The Miniature Described: Maggy Hamel-Metsos at Pumice Raft

14 July 2023

By Paula McLean

In her 1993 book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart makes a compelling comparison between the experience of time and miniature models. She describes an experiment conducted at the University of Texas, where the participants were asked to interact with scale-model environments 1/6, 1/12, and 1/24 of full size, including scale figures. The participants were asked to move the scale figures through the environments, to imagine humans to be at that scale, and to identify activities appropriate for that space. They were also asked to let researchers know when they thought that the thirty minute mark had been reached. It was discovered that thirty minutes had been experienced as five minutes at 1/12 scale and two and half minutes at 1/24, leading the researchers to conclude that the experience of time was relative to the size and scale of the models. For Stewart’s argument, this concluded that “the contraction of time experienced through the miniature had the power to transcend the duration of everyday life in such a way as to create an interior temporality of the subject.”1  

Similarly, the notion of an interior temporality is something that artist Maggy Hamel-Metsos’ solo show at Pumice Raft touched upon in a unique way. Upon entering the space, viewers were met with almost complete darkness save for a spotlight and the midday light streaming in through two small holes cut into a wall, which covered the space normally inhabited by the gallery’s windows. A spotlight shone down on a model house, titled House of Cards (348 Ryding ave, The Junction, Toronto) (2022), which was made from thin, polished pieces of steel in the size and shape of playing cards. The holes in the wall, titled Si les yeux pouvaient se retourner dans leurs orbites (2022) were fitted with magnifying glass lenses which flipped the view of the street upside down when a viewer peered outside. 

Image: Si les yeux pouvaient se retourner dans leurs orbites, 2022 by Maggy Hamel-Metsos. Image courtesy of Pumice Raft.

While the focus of the show was a singular, central sculpture, the dark lighting created an environment in which viewers directly engaged with the work without any distractions from the outside world, with the space itself appearing to mimic human consciousness (or unconsciousness). When I stepped into the space, many associations immediately came to mind. I was reminded of the sparse sets of Postmodern theatre productions, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which figures a solitary tree as its only prop. The model house also led me to think about the maquette house photographs that appear in production documentation that accompanied Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 film, The Sacrifice.

Returning to Hamel-Metsos’ piece, it was clear that one of its biggest strengths was that, despite being an immediately recognizable object, it was just featureless enough to function, metaphorically, as a screen on which projections could be cast. The cards themselves positioned the piece in a sort of nostalgic way, which may have led viewers down a path of recalling their own personal associations and memories. 

Additionally, it was clear that House of Cards was carefully installed to illustrate the mind’s eye, while further suggesting the house being a hazy, distant memory that viewers can literally walk inside and be privy to. The moody and dark atmosphere of the gallery was also suggestive of an old movie theatre with a projector whose light flickers through the darkness. This imagery is poignant given the multitude of metaphors in literature, theatre, and film that compare our minds to projections, wherein the mind recalls memories as one would watch a film, and the camera lucida in the windows parallels the transformative data processing that the eye undertakes. While the notion of memory loomed large in Hamel-Metsos’ installation, it also established an equally deep tie to place. The steel house of cards was a replica of one of the houses across the street from the gallery, making it seem as if the space itself was dreaming or remembering its own surroundings. 

Image: Installation view. Image courtesy of Pumice Raft.

Regardless of whether the room itself was “remembering,” viewers encountered a model or “copy” of the house located outside, and through engaging with this mimic, I believe there was a shift that occurred within viewers’ minds. This shift is also defined by Stewart, who notes that “the interiority of the enclosed world tends to reify the interiority of the viewer.”2 Following this thinking, the miniature could be defined as a place of origin, one that is always viewed from a transcendent position, never to cross the threshold into the physical world. There is, therefore, always a distance between the viewer and the miniature object, just like there is distance between the one who remembers and their memory. House of Cards thus prompts viewers to engage in the nostalgic act of remembering, with all external distractions obscured by the darkness, as if one is actually inside someone’s mind. 

Image: House of Cards (348 Ryding ave, The Junction, Toronto), 2022 by Maggy Hamel-Metsos. Image courtesy of Pumice Raft.

These observations are perhaps best summarized in one small detail on top of the house’s pointed roof: a single white feather is placed just as precariously as the house of cards is constructed, one card leaning against the other. It appears a small gust of wind could blow the feather right off, yet it remains fixed atop the roof like a perfectly painted still life. The feather adds a distinctly ephemeral quality to the sculpture, as if the whole house of cards could collapse at any moment. Time is also ephemeral. Stewart maintains that the miniature model creates a different kind of temporality inside the viewer’s or participant’s mind or psyche. When gazing at a miniature version of a larger, real life structure, time distorts and it is as if there are two time periods or zones: the regular flow of time that everyone perceives more or less in the same way, and miniature time, a compact form of time that is perceived relative to the dimensions of the miniature itself—one time mode inside another. 

Image: Detail view, House of Cards (348 Ryding ave, The Junction, Toronto), 2022 by Maggy Hamel-Metsos. Photo courtesy of Pumice Raft.

Similarly, the still life tradition in painting can often cause viewers to lose their sense of subjectivity as they get pulled into the still life’s own internal logic and timelessness. Theorist and writer Fabienne Collignon describes still life as being that which “depicts possessions while repelling notions of self-ownership because it is an object of fascination.”3 Collignon further defines fascination as “that which maintains contact at a distance, shattering and dismantling the ego of the person fascinated.”4 In these ways, the miniature could therefore be seen to affect viewers by way of two different movements: size and form act as fascination; and holding viewers at arm’s length and only allowing their imaginations to inhabit space. On the other hand, as a still life, the miniature model of a house works its way into the viewer’s mind and psyche, slowly unravelling their subjectivity and opening up the possibility of a “world minus human consciousness.”5 Time therefore is altogether compressed and stretched out, as the work itself beckons viewers to both remember and forget to inhabit a space that is not altogether of this world. 

  1. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 66.
  2.  Ibid., 68.
  3.  Fabienne Collignon, The Insectile and Deconstruction of the Non/Human (New York: Routledge, 2022), 152.
  4.  Ibid., 152.
  5.  Ibid., 152.

Life’s Marching Band by Maggy Hamel-Metsos ran from November 13 – December 18, 2022 at Pumice Raft in Toronto, ON. 

Feature Image: House of Cards (348 Ryding ave, The Junction, Toronto), 2022 by Maggy Hamel-Metsos. Photo courtesy of Pumice Raft.