“We are obsessed with growth”

Arne Hendriks on the appeal of thinking small

Arne Hendriks, artist-in-residence at Rabobank, believes we are obsessed with growth. With his long-running art project, The Incredible Shrinking Man, he has been examining whether we can provide an answer to abundance by shrinking in the face of it.

A version of this article was previously posted on Rabobank.com on January 23, 2018.

The exhibition The Incredible Shrinking Man is currently installed in a communal workspace at the Rabobank headquarters in Utrecht. Over the next four months Hendriks is using the space as a studio, where he is meditating on growth and giving visitors “a feel for what’s inside my head.”

Hendriks himself is a big friendly giant measuring 1.95 meters. His tallness was a trigger for The Incredible Shrinking Man, on which he has been working for eight years. He began noticing the disadvantages of being tall more and more. For instance, Hendriks discovered that “every centimeter above 1.55 meters takes two to six months off your life expectancy.” It struck him that there are numerous stories about the advantages of large, but very few about the advantages of small. With The Incredible Shrinking Man, Hendriks puts forward questions about our obsession with big, bigger, biggest. He uses examples from people, animals, and living systems as his source of inspiration.

Artist Arne Hendriks in the Rabobank installation

What do you aim to achieve with your project?

I want to share stories about the disadvantages of growth and the advantages of contraction in order to counterbalance the present-day success stories emphasizing more, in order to bring things back into balance.

Such as the story that it isn’t healthy for a person to be too tall?

Exactly. Robert Wadlow, who was 2.72 meters and the tallest person who ever lived, died at 22 of an infected blister on his ankle. He kept growing due to a tumor in his pituitary gland, which creates growth hormones. His body had nothing left over with which to fight the infection.

“Being tall is not necessarily healthy. It makes us vulnerable”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence, Rabobank

But being tall also has its advantages, doesn’t it?

We shouldn’t confuse cause and effect. We become tall because we grow up under perfect conditions – that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy to be tall. A plant in a greenhouse can grow very large under perfect conditions. But if those conditions change, then that plant would be the first to die. The Netherlands has some of the tallest people in the world, but this makes us vulnerable now that commodities are becoming scarcer.

What is flawed with the way we relate to growth in the economy?

We believe that big and numerous are by definition good, even though we can see that the ceaseless pursuit of more places an enormous burden on our planet. The public domain is being devoured by our obsession with growth. We have learned that growth is good in a human body until a certain balance is reached. Economic growth is nothing more than the sum of consumption, including wastefulness.

“We are obsessed with growth”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence, Rabobank

Why do we persist in our obsession with growth and size?

In our value system, big is linked to social success. This is visible not only in the large houses and big cars that we buy. Humans also have a biological longing for bigger things. Women are drawn to tall men. Tall people earn more and have more successful careers. Short people make room for tall people, making life easier for them as a result.

What does contraction have to offer us?

Imagine what it would be like if we could discard our fear of contraction and learn to be creative with the idea of smaller, of less, of contraction. You would suddenly have a very different world. This is what I look at in The Incredible Shrinking Man. In the animal world, you have species such as the Red-Eyed Tree Frog, the female of which has a strong preference for a small male. I find that fascinating. In evolution there are always two possibilities: becoming larger or becoming smaller.

Installation view of The Incredible Shrinking Man at Rabobank headquarters

Is contraction an evolutionary option for humans as well?

Yes, it is. On the Indonesian island of Flores, there was a human species called Homo floresiensis whose average height shrank from one and a half meters to one meter. Perhaps this was because the fear of being eaten had receded. I sometimes think that we humans have become so tall as a result of the fierce competition that exists between people. Couldn’t we all just relax a little?

“A meter and a half is the ideal size for humans”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence, Rabobank

What kinds of insights has your project produced so far?

What is interesting is that we have long since grown past our perfect size. A meter and a half is the ideal size in my opinion. If I were that height, I would weigh half of what I do now and eat significantly less food. The question is not whether contraction is possible but whether or not we want it. We therefore need more stories in which value is placed on the concept of less.

For example, this summer I was a guest of a community in Indonesia that lives next to the Ciliwung, a river that runs through Jakarta. The facades of their houses were situated directly on the water. They were meant to evacuate the area because the government wanted to create five meters of space along the banks of the river. They were given the option of moving to alternative accommodation, but most of the people in the community were adamantly opposed to moving out.

A large share of the community remained in their houses, and made the government a reasonable counter-offer: they agreed to relinquish a part of their houses, which were reduced from six to three meters. This created extra public space in front of their doorsteps, where the residents undertook new initiatives such as urban farming and a park. Thus, by relinquishing a portion of their property, they gained a measure of social richness.

Do you think that stories about ‘less is better’ speak to people?

Absolutely. All religions preach simplicity. In Western society there is without a doubt a great longing for simplicity: less hassle, less bureaucracy, and more appreciation for the things we do have.

“We still don’t know how to deal with abundance”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence, Rabobank

What can Rabobank do with your conclusions?

Within the bank there is also a longing for change. People want to find a more conscientious, sensible way of dealing with the things we have. My research question at Rabobank is: what is an elegant use of natural resources and people’s strengths? That is what I am in search of. I engage people in discussions, ask questions, and take the first step by presenting a work of art or a statement. For example, we discussed the issue of abundance in agriculture during a talk-show. We concluded that, despite the fact that humans have engaged in agriculture for more than 10,000 years, we still don’t know how to deal with abundance.

Where do you see signs of this?

Take the example of the harvest of white cabbage, which was too good last winter. As a result, much of this cabbage remained on farms for the simple reason that it didn’t have enough value. When monetary value becomes so dominant that we are unable to push forward other values, there is something amiss. We are researching this issue further. We bought up all of farmer Krijspijn’s white cabbage, and Rabobank adopted 1,000 of them. We looked into what other values we could draw upon in order to prevent food from being wasted. The white cabbage is a sober vegetable with beautiful possibilities.

The white cabbage project

What is the point of doing that?

I personally want to have instruments to deal with these kinds of situations. For the bank – with its roots in agriculture and cooperative societies – I believe it’s good to show that it wants to make a difference on this issue, together with its clients. Rabobank is the largest financer in the food sector and can therefore change the landscape radically. It is entirely feasible to work on less wastage and a better utilization of what is already available. That way you automatically contract in the face of excess. And we would already be providing an answer to the issue of abundance in society.

Artist in residence: Arne Hendriks

Banking4Food Innovation Centre, Rabo Foundation, and Kunstzaken asked artist Arne Hendriks to work on his project at Rabobank. He invited all the employees to engage in a dialogue with him on the question: what is a smart use of natural and human resources in food? He will work on this theme together with the bank until the end of 2018. For more information about his project, The Incredible Shrinking Man, see www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net.