The saying goes: you can never have too much of a good thing. And in the case of the arts, I think this is absolutely true. Excess has always been an integral part of art and culture – just look at the grandiose scale of York Minster or even the epic nature of the Lord of the Rings films.
There is something amazing and awe-inspiring about a vision created on such a large scale, and it is testament to the power of man that such monumental works of art can be made.
Films have always been a source of escapism. The very act of going to the cinema is a way of getting away from the dreary nature of your everyday existence and living vicariously through another person for a couple of hours – whether they are a hobbit traversing Middle Earth, or simply a girl looking at a boy and asking him to love her. No matter what sort of film you end up watching, the process is always the same: you enter a darkened room and completely submit to the emotions and feelings of a character on screen, essentially living in a fantasy until the credits roll. In many ways, the more excessively different a film is to everyday life, the more easily you are able to feel a sense of escapism.
Baz Luhrmann’s films, from Moulin Rouge! to Romeo + Juliet, can be considered in many ways as highly stylised works of art. In fact, they are arguably so stylised and over-the-top that all the time you are watching them you cannot help but be aware of the fact that you are watching a work of fiction. However, Luhrmann has always been adamant that this awareness of what you are watching as a constructed reality doesn’t detract from the pleasure of viewing his work, as films in general are simply the dreams of those watching and creating the film, projected onto a cinema screen. Moulin Rouge!, which is the third film in Luhrmann’s ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’, can be seen as epitomizing this notion of ‘projected dreams’. The main character, Christian (played by Ewan McGregor) travels from London to Paris in 1899 in order to pursue his dream of becoming a writer and learning all about the bohemian ideals of ‘freedom, beauty, truth and love’. In doing so, he falls in love with the beautiful and unattainable courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) who is terminally ill with tuberculosis. The first half of the film is filled with riotous comedy, epic sets and loud music, all of which combine together to give the viewer an intense sense of excess (in the best way possible). In the second half of the film, the same level of excess can be seen throughout, but now it is tinged with sadness as Christian realises his life is about to fall apart. Even the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (brilliantly portrayed by Jim Broadbent) succumbs to the perils of excessive excess by the end of the film, as his beloved club has fallen to ruin after being converted into a theatre. Yet whilst the fate of the characters within Moulin Rouge! may seem to warn against a life of excess, the film itself harks back to a tradition which one would be hard pressed to describe as anything other than excessive – the opera.
Opera can not only be classified as excessive due to the over-the-top nature of most of the performances and the sheer length of many of the productions, but also due to opera’s status as an art form traditionally reserved for the upper classes and those who have excessive amounts of money. Luhrmann’s film can be seen as an adaptation of La Traviata, Verdi’s celebrated opera, and the director himself has stated that he drew inspiration for the film from the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. These links between Luhrmann’s film and the tradition of excess within theatre are what cements his distinct filmic style as one that characterises the nature of cinema and escapist fantasy in general.
But it is not just cinema that is capable of creating a feeling of escapism – architecture throughout history has sought to create a sense of wonderment and awe, particularly when creating a building that is designed to stand the test of time (typically this means either a cathedral or a grand family home). When standing in front of a building such as the Notre Dame in Paris, you would be hard pressed to describe the building as anything other than excessive. It is well known as one of the largest church buildings on the world, and its application of French Gothic architectural elements only heighten the feeling of excess. The whole structure is designed to give a sense of the sublime – the feeling you get when you are confronted by a structure that reminds you of your own mortality and insignificance. In nature, this is usually felt when you come into contact with a huge waterfall or a mountain; in architecture, this effect is usually achieved through the creation of epic structures such as the Notre Dame. It is important to remember when confronted with epic architecture like the Notre Dame, or even York Minster, the sheer amount of time and money that went into creating a structure such as this. Whilst it may be excessive in the sense that whilst buildings like this were being created for outrageous sums of money, hundreds of thousands of peasants were likely starving to death, there is also something admirable about the person who commissioned the cathedral to be built knowing that it will never be finished within his lifetime, or even his children’s lifetimes. The Notre Dame took over 150 years to be fully completed, yet it is still seen today as an icon of Paris, with many tourists flocking to see it each year. In a way, architecture such as this is designed to be seen as the legacy of those who commissioned and created it (and in many ways, it is).
Whilst it is clear that works of art constructed on a grand scale are admirable and worthy of praise, it is also possible to criticise them for being excessive displays of wealth and power in a time when the disparity between the richest and poorest members of society is only widening. Clearly, when architectural structures such as the Notre Dame were being constructed in the middle ages, they were designed to be seen as a homage to God and his infinite power. Nowadays, buildings like the Antilia in Mumbai (the most expensive private home in the world) are designed simply as a show of wealth, rather than for a larger purpose. It is particularly horrific when considering the fact that this $1 billion home overlooks the sprawling slums of Mumbai, literally rubbing their wealth in the faces of people who have nothing. This, however, I would argue is not art on any level, it is merely a grotesque waste of money, time and resources. Art should benefit the wider community on some level, whether that is in a museum, in the cinema or just by walking down the street.
Whether you agree with me about the nature of art or not, it is fair to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a little excess in art, whether it is creating a visual spectacular in the form of an epic film, or a giant cathedral that inspires awe whenever you see the scale of it. If you’ve ever left a cinema screening wishing that you could live in a world as full of glitz and glamour as the one on screen, then you agree (at least partially) that bigger is normally better, at least in the case of art and culture.
