those blank eyes; but also suddently aware of those other looming presences in the V&A cast room, all of unlikely proportions. My brain had gone into meltdown and was, frankly, beginning to gibber.

Of course, once back out in the drizzly streets of a London Tuesday I felt a little silly. It was just a block of stone - albeit fashioned artistically and realistically. I didn't get spooked by the skyscrapers and other buildings, far taller and more imposing, that surrounded me now. So what was it about David?

A few years ago it happened again only this time the symptoms were far worse. We were coming to the end of a US road trip, an amazing holiday that encompassed the massive sandstone arches of Moab, Utah; the towering mountains of Teton national park; the deep canyon, shimmering geysers and wide lake of Yellowstone; the preposterous volcanic outcrop of Devil's Tower, familiar to anyone who has watched 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'; and now we had reached the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Here the major tourist attraction is Mount Rushmore and its frankly rather ridiculous carvings of four former Presidents. In the daytime, at a little distance, I found them disappointing, and somehow not superlative enough; against the stunning backdrop they seem a little small, parsimonious even. Really not worth wrecking the joint to make these, I thought. We drove past them several times without me giving them much more than a cursory glance each time. But then we went out at night...

At night the figures are illuminated so that they can be clearly seen for miles around. And when you are near them, they seem to jump out at you in an alarming fashion - in particular Washington whose nose, not to appear rude, looms around a corner in a way that can only be described as terrifying.

Even now I don't really want to look too long at this photo. Back then and there, I had to stay in the car - with the doors locked, I'm not sure what I thought Washington was going to do - with my face buried in  my hands, whist my family enjoyed the view. It wasn't an act, or an affectation - I was genuinely freaked out. The head is just too big, too bright, too looming, too everything. The whole mountain? Pah, impressive but non-threatening. But Washington...someone please take a sandblaster to that crazy freaky glowing head.

We thought that was it: the end of the line had been reached as far as my 'that human representation is too big for my tiny human brain to cope' phobia. But no...

Last month we visited Anthony Gormley's iconic Angel of the North. Now I love a bit of Gormley. I have enjoyed his slightly creepy figures, positioned in odd places around the city; and adored his 'Field for the British Isles' installation - the thousands of thumbprint eyes turned in my direction failed to disturb me. And we had passed the A of the N before, driving past Northwards. This time we got up close and personal, and it proved too much. I cowered; I hid my face; I felt sick; my skin crawled. Much as I admired it there was a critical distance - too close and I could not cope.

All this reminds me of my phobia to spiders. I can cope when they are outdoors and in their proper place; and indoors, I can deal with them fine up to to a certain critical size and then wham! - the freaking out, sweating, panicky visceral reaction happens. I am no longer me; I am not in control. My fight or flight mechanism is entirely focussed on the (actually quite small) 8-legged beastie glaring at me across the room.

But why statues? Why something that is essentially humanoid? I guess my brain is struggling because their size makes them 'wrong', in a way that isn't entirely rational; but it's trying to protect me and repel the alien. It's doing a Turing test, only based purely on size rather than wit or wisdom. Category error. Unexpected item in bagging area.

It is often the case that we are drawn to the massive and incomprehensible to find a sense of awe and, ultimately, peace. We find a sense of perspective and in that our own place in the universe by drawing close to the ocean; the mountain; the chasm. I too feel that draw; and whilst the surge of waves or the vertiginous precipice can thrill and unnerve at times, they never cause this level of disquiet. We all need those moments of context, when we feel reduced to the infinitesimally small beings we really are; yet at the same time we feel embraced by the magnificence around us.

Just so long as that embrace doesn't have stony arms, wings, or a very large illuminated nose.


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