Review: Ron Mueck

Dead Dad (1996-7): the work that skyrocketed Mueck to international fame.

'Dead Dad' (1996-7): the work that skyrocketed Mueck to international fame.

Ron Mueck
National Gallery of Victoria International
Exhibition runs until 18 April


Until I went to this exhibition, I’d never seen a Ron Mueck sculpture in real life. It’s impossible to tell the scale of his work from a photograph, because from the tiniest figures to the most monumental, Mueck painstakingly crafts them all to be uncannily lifelike.

But the way the works command their space is the first and most astonishing thing you notice upon entering the NGV’s extensive retrospective. And the other thing you won’t realise from looking at photographs is the way people react to them.

Born the son of Melbourne toymakers in 1958, Mueck became interested in puppetry and model-making. At the Jim Henson creature workshop he worked on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and was the voice of lovable giant Ludo in Labyrinth. He moved to London in the mid-’80s, where he ran a props and animatronics company. In the mid-’90s a figure he’d done for his mother-in-law’s art show caught the eye of Charles Saatchi; Mueck’s ‘Dead Dad’ was included in Sensation, the landmark 1997 exhibition of works from the Saatchi Collection.

He's just as scared of you as you are of him: 'Wild Man' (2005).

He's just as scared of you as you are of him: 'Wild Man' (2005).

The NGV show takes this launch of Mueck’s fine-art career as its starting point. Upon entering, you see a large blurb on the wall setting the scene, then you turn the corner to see ‘Dead Dad’ itself, spotlit on an oversized dais that looks like a mortuary slab.

It’s the only thing in the darkened room, and the emotional punch this unexpectedly tiny object packs is incredible. As visitors gather around it, their gaze directed down at the naked, greyish corpse-flesh and upturned palms of Mueck’s father, a tender, contemplative atmosphere is created.

Then you walk into a brightly lit, high-ceilinged room, where you’re immediately confronted by ‘A Girl’ (2006), a gigantic model of a pink newborn baby. The contrasts are breathtaking: death to life; darkness to light; tiny to huge. What a masterful manoeuvre.

It’s hard to know how much of this installation was the NGV’s initiative or whether Mueck specified it all; he has a reputation as a complete control freak. He seldom gives interviews or agrees to be photographed; he refuses to comment on the meanings of his works, but provides precise instructions as to how they are to be displayed. He certainly doesn’t like his sculptures positioned so they can ‘look at’ each other and thus set up unintended group narratives.

This show combines some of Mueck’s ‘greatest hits’ with new works. Unlike last year’s exhausting Salvador Dali: Liquid Desire, it’s a concise summary – perhaps because Mueck’s technique is so painstaking that his output is relatively small. There’s a wealth of gorgeous media images of the works, but The Enthusiast is running with my crappy photos instead, because these give you an idea of how much – and how cleverly – Mueck’s work relies on the presence of observers.

There’s a reason why his sculptures are invariably among the public’s favourite works in whichever museums own them. You’re meant to walk around them, to examine them up close and from a distance, to compare your own body to Mueck’s mindblowingly detailed replicas, to shake the illusion that you’re seeing something real and thus to ponder the nature of humanity.

I spotted more than one person comparing their own hands and feet to those of the apprehensive ‘Wild Man’, who’s installed so that he seems to shrink from observers – like that cliché about women being afraid of mice. It was also amusing to see the quizzical expression of the ‘Man In A Boat’ (2002) mirrored on the faces of the people contemplating him. And the gnome-like, almost comical ‘Two Women’ (2005) seem to be conspiring against the gallery-goers.

'Mask II' (2001-2): a self-portrait.

'Mask II' (2001-2): a self-portrait.

While the works provoke an instant shock of recognition and amazement because of their feeling of corporeal solidity and attention to detail (giant pores, follicles and wrinkles; tiny clothes scaled perfectly for weave, stitching and drape), it’s more disorienting to consider them as art objects.

Somehow, it’s easier to accept as ‘real’ the patently absurd presence of a giant woman in bed (‘In Bed’, 2005), or a miniature woman thrust backwards under a burden larger than she is (‘Woman With Sticks’, 2008), than to ponder that under the sheet is only an armature, not a body, and that it must have been tremendously difficult to transport and arrange all those sticks without damaging them.

‘Mask II’ (2001-2), underscores the ephemeral realism of these works; from the front, it gives an arrestingly lifelike impression of a man sleeping; but Mueck makes the fakery explicit as soon as you view it from the side or back.

I could go on, but the beauty of Mueck’s sculpture is that its human universality invites as many interpretations as there are potential viewers. I will note, however, the religious imagery that seems to permeate more recent works ‘Youth’ (2009) and ‘Drift’ (2009).

A man in board shorts and sunglasses drifts on a lilo, ostensibly in a holiday reverie, absently assuming a Christ-like pose. Is leisure time something to be worshipped? Meanwhile, ‘Youth’s teenager lifts his T-shirt, aghast at the stab wound in his side, recalling the wound inflicted upon Christ on the cross. Like doubting Thomas, he seems unable to believe what he sees. Perhaps we, the viewers, are also doubting Thomases, simultaneously wanting and not-wanting what we see to be real.

The exhibition is at NGV International, Melbourne, until 18 April 2010. It will then tour to Queensland Art Gallery (8 May–8 August 2010) and Christchurch Art Gallery (30 September 2010–30 January 2011).

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  1. bob mcduff says:

    so he puts a dead image beside a live one, a small one beside a large one, a grey one beside a pink one? Masterful.
    My 3 year old can do the same thing. Masterful….
    You need to step back and think. This is nonsense. Definitely not art.


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