At 27 stories high, covering 398,000 square feet and costing $1 billion, The Antilla is by most accounts the biggest and most expensive family home ever built. The obtuse, iron-girder clad building boasts a health club, ballroom and 50 seater cinema in a parade of excess unrivalled beyond the pages of A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
Ignoring the aesthetic qualities of the 568 foot tower, qualities that amount to little more than aggressively rectangular, it is an unquestionable marvel. By taking the notion that bigger is better to its logical extreme, the Ambani family have sent a quiver of adoration through anyone who has ever played Sim City, planned an extension or looked disconcertedly below their midriff.
The problem with the project is not a lack of content or sense of wonderment, but the inevitable unease that accompanies them. Whether this unease stems from a climate change wary mind, a culture passingly concerned with wealth inequality or just sheer jealously, appreciating the Antilla in an unmoderated way is near impossible. The same holds true for Olympic opening ceremonies, space exploration and River Seven hydro-electric blueprints- they’re cool, but a fuck lot of fish are going to die.
Even if having an ethical code isn’t your thing, displays of excess can still be turn off. In 2009 Skinners’ School Year 10 went on a trip to St Petersburg. In between thinking going to strip clubs was cool, making friends with a lazy eyed boy called Petr and smoking cheap Russian cigs, we went to the Hermitage. Founded by Katherine the Great, everything about the 18th century art gallery is immense. It’s the biggest depository of paintings in the world, has over 3 million items in its permanent collection and is the proud owner of the biggest cannon ever built- built but disappointingly not fired. Considering how most of us could barely sit through an episode of the Culture Show, our enthusiasm for the world’s biggest and therefore most time consuming museum may have been a little misguided. Such enthusiasm was as good as non-existent 20 minutes into our 4 hour sejourn having already seen the world’s first, second and third biggest vases. Putting aside the lack of curatory narrative apparent in a floor plan that started with the first, the message we took away from the Hermitage is that you can have too much of a good thing.
For those who don’t have enough time to regularly wash bad tastes out of their mouth or lack the peripheral vision necessary to take in the 4 million square foot Andoscape ‘The Stockman’, the physically and financially small may be the answer. For one, the underplayed-at-first-glance present the opportunity for a far more engaging experience than the overwhelmingly-in-your-face.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the work of photographer and sculptor Slinkachu. Starting his ‘Little People Project’ in 2006, Slinkachu adds a dash of unexpected colour and humour to London streets on a miniature scale. The works consist of self-painted model railway people interacting with the physical, often grim landscapes as Slinkachu finds them. Whether this is a skateboarder riding a peeled satsuma skin or an unhappy superhero resting on the lip of a can of Carlsberg, the compositions are beguiling both in their ingenuity and unexpected presence. Hauling yourself through the motions of the daily grind, it is not hard to understand the life affirming moment spotting a Slinkachu original most supply- an unobtrusive touch of joy in an otherwise drained environment.
It is not merely the frame breaking element of surprise that renders small artworks a valid alternative to the bold and brash. There’s something intimate and personal about spotting one of Slinkachu’s creations. Gone is the art gallery shoulder rubbing, collective tilting of the head and in its place arrives a midstreet, self-conscious free crane downwards. Such is its reduced scale, interacting with these clever little creatures is necessarily a one man show. In such situations interaction is the operative word. For every 1000 people that walk past oblivious ten will spot the work; of these ten, maybe one will engage. Unlike the spatially dominating other end of the scale, simply viewing a Slinkachu is an achievement in itself.
As well as holding true for Slinkachu’s contemporaries Pablo Delgado and Marcus Crocker, the formula of the less the content the more potential for return applies to music. Despite distancing himself from the minimalist music movement and instead opting for the descriptor ‘music with repetitive structure’, Phillip Glass is recognised as an innovator of aural sparsity. Equipped with a classical education and taking inspiration from Mozart and Bach, Glass takes reduction to its limit with pieces like ‘Strung Out’ and ‘Music in the Shape of a Square’; the latter piece hinting at the visceral manner by which the music can almost physically fill a space. For Glass such a space was a Soho loft gallery he occupied throughout the ‘70s with former student and far out minimalist giant Steve Reich. Although works in the vein of Reich’s clapping music are unlikely to make an appearance on the chart show, once the initial fury of unresolved crescendos abates and a fair amount of loosening up is achieved the rhythmic pulse of minimalism becomes irresistible.
The silence that lies at the heart of this genre is one that has the potential to speaks volumes. Sandwiched between an episode of Skins and Clearisil adverts, The XX shone a spotlight onto their first album with 30 seconds of complete silence and an unwavering white cross. In the ocean of noise swollen by the horn laden, painfully incessant Inception soundtrack, the deep space tranquillity of 2001: A Space Odyssey harnesses the same power as The XX’s unexpected statement.There is nothing quite as terrifying as a man cast adrift, floating helplessly against a backdrop of inky blackness and silence only punctuated by his frantic, shallow breaths. Although music is clearly an integral part of the movie experience and has the power to emotionally sway the audience, this does not mean chucking a wad of Danny Elfman over a lingering shot of Ryan Gosling’s smug fucking face counts as good film making.
It is this which lies at the heart of the less-is-more mantra. The bold and brash certainly have the power to impress but all too often are employed to divert attention away from a lack of quality. This beame startingly apparent with the recent re-rise of 3D cinema, it’s broad critical panning and the success of quiet, underplayed masterpieces like The Artist. There is simply nowhere to hide once colour, sound and explosion count are stripped away and as a result merit is far easier to determine. Add this to the rewarding challenge of embracing the small and minimalist and you have strong case against the excessive.