What’s the Small Idea?

‘What’s the Small Idea?’ is a research investigation that seeks to ‘stage’ a series of dichotomies to do with seeing. Theatres are machines for seeing, and the word theatre derives from the Greek theoria, to contemplate – both to gaze upon and to think about in a particular way. Art galleries are also places of seeing and contemplation, but present works of art very differently to the (conventional, proscenium) theatre. In the gallery, image-based works such as paintings, drawings and photographs are presented both as images and as objects. The viewer may engage with and immerse themselves in the world of the image (particularly with representational art) or may focus on the material qualities of the work – the texture and physical presence of the paint and canvas of a painting, for example.

Theatre has similarly sometimes revealed and even deliberately sought to draw attention to its materiality and its nature as a constructed artifice. Other theatre traditions, however, have aimed for a different kind of experience for the viewer, one in which the material circumstances of performance are suppressed in order to create a concentrated, individualised engagement with the thematic content of the work. The adoption of the proscenium stage has been a principle strategy in this kind of theatre making, originating in the Italian Renaissance theatre and prompted by the invention of perspectival drawing and so the notion of the picture frame as a ‘window’ onto a fictional world.

‘What’s the Small Idea?’ is a miniature art gallery for one person (see image below), designed to invite speculation on a series of questions. Entering the small box seated on a wheeled stool to view photographic images, one might ask: am I a spectator or a performer? Is this a private experience, or a public one? Is this an art gallery or a stage? Is this an immersive experience or one that prompts self-awareness? What is the materiality of a digital image, and that of its subject? In what sense are the images ‘present’? In particular, and connecting to the theme of the conference call, ‘What’s the Small Idea?’ asks us to think about presence – our own and the artwork’s. To what extent do the artworks shown have a permanent existence, and to what extent are they dependent on the performative moment?