There is no place in the upper echelons of contemporary art for a reasonable person: to be a success one has to be an extremist. There are artists whose work is so sloppy it might have been thrown together the day before an opening, and those with an obsessive eye for detail. Many curators and critics have no difficulty reconciling these extremes, seeing both kinds of artist as equally important. The public is less accommodating, showing a clear preference for the detail freaks. Spend some time in a show by Ron Mueck and pretty soon you’ll hear the admiring cry: “There’s a lot of work in that!”
The National Gallery of Victoria is currently showing its fondness for those artists who labour over the tiny details – from the hyperrealist sculptor, Ron Mueck, to the painstaking carvings of Ricky Swallow, whose Federation Square show, The Bricoleur, ends this weekend. Next door to the Mueck exhibition, at the St. Kilda Road venue, is Wisdom of the Mountain: Art of the Ömie – a collection of remarkable barkcloths from the Oro province of Papua New Guinea. For anyone who has never encountered such works before, the show will be a revelation – an authentic, age-old artform of seemingly infinite variety.
It is Ron Mueck (b.1958) who is proving to be the main drawcard, as he has in exhibitions around the world, ever since he was ‘discovered’ by the influential collector, Charles Saatchi, and included in Sensation, the landmark survey of work by young British artists held at London’s Royal Academy in 1997. Mueck is Australian, not British, although he gained his reputation in England, where he went to live in the early 1980s. Prior to Sensation he had pursued a career making models for the film and advertising industries – a background that prompts many other sculptors to treat his work with suspicion, as show business rather than art.
Mueck’s Dead Dad (1996-97) was by no means the most controversial inclusion in Sensation, but it was the piece that stayed in everyone’s mind. The sculpture reputedly represented Mueck’s own father, lying naked and palpably dead on the gallery floor. The figure, made from lifelike silicone, was disturbingly realistic. The fact that it was little more than a metre in length only served to add to the pathos.
One might assume that people would find this work to be morbid and perverse, but Dead Dad has generally had the opposite effect. It has made viewers think of their own experience of losing a loved one, and the way that death diminishes a human being, reducing the most animated of personalities to inert matter. “Moving and poignant” are the words NGV director, Gerard Vaughan, likes to use to describe Mueck’s sculptures, and this is a fair estimate of their impact. I’m not sure, though, that he needed to repeat these words in successive sentences. Who does the NGV’s proof reading?
Dead Dad remains an immensely powerful sculpture, given added gravitas by the fact that this is the first time the work has been shown in Melbourne, the city where Mueck senior lived and died. The figure has the opening room of the show all to itself, symbolising the forced solitude of death.
The curators have acknowledged the theatricality of Mueck’s work by sending us from Dead Dad, directly to A girl (2006) in the second room. Never has the supreme moment of entering the world seemed so overwhelming as in this five-metre-long sculpture of a newborn baby, complete with umbilical cord and blood smears. Viewers circumnavigate this massive child, gazing at it with the dull astonishment usually reserved for beached whales. Of all the works in this show, A girl is the most richly endowed with the ‘wow’ factor.
Mueck’s work is laborious in its fabrication but thematically very simple: a dead man, a newborn baby, a woman in bed, two old crones with pinched features, a hairy man sitting on a chair, a plucked chicken. We marvel at the way he has reproduced every blemish, every hair, every callus or piece of goose flesh. The exacting realism of his figures calls forth an emotional response from the viewer. It is impossible not to identify with the lifelike nature of these humanoids, to feel their awkwardness, their pain or perplexity. Mueck is a conscientious student of human nature, and his sculptures are full of subtle nuances.
With Man in a boat (2002) and Woman with sticks (2008), it has been remarked many times that these works resemble scenes from a dream. The man has a sour expression, as though he is sitting in the boat against his will. He seems uncomfortable with his nakedness and with the attentions of viewers, although like so many of Mueck’s figures, his main focus is inward
The stocky woman holding a huge bundle of sticks is preoccupied with her task to the exclusion of everything else. Simply to hold on to the bundle is a supreme effort as she could barely move more than a few steps. Her nakedness is so inappropriate for gathering twigs that it makes the dream interpretation highly plausible. Yet Mueck has given the work every touch of verisimilitude, right down to the fine scratches on the woman’s arms
The very fact that we are drawn to construct psychological explanations for these works is testimony to their realism. Another, no less significant reason for their peculiar power is Mueck’s habit of playing with scale. His figures are over or under-scaled for good reason: if they were all life-sized, the effect would be similar to visiting a wax museum. Mueck knows that anything miniaturised takes on an impression of extreme interiority and some of the aspects of a toy. His small figures are all dolls, but dolls that do not invite playfulness.
In one of these diminutive sculptures two old women wear expressions of meanness and simmering hostility, the end result – we surmise – of long, unhappy lives. His Old woman in bed (2002) from the Art Gallery of NSW is a tiny, fragile figure obviously close to death. Like a good novelist, Mueck does not sentimentalise his characters or tell us what to think, he presents them in all their complexity and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Those conclusions may be as varied as our personal life experiences.
With the large-scale works the effect is quite different. Remember the way Gulliver was disgusted by his close-up views of the citizens of Brobdingnag, and you have a rough idea of the mixture of attraction and repulsion embodied in such pieces. The appropriate word is “grotesque” – a kind of fascinating ugliness that teases our imagination with the thought that these figures are only a heartbeat away from actual living beings.
Perhaps one should not hold Mueck in suspicion for his background in the movie industry, as it has left him well equipped to make a mark on a contemporary art scene desperate to keep pushing back boundaries that barely exist. It has been a long time since artists were comfortable with the Renaissance idea of “man as the measure of all things”. Mueck has shown that by the manipulation of scale and an exacting realism, viewers may be confronted with the complexities of their own relationship to other human beings. These large or small bodies are mirrors of psychological states: they make us conscious of our own insignificance, or the way we tend to view others as mere bit players in the all-encompassing drama of our subjectivity. Even the most insensitive of viewers must feel that these sculptures open a small chink in the armor of the ego.
It would be remiss not to use this opportunity to recommend the Ömie exhibition. The show runs until 21 March, and as yet is not scheduled to travel to any other venues. This is a shame, as the fourteen female artists in this survey deserve the widest possible recognition. It is also a crucial moment for the Ömie, as their barkcloths – or nioge – are still being made for everyday use and clothing, even as they are embraced by the art market. As interest grows the nature of the nioge will gradually change, not necessarily for the worse, as we have seen with the remarkable evolution of Aboriginal bark painting. Nevertheless, there is something wonderful about those primary examples of an artform, before a greater level of contact, market consciousness and sophistication is attained.
Viewers may feel the Ömie work is already so sophisticated that it would be hard to improve, but change is inexorable. Certain alterations in the way the Ömie relate to the world will be forced by the recent death of David Baker, who had enjoyed a long, productive relationship with these isolated people. David had singlehandedly brought the Ömie to the attention of Annandale Galleries, and then the wider art community. It can only be hoped that all those who work with the artists in the future will display the same degree of cultural sensitivity.
Ron Mueck, National Gallery of Victoria, January 22-April 18, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 27, 2010