National exhibitions, folksy cousins to world fairs, farmers' markets and trade shows, are designed to do two things: empty your pockets and inspire autumnal wonder.
For the last few years, Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition has successfully fulfilled the first part of the above mandate, but left the latter, more resonant element of spectacle to moulder under a barrage of wobbling massage-chair demos, cheap hip-hop acts and the recondite appeal of dogs jumping over beer barrels.
Where are the giant, Toyota-sized pumpkins, the freakish, long-haired chickens, the ball gowns made out of butter?
Thankfully, Nikolai Syadristy's spectacular Micro-Art - if it's correct to describe an art show that would literally fit on a 1-cent postage stamp as a spectacle - reclaims some of the CNE's long buried sense of awe and aw-shucks grandeur. Whether or not Syadristy's miraculous microscopic creations are Art or some very meticulous form of hucksterism I'll leave to more august essayists - this article is set, after all, in a fairground.
Since the 1960s, the Ukrainian former agronomist has been crafting literally breathtaking sculptures (he claims to work on his art between heartbeats and breaths, to steady his hand) out of such fairyland materials as a single human hair, a grain of rice, halved poppy seeds and dust-mite-sized grains of sugar - and has made himself world famous in the process. Just ask him. A garrulous man who speaks faster than his interpreters, Syadristy is happy to show visitors snapshots of himself with prime ministers, kings and presidents, most of whom own his sculptures.
Granted, Syadristy's subject matter is more picturesque than investigative. If you are going to create a sculpture to fit in the fabled eye of a needle, what else would you make but a quartet of biblical camels and a pyramid? Any showman can tell you that a bust made from a seed no bigger than a teardrop will pack more punch if it's a bust of the Pope, Rembrandt or Abraham Lincoln.
But to dwell on Syadristy's admittedly pedestrian subject matter is to entirely miss the point of his work.
This is art about controlling and bending inhuman dimensions to recognizable, universal (and therefore, conversely, large) symbols, and is more in line with clocks made of flowers or bombastic fireworks displays than pensive curatorial speculations on, say, identity, theories of representation, or postmodern malaise. What a relief.
Among the more striking works on display are those that not only defy nature, not to mention eye strain, with their Horton Hears a Who dimensions but also exhibit an obsessive attention to detail and an alchemist's love of exotic materials.
For instance, a complete chess set arranged in mid-game (the favourite of Toronto mayor David Miller, I'm told - shamefully, Miller is the only Canadian dignitary Syadristy has met so far, and the man knows Vladimir Putin) is not only set on the head of a pin, a feat that defies my high-school physics, but it's also made out of gleaming solid gold.
A 12-page poetry book that one could tuck under an eyelid and not notice is bound, true to magical form, in shaved flower petals and sewn with dyed spider webs. And, Syadristy boasts with a grin, the gold urn and cups resting on a grain of sugar will hold an atomic serving of wine.
If this sounds a bit far-fetched, well, it is. Looking into the microscopic lenses that front each piece, it's hard to believe that you are not being tricked. In 1999, Toronto's Power Plant exhibited a series of similar micro-sculptures by the Egyptian artist Hagop Sandaldjian, and some wags claimed that the show was a hoax, a series of clever slides placed before viewing lenses (it was not, they were real).
But a quick, guilty glance to the side of each of Syadristy's vitrines will clear up any doubts. The objects are there, and if you squint you can just make out some details. This is arguably the best part of the exhibit: The moment when the viewer has the double realization that, yes, what's before the eyes is impossible and yes, it's entirely real. This hushed moment of appreciation even silences the overexcited kids who scream past, high on deep-fried Mars bars and Tiny Tom donuts.
A heads-up to museum directors in Toronto: Syadristy wants to donate this batch of work to a deserving venue. While the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario race to see who can erect the largest hunk of monster-truck architecture, a bit of quiet, jewel-cut glamour is just what the city needs.
Micro-Art: 10 Micro-miniature Sculptures by Mykola Syadristy continues at the CNE's International Pavilion in Toronto until Sept. 6.