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Those tiny civilizations

ART history is studded with ruins and fragments. Most, like the monuments of ancient Greece and Rome, the Elgin Marbles, and the armless Venus de Milo, became ruins or fragments because of the ravages of time or the elements. Others , like the romantic ''ruins'' constructed in many late 18th-century and Victorian-era gardens, and the fragmented academic sculptures of the 19th century, were fully intended to be viewed and appreciated as ''ruins'' or fragments.

The remnants of great cultures and great art have also been depicted in paintings and prints. Hubert Robert (1733-1808) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774 -1840) were noted for the inclusion of architectural ruins within their landscapes. Most of the prints of Giovanni Piranesi (1720-78) portrayed Rome's ruined monuments and buildings.

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The 19th century as a whole - but most particularly that portion of it that found its voice through Academic art - saw classical ruins and ancient sculptural fragments through romantic, rose-colored glasses. Such things represented a long-gone, much better time and place and served as convenient symbols whenever an artist wanted to draw moral conclusions about the fate of civilizations, the brevity of human life, or the ultimate triumph of virtue over evil.

Even early 20th-century art retained some of this romantic attitude. The Surrealists and romantic realists, in particular, took ruins very much to heart. The paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, and Peter Blume, for instance, often depended on architectural ruins and sculptural fragments for their substance and mood.

Some very recent paintings and sculptures have gone one step further and have utilized images of destroyed cities and ruined buildings to warn viewers of the horrors of nuclear warfare. Most of these works, however, tend to be a bit too hysterical to be art - although they are certainly effective as warnings.

Equally effective, but in a more pleasurably romantic way, are Charles Simonds's tiny ruined cities and communities. These were first noted in 1970 in New York's Lower East Side by residents on their way to work. Communities only a few inches high appeared overnight, and were found lodged in nooks and crannies of decaying tenements, settling precariously into the crumbling masonry and windowsills of abandoned stores and warehouses, or occupying corners of vacant lots.

They were fairly complex and beautifully detailed brick or adobe structures that appeared to have been only recently abandoned by very tiny people. Public interest was, of course, aroused, and it didn't diminish as more and more of these miniature communities appeared. (There would ultimately be over 200 in the Lower East Side alone.) And neither was anyone content until the person responsible for them was found.

That happened rather quickly, and the art world took Charles Simonds to heart. Although some critics considered his work merely cute and frivolous, others saw him as a significant new talent. International acclaim followed, and before long his small ruined cities and structures (as well as more complex and advanced architectural forms) were popping up worldwide, from California to the British Isles, Western Europe, Australia, and China.

Simonds also executed several pieces for museums, private homes, and urban community projects. New York's Whitney Museum, for instance, has a group of his dwellings occupying a corner of a window ledge, with two more visible on the outside of buildings across the street. Little People settlements were also placed under a piano in a New York apartment and in the stairwell of a house in Belgium.

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More recently, Simonds collaborated in the making of films on his work and produced several series of movable clay pieces in which he traced the birth, flowering, and end of various Little People civilizations. He has also written on the history and social structure of his Little People and has published what he claims are ''Fragments of Notes Recovered From a Traveler,'' in which the daily habits and philosophies of various Little People cultures are detailed.

According to the ''Notes,'' there were three distinct Little People cultures. The members of one ''believed in a world entirely created by their own wills, in which nature's realities were of little concern. Their dwellings formed an ascending spiral - with the past, constantly buried, serving as building material for the future. They obsessively gambled with their resources, the number of inhabitants, the height of the structure. As the dwelling grew higher and higher, it buried the cultivatable land. . . . Their goal was to achieve both the greatest possible height and to predict the very moment of collapse, the moment when the last of their resources would be consumed and their death inevitable. They lived for that moment alone. After a collapse, survivors would begin anew, tracing out a tremendous spiral on the earth's surface.''

The ruined structure reproduced on this page is No. 6 in a series of eight separate clay pieces illustrating various stages in the evolution and destruction of a Little People world. In it, we see the beginning of the end, with little but the structure's original circular base and a portion of its walls still intact. What was once a complex community center is about to end up as nothing but a bleak and barren area of desert with only a few brick fragments scattered about to indicate that a group of Little People had once lived there.

It's not the end of the Little People, however, for new communities keep popping up all the time. It's obvious these tiny individuals are very much alive , thanks to Charles Simonds's vivid imagination, and to the many people throughout the world who delight in these Little People, even if they've never actually seen any of them in person.

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