Giant horses’ heads and 10-metre sculptures: massive art to see right now
One aspect of art you really cannot get at home – not by looking at it online or even in the most XXL of art books, and especially not with the screenlocked world of non-fungible token artworks – is the sheer, sensual thrill of bigness. It is time to think big, see big and feel big.
Britain has more than its fair share of awe-inspiring art. You could even say the genre was born here. Neolithic people shaped and sculpted the landscapes of these isles into henges, barrows and hill forts that seeded the idea of making a spectacular mark. Thus, medieval masons raised the great gothic pinnacle that tops Salisbury Cathedral in what seems a deliberate attempt to outdo the nearby megaliths of Stonehenge. Landowners of the 18th century, inspired by a vogue for Stonehenge and Avebury, anticipated modern land art by turning their estates into elaborate works of art with designed vistas, ornamental temples and romantic follies. In the late 20th century this grand impulse returned. Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North broke with boring good taste to show how art can define a place anew.
Similarly out-of-scale artworks by Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor prove that size does matter: but why? We want to be overwhelmed, made to feel our own littleness. The thinker Edmund Burke called this sensation “the sublime” and claimed it is more psychologically powerful than the merely beautiful. Surely that is why the enveloping works of art that are medieval cathedrals strive for sublimity: to make you feel a force greater than yourself. And long after the decline of religious art we still flock to an “infinity room” by Yayoi Kusama (her show of cosmic illusions at Tate Modern is not listed here because it sold out ages ago) as if in search of some inexplicable sense of awe. The ancients felt much the same when they gathered for the solstice at Stonehenge.
This is a celebration of art that towers over you, surrounds you and swallows you up.
Rupture No 1: Blowtorching the Bitten Peach
We love to get a bit lost in an art installation and Phillipson’s colourful environment is the latest outsized Tate commission to offer that. This time the venue is Millbank but this sprawling and multifaceted artwork is very much in the tradition of Big Art established by Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Maybe she should take that over next. She describes her creation as a living architecture, turning the gallery into a quasi-organic presence.
Tate Britain, SW1, to 23 January
Size may just be a way of making art come to life. David, sculpted at the start of the 16th century, was called “The Giant” by contemporaries. The V&A’s full-size Victorian cast towers over you just like the marble original. But somehow David doesn’t feel like the colossus he is. Instead, the exaggeration of size makes it possible to see the muscles of his legs, the curve of his ribcage, the veins of his right hand more clearly. And this magnification helps Michelangelo achieve something incredible: the illusion of life in cold stone (or in this copy, plaster).
The Virgin Mother
This 10-metre-tall statue is the biggest of a group of Hirst’s sculptures currently occupying the green slopes of Britain’s leading sculpture park. It is a monument to shock and vulgarity. Yet it is also a peculiarly haunting and even beautiful presence. This giant woman has her skin stripped back to reveal a foetus in her womb. Is that horrible? Leonardo da Vinci did far worse and drew a dead human foetus. Hirst magnifies Leonardo’s curiosity about who we are and where we come from.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, nr Wakefield, to 1 April
Can a roaring artificial waterfall be a work of art? Well, why on earth not? Our contemporary breadth and experimental freedom in defining art was shared by the landowners and gardeners of the past, who sculpted their landscapes into aesthetic installations. Chatsworth’s Cascade is one of Britain’s oldest as well as loveliest pieces of land art. It was originally created in the 17th century by a French garden guru, Monsieur Grillet, then reconstructed in the 1700s. Today it gives delight to anyone who can afford a ticket to these gardens.
Cerne Abbas Giant
With its erect member in proportion to its hillside-high scale, this is one of the most surreal artworks in the British landscape. It is also one of the most enigmatic. Chalk figures can be very old or surprisingly new. This cocky giant suggests an ancient fertility figure or a modern prank. But recent dating of soil samples reveals it was made in Saxon times, perhaps by local monks who had the same rude fun with chalk that they did in manuscript marginalia.
Cerne Abbas, Dorset
Tino Sehgal at Blenheim Park & Gardens
This Berlin-based artist of human interaction isn’t in the business of dwarfing anyone with the monumental; or, for that matter, making anything physical at all. But his latest social performance takes you through one of the grandest of all Britain’s shaped landscapes: a park that includes a huge column commemorating the Battle of Blenheim, a high bridge over mirroring waters and, at the heart of it all, the surreally vast baroque spectacle of Blenheim Palace itself.
