Tiny, snappy peepholes: the appeal of the miniature

One ordinary Sunday morning Liz Sonntag woke with the extraordinary urge to buy some toy soldiers. She'd never had the slightest interest in the little green figures but packed her somewhat bewildered husband into the car and headed for the nearest market. The second stall she found happened to have two jars of army men. She bought the lot.

To this inexplicable market haul she added a Big Bird figure whose pose – standing with arms raised, as if sprung doing something dodgy – she found strangely funny. She then drove to Collingwood and found a windowsill in an anonymous back alley, where she set about creating a tiny tableau: Big Bird busted by the military.

When Mike requested the track ‘Murder on the Dance Floor, this was the last thing he expected. By miniature artist Tinky (aka Liz Sonntag).Credit:Tinky

“I was compelled. To this day I do not know what it was,” she says. “I found a laneway and glued up this little scene on a window sill and it made me laugh so much. I did it for my own amusement, no other purpose at that moment. I took a photograph, loaded it up on my Instagram page and that was it. I thought, oh well, that's done.”

But in the coming days Sonntag found the miniature scene popping up repeatedly in her social media feeds. She had already been an avid follower of Melbourne's street art scene and the street art community was now desperate to know the identity behind this droll little arrangement of figures.

That moment was when Liz Sonntag became Tinky, the artist whose humorous miniature scenes have become commonplace in Melbourne's less-travelled byways. In the four years since, “it's gone crazy. It started something and I could see people were connecting with it in a way I hadn't thought anyone would really connect with it”.

Tinky's shrunken-down situations are immediately accessible: a sumo wrestler kicks over dominoes twice his height, an angler reels in a giant soy sauce fish. But they hit several other buttons, too. They offer the thrill of discovering something curious and bizarre in an otherwise unremarkable laneway, a kind of reward for heading off the beaten track. They're also eminently photographable.

Liz Sonntag aka Tinky started making miniatures for her own amusement and found they struck a chord.Credit:Lachlan Bence

“I felt like it was my little secret and that I could be quite anonymous. Then more people photographed it and the more comments I read the more I could see it resonated with people in a real comedic way, which I loved.”

Now Tinky has her own studio, has solo and group exhibitions and is invited to festivals. These teeny tiny artworks have grown to something much bigger than anyone could have predicted.

What is the appeal of the miniature? Every kid has their dollhouse, train set or bucket of monkeys, but the allure of the tiny doesn't end there. Micro terrariums litter corporate desktops. Miniature dogs peek out from beneath cafe tables. Ordinary people collect snowglobes or model cars or matryoshka dolls or sushi sets the size of a fingernail. Others even apply the shrinkray to their entire house, moving into tiny homes themselves barely bigger than dollhouses.

Ryan ‘The Brickman’ McNaught at the Lego show at Science Works Museum.Credit:Eddie Jim

The recent Lego Masters TV series pulled in more than a million viewers each week. That's well above Masterchef or Game of Thrones. One of the show's judges was Ryan 'Brickman' McNaught, and while the blistering success of a show about tiny blocks might have been a surprise to many, he saw it coming.

“A few of us did. It's our world. Two things made it so special. First off, it's making something family friendly again. Something interesting on the television that's not nasty, not bitchy, whatever. Getting back to the core idea of sitting down with the family in the evening as a thing to do, that's a lost art. The second thing is it's relatable to children at one level and it's relatable to adults at another level.”

"Family friendly" doesn't always mean there's an equal appeal to both adults and kids. “Cooking shows are great and I think I might learn how to make something nice, but they bore my kids to death. They don't want to know how to make a flambe. Having something that can cross all spectrums makes sense.”

Lego has a perennial appeal for adults and children, says McNaught. Credit:Eddie Jim

McNaught is one of only 14 Certified Lego Professionals in the world. The career path that leads a person to wizard-level Lego status isn't a straightforward one. “You can't go to Lego uni or anything like that. We're all different in what we do. We all have a different medium, in terms of some people make outdoor sculptures, some just do architecture, we're all very different. The process is that if we're doing something different with Lego and what I was doing was robotics-based, they'll take an interest in you and it will go from there. You can't go and study to become one, it just sort of happens.”

McNaught's latest work is an epic installation at Scienceworks, in which four cities are recreated on a massive scale along with a faithful Lego version of Lower Manhattan that comes alive via digital projection. Over the years McNaught has honed in on what makes a Lego exhibition work.

“Real world objects. People can relate to real world objects. Whether it's a house or a car or a plane, relating to real world objects is something that people can understand. And bringing action to things, having things in movement. It's great to make a Lego ship, but what if you have it on top of a wave? If it's in really rough seas it's even cooler.”

David Hourigan is another Melburnian who one day quit their day job to think small. He creates astonishingly detailed miniature versions of some of the most characterful buildings and houses around his neighbourhood in the inner west.

“I've always built models my whole life,” he says. “Ever since I was a kid. I got into building plastic models very early, always loved it, and gave it up when I found girls as a teenager. Then came back to it as an adult in my late 20s. Ever since then it's interested me but I hit a stage where I was sick of building other people's things. Planes and tanks and cars. I'm sick of building things that anyone else can do.”

