Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cesar's Thumb

A thumb. It's a gigantic bronze sculpture by Cesar located in La Defense, Paris. It's about 10 metres high. It was one of the very first remarkable things I saw when I moved to Paris in 2003. At the time I had a negative reaction to this work of art. Now I love it.

Why was my first view negative? I think it was because I saw it too much in the context of the buildings around it. The very high sky-scrapers (gratte-ciel) that dominate La Defense. It seemed to me that the thumb was only made enormous because the sky-scrapers were enormous. I saw the enormous bland buildings and then I saw the enormous bland thumb and it seemed like a bad joke to me. Somehow the negative feeling I had about the buildings played off directly onto the thumb.

And the thumb is surely enormous only because the buildings are enormous. A question of appropriate scale, of the thumb sculpture not being dwarfed by its surroundings. But it's also a question of opportunity: opportunity for Cesar; opportunity for us.

Imagine this thumb now being lifted onto the back of an articulated lorry and going off on a tour of France. Imagine that thumb popping up on the top of an Alp. On the beach in St Tropez. Standing next to a lighthouse on some wild coast of Brittany. Then it would prove its scale, its appropriateness to every situation.

It could take its place among the menhirs of Carnac. It could spend an afternoon blocking traffic on the motorway during a bank holiday weekend. It could give a mighty thumbs up to the grape harvest in Champagne.

And everywhere it went, people would look at their own thumbs. They would hold them up and move them further from or closer to their faces until their own thumbs were the same size as Cesar's thumb. And that distance between the thumb and their face would depend upon how far they were from Cesar's thumb.

Cesar's thumb would return to Paris heroic. The ultimate measure of scale, known everywhere. It would return to its place at the foot of the giant buildings and people would crowd around it, closer and closer, their own thumbs held up, closer and closer until the buildings were blotted out not only by Cesar's giant thumb, but also by their own thumbs. Then they could once more know who they were.

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