Blenheim Park & Gardens, Oxfordshire, 9 July to 15 August
Angel of the North
You cannot leave this famous landmark off a list of big British art. It has become one of the most recognisable icons of modern Britain, perhaps even as famous as Stonehenge. Why? Partly because it combines new and old, reality and dream in such a simple, bold way. It’s an angel, a creature of hope and redemption. And it’s made from industrial steel, speaking of the north’s industries. But most of all it’s bloody big, and you can see it from a long way off.
A1 & A167, Gateshead
Medieval cathedrals are best understood as gesamtkunstwerke or “total works of art”, anticipating today’s installations, combining sculpture, architecture and – above all – the manipulation of light with stained glass in one immense experience. Durham, which was begun just decades after the Norman conquest, is one of the most imposing such structures on Earth. The view of it from the riverbank below is deeply moving and beloved by Romantic painters. Inside, the massively thick Romanesque columns take your breath away.
This full-scale cast of a giant plant-eating dinosaur’s fossilised bones stood for years in the main hall of London’s Natural History Museum. Dinosaurs, which we only know through fossils, models and CGI, are the most sublime things in any museum. They are nature’s very own outsized artworks: real creatures that outdo human fantasy. Dippy is currently on tour and can be seen this summer in the nave of Norwich Cathedral: a fabulous setting for such a surreal beast.
Norwich Cathedral, 13 July to 30 October
Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond
This red arterial web rises like a tower of blood over east London. Kapoor is a genius with colour, an alchemist at embedding deep, dark hues into the human brain. Even without its red paint, the lolloping colossus he created for the 2012 London Olympics, together with architect Balmond, would catch the eye. It has the chaotic structure of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel combined with the utopian fantasy of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. The gory red turns that spectacle into something bizarrely organic.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, E20
These 30-metre-high metal horse heads are apparently the world’s biggest equine sculpture, fulfilling one of Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic dreams. The Renaissance polymath tried to combine art and science to create a colossal bronze horse in Milan. He designed machinery to cast it and made a full-size clay model but it was beyond the technology of the time. Now, the artist Andy Scott has outdone him with an engineering feat that shows how far we’ve come.
Forth & Clyde Canal, Falkirk
Bridget Riley’s abstract patterns create optical overloads and feedback that can warp your sense of what is real and what is not. Yet her vision is rooted in a sustained and serious engagement with art history. She has looked deeply at the pointillist paintings of Seurat, among other treasures of the National Gallery. Her soaring wall painting in its entrance hall celebrates the vastness of what art becomes in our minds.
The National Gallery, WC2
Sir James Thornhill
This is a rare British answer to the vertigo-inducing ceiling frescoes that boggle the mind in Italian churches and German palaces. Calling it Britain’s Sistine Chapel is a hype too far: Sir James Thornhill, who painted this enormous homage to the Hanoverian dynasty and Royal Navy in Greenwich, was no Michelangelo. But the eye-fooling effects of his sprawling celebration of perspective is great fun. Seashells and pillars seem to sprout from the walls and a painted sailing ship floats overhead in your fascinated gaze.
Old Royal Naval College, SE10
This great American abstract sculptor doesn’t just impress with size. He makes you feel weight, which is a far more poetic sculptural effect. His towering work outside Liverpool Street Station brings raw, rust-coloured heavy metal into the heart of the capital. By propping immense steel sheets against each other he creates the tension of a house of cards. This art presses, leans, gathers. With Serra there is always a dynamism and a danger.
Broadgate Circle, EC2
Ring of Brodgar
The farthest flung of the many stone circles found throughout the British Isles is also one of the most atmospheric. Tall, thin stones stand near dark, cold water in a constellation of Neolithic remains that also include well-preserved stone dwellings and the eerie burial chamber Maes Howe. The alignment of Maes Howe, so that the midwinter sunrise sends a ray of light straight inside it, reveals how cosmic and contemplative the culture that raised the Ring of Brodgar was. This was a big country where sky met earth.