Hourigan wanted to build things with personal significance and given that he's never ridden in a tank there didn't seem much purpose in recreating them. But the buildings of his suburb – the crumbling, peeling, past-their-prime edifices that screamed out for attention – promised a much more interesting challenge.

David Hourigan with his model of the late, much loved Olympic Doughnuts van that stood outside Footscray station.Credit:Jason South

“I walk past these buildings every day and think: 'I love that building, but it's potentially at risk of being knocked down because it's so small and insignificant and unloved.' It gelled in my head, that I should try to capture these things in miniature. Do what I love and also record some of the things that I think are in danger of disappearing.”

Hourigan thinks there's a distinction between the universal fascination for small things that kids seem to go through and the appeal of the miniature to adults. “It definitely relates to childhood, 100 per cent. As a kid it's fun to be Godzilla and stomp on buildings and stuff like that, it's definitely a part of it. As a child it's a way for you to be a god or really control the world. But as an adult I think it's quite a different experience.”

His works aren't playthings. In fact, where toys are built for a beating, there's a palpable fragility to his meticulously recreated miniature scenes. Like the fading spaces they represent, they seem to be on the edge of collapsing under the weight of their own history (or a renovator's dream of future profits).

The fascination for miniature worlds isn't the same as minimalism – it's not the impulse for simplicity that drives Marie Kondo up the bestseller lists. Tiny worlds only grow in appeal the more intricate and detailed they are.

Miniature dolphin jam dispenser and doughnuts in Hourigan’s Olympic Doughnuts model. Credit:Jason South

“I know with my work people tend to fixate on a few details at first,” says Hourigan. “I try to cram in as much detail as I can. I find that people will really focus really closely on a particular detail like a fusebox or a padlock or something like that and go 'wow, that's amazing' and then their vision zooms out a little bit, and they take the whole in, and then they focus in on another detail. I think as an adult it's very much a sense of: have you captured the reality, have you captured the real world?”

The sophistication of a tiny scene is in inverse proportion to its size. The fact that Hourigan can shrink an entire building to the size of a shoebox without losing any detail plays havoc with our sense of scale.

“This is going to sound mildly ridiculous but it's like concentrating a sauce when you're cooking. You distil it and distil it and it gets smaller and smaller and packs more punch when it does. That's definitely an element to it.”

In Tinky's work it's often huge drama that is distilled to matchbox scale. A life-sized recreation of a murder scene might be disturbing, for instance, but in her hands such a scene takes on a bleak humour. “It's probably more acceptable for our mind to have that detachment from it being really dark and really serious and really upsetting. I can't imagine anyone being traumatised by seeing one of my scenes.

Kylie was always one to find herself in a jam, but she didn’t give a fig what anyone else thought. She hoped this time going topless might lead to a juicy date. Credit:Tinky aka Liz Sonntag

"There's a scene where someone's being killed, for example, by a cigarette butt that's fallen on them. I think the play on words – 'he knew the cigarettes would get him in the end' – dilutes the seriousness of a murder scene or someone being crushed. It's the fact that they're miniature that makes it more acceptable for our minds to get our heads around something.”

Whether it's the layers of history simmering within Hourigan's work or the shrunken crimes and misdemeanours of Tinky's, miniature scenes invite us to lean in and wonder what stories take place on these tiny scales. McNaught agrees: “The difference between a good Lego model and an amazing Lego model is the storytelling. If you can show something happening and people will instantly empathise with it and recognise it, it becomes much cooler for them.”

So much art aims to overwhelm, to impress us with scale or size. But the small asks us what we're missing and affords a kind of contemplation that can be rare today. For Tinky, “coming across something like that in a laneway or an urban setting is like an accidental find, so it teaches us to slow down and appreciate our surroundings. I think it can jolt us out of our serious walk down the street to work. Something like this might help us to go 'hang on a minute, I might have missed that if I'd just kept marching past' … I like the idea that something tiny can stop us in our tracks and make us think about things.”


RICE RICE BABY The attraction of the impossibly small has long been recognised in East Asia, where there's a long tradition of painting detailed scenes on single grains of rice. That tradition has continued to today, taken to extremes by artists such as New York-based Trong G. Nguyen, whose accomplishments include penning works by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens on the tiny grains.

Flea circuses were popular in Victorian Britain.

FLEA FALL Flea circuses were a mainstay of Victorian Britain and nearby European countries and while they sound like a carney ruse they were in fact what they claimed to be: tiny circuses in which fleas pulled off all kinds of feats. Or, at least, had tiny contraptions tied or glued to them so they appeared to walk tightropes, ride bicycles or be shot from cannons. The ethics of working with fleas are unclear.

THE FRAMES ARE CHEAPER "Painting in little" is one of the terms for the miniature artworks that have been painted for more than a millennium. Works are 1/6 of actual size, with some definitions stating a total surface of 100 square centimetres.

MICROANGELO Detailed miniatures have a rich history in the Middle East, too, kept alive by Hasan Kale, whose canvases have included lentils and pumpkin seeds. He's said he hopes one day to paint the skyline of his hometown of Istanbul on a single strand of hair.

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