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Is Bigger Beautiful? The Rise Of XXL Art

Wider, higher, heavier: A taste for oversized art is spreading around the world, among artists, collectors and the public (at large).

Bernar Venet's "Arcs" in Versailles
Bernar Venet's "Arcs" in Versailles
Roxana Azimi

PARIS — Bernar Venet has big ideas, very big ideas. On July 12, he inaugurated a foundation for his monumental sculptures, notably the impressive 150-ton Effondrement ("Collapse") in Le Muy, in southeastern France.

Venet was also commissioned in 2011 to do an installation of two 72-foot arcs at the Place d’Armes in Versailles. Like the artists Richard Serra or Mark di Suvero, Venet likes art that’s a bit unhinged. “We want to go beyond," he says. "There’s something heroic in it."

The appeal of excess is not new. Just have a look at the large canvases in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The collections at France's Modern Art Museum are teeming with pumped-up works, of which around 20 are deployed in Phares (Lighthouses) at the new Georges Pompidou museum in the northeastern city of Metz.

For a long time, public institutions were typically the only option for this kind of oversized art, but as their budgets shrink, private alternatives are stepping in.

The vice president of the auction house Artcurial, Francis Briest says that “XXL” pieces act as both a spatial and a social marker. “Collectors are now building their houses according to their works,” he notes.

Cyrille Troubetzkoy, coordinator of “Sevres Outdoors” sales exhibition of monumental sculptures, explains that such works have the advantage of often being more "readable" than smaller works. “Outdoor works are the only ones that allow for immediate, spontaneous and uninhibited contact," he says.

The French gallery owner Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, who in 2015 will open a sculpture garden of large pieces in Le Muy, this taste for the colossal comes from wealthy Americans such as the late Raymond Nasher, whose sculpture center in Dallas is a benchmark.

But it is also spreading around the world, including at the Inhotim Art Center of Brazilian art collector Bernardo Paz, or the expansive fields of Alan Gibbs in New Zealand.

In France, a turning point came 20 years ago, when Florence Cathiard, owner of Chateau Smith Haute Lafitte in Gironde, installed in her vineyard a sculpture of a hare by Barry Flanagan (1949-2001). The response from the public was enthusiastic.

Size, space, vanity

“There were traffic jams on our little road,” says Cathiard. “And we thought we were going to place two or three more pieces on the land.” But since 2002, it’s no longer two but 10 pieces by artists ranging from Wang Du to Jean Dupuy that punctuate the landscape. Others around France have followed.

The effect on the art market is real. The “Art-Unlimited” section of Art Basel, which launched in 1999, helped accelerate the trend. “At first, we had to convince the galleries to participate,” says Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel. “They considered the presence of ‘Art Unlimited’ more of as a marketing stunt. But things have changed.”

Sotheby’s has earned a reputation for the sale of huge sculptures in Florida, and in Chatworth, U.K. since 2007. It’s a lucrative operation because, according to Sotheby’s curator Simon Stock, more than half of the works find buyers.

These colossal pieces certainly come at a cost, but strangely at a smaller cost than some “domestic-sized” art. “The artist knows that they can’t ask the same margin for these monumental pieces,” says Mitterrand.

Still, transport can cost up to $25,000 — and engineering requirements for installation and maintenance can add to that figure. There are constraints that naturally add to the transaction time.

Then there is the question of acquiring or hosting works made explicitly as part of exhibitions.

“It’s hard to find good conditions to re-install them,” says Aude Bodet, head of collections at the National Center for Visual Arts (CNAP) in the Hauts-de-Seine outside of Paris, which has some 200 extra large pieces. A sculpture by Ugo Rondinone, produced by CNAP in 2009 and exhibited at Centquatre in Paris as part of the Fall Festival failed to land at the Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy, which had to retract their offer because they were unable to fit it.

Does this mean that we should imagine a museum constructed explicitly to house large pieces, as former French Culture Minister Jack Lang suggested in the June 26th issue of Le Monde? Maybe not, because size is neither a genre nor a subject.

“Can size really characterize a work?” asks Bernard Blistene, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. “What are the similarities between Respirare l’Ombra by Giuseppe Penone — a room lined with leaves protected by a fence — and a huge sculpture by Frank Stella?”

Not much except for the size.

The exhibition “Extra-Large” at the 2012 Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, devoted to large artworks of the Centre Georges Pompidou, demonstrated the limits of a purely formal exercise, forgetting several important factors including scale and space, and the place of the viewer. When such criteria are neglected, the monumental works are reduced to something akin to the vanity of a well-sculpted bodybuilder.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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