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Ron Mueck in Christchurch

November 25, 2010

[link to exhibit webpage]

Two Women (2005)

The ‘making of’ video included in the Christchurch Art Gallery’s Ron Mueck exhibit says that what distinguishes Mr. Mueck’s creations from wax museum pieces is the way they play with scale. This is certainly true, although I would say that some of the works are much more effective than others. There’s always a fascination and wonder that goes along with purely technical realism, but realism isn’t really enough for a lasting art work. The best pieces in this exhibit have an emotional power that is longer-lasting than ‘how did he do that?’ curiosity.

Francis Bacon - Self Portrait (1969)

Most people have accepted by now that realism is not a necessary component of artistic masterpieces (even the ‘my kid could paint that’ critics). I can take a perfectly realistic picture of myself but nobody’s going to put it on a gallery wall next to Francis Bacon or Van Gogh. And as the technology to manufacture and manipulate totally convincing replicas of reality improves year on year, it’s a tribute to Mueck’s (and his assistant’s) skills that the realism of his sculptures appears almost magical. In CGI natural human details seem to be the hardest to capture, but here it is the clothed models which are the least convincing, as their little outfits make them appear to be doll-like props rather than human replicas. In contrast, natural details (blemishes and all) are reproduced flawlessly at a colossal scale. But to me this technical skill is akin to a musician playing scales at lightning speed: OK, you can play/make anything, but so can my computer. What are you actually going to say/express with that technique?

Dead Dad (1996–97)

The exhibit answers immediately with the diminutive perfection of “Dead Dad”. A dead adult at the scale of a child, small enough and convincing enough to make you want to pick him up and cradle him in your arms, laid out completely unceremoniously. He’s definitely dead, but well-preserved, as if he’s on an embalming table just prior to being dressed and made up for the funeral. So there’s this incredibly private death-state that you feel like you’ve intruded upon, but at the same time you want to kneel down and see how real the toenails are. But once you’re done having a good close-up look at the details there’s the mystery of what kind of a life this completely unadorned body lived. Who will come to the funeral to pay tribute, was he a good man? Has his body been replicated here to ‘cut him down to size’ metaphorically and strip the mean old bastard of his personality and ego? Or is it a way to come to terms with the death of a beloved father: here’s just the body, nothing of the real life is preserved, we must just keep him alive in memory. Or an expression of equality? He may have been a prime minister or a plumber, but nobody can tell now.

A Girl (2006)

In comparison, the giant baby, while ridiculously well-made, doesn’t have quite the same emotional effect. It certainly makes the point that babies are damn weird-looking and crazily-proportioned at this scale, but I don’t know that there’s much more to ponder about it other than more practical concerns like ‘imagine looking after a baby this gigantic yet still helpless’. Maybe a little too close to a natural history museum scale model?

Wild Man (2005)

“Wild Man” and “In Bed” seem to be playing off a similar irony: what are these enormous and powerful-looking people worried about? I think in both of these works the emotional content is a little overpowered by the gigantic details of the sculptures. The effect is a little like a landscape painting where you are constantly compelled to examine the tiniest brushstrokes, distracting you from comprehending the full work.

In Bed (2005)

Pregnant Woman (2002)

“Pregnant Woman”, on the other hand, is just the right amount too big. Big enough to be imposing and powerful, but not so big that the scale becomes the point. As with the giant baby, the super-realism emphasizes the alien aspects of the natural processes of childbirth, having this giant round thing seemingly stuck on to an otherwise standard body. The scale makes the woman’s burden look even more insane, but also suggests that she has the extra strength needed to carry it with her massive feet and legs. Shakespeare’s got it:

O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.

This giant is nothing but noble. Not so much the magical ‘miracle of childbirth’ but the real, effortful achievement of childbirth with all it’s monotony and struggle is celebrated here.

Woman with Sticks (2008)

“Still Life” is a giant plucked chicken with its neck gashed open, hanging from a hook. Because it’s the size of a human and so similar in many textures to the human models it’s a little creepy, but the creepiness is again offset by technical wonder. Because it’s a surpassingly realistic replica of a gross thing it doesn’t seem that gross, which is odd. With this one, and even more in “Woman with Sticks” and “Man in a Boat”, which use real-sized objects as props for small-scale people, there is a hint that Mueck could easily drop the ‘total realism excluding scale’ and make, say, horribly deformed figures with the same absolutely convincing detail. It would be interesting to see him try that, but maybe that would just get even further away from human emotion and more into ‘cool film prop’ territory.

Alberto Giacometti - "L’Homme qui marche I" (The Walking Man I), 1961

A while ago (wow, four whole years have passed…) the gallery hosted
an exhibit of record-breakingly expensive sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s works. Like Mueck, many of his works are human figures on giant or small scales. But there are almost no details on the stick-thin bronzes aside from minimal facial contours, and they make no attempt to be realistic.

Alberto Giacometti hard at work.

Giacometti’s figures are much more imposing than Mueck’s. Without the allure of the tiny up close details you tend to want to step back and see the whole, or come up close and have the whole looming over you, uncaring, striding towards something abstract and unknown. You can’t really identify with the alien figures, and they have a mysterious presence that is hard to explain. In a way they are quite ‘simple’ but this only amplifies the expressiveness of the hints of facial features.

Mask II (2001-2) - Sort of a self-portrait.

Both of these guys have a ‘thing’ that they do, but in one case the thing is easy to describe technically (take a human, scale them, reproduce exactly) and in the other case the description doesn’t really specify much (really skinny tall guys walking?). One thing became obvious while writing this post: scale is vital to both artists. Photos of just the works without any scale references are almost useless in getting a sense of these works (not that the photos I’ve used are exactly great at capturing them either). Strangely the scale of the Mueck works is less obvious in person than in photos, perhaps due to some sort of psychological trick where your brain sees the realistic humans as kind of normal-sized even when they’re not.

It’s possible to imagine being able to buy some kind of future rapid prototyping device soon that would allow anyone to be a ‘Ron Mueck’. So Giacometti’s abstraction and mystery give his works a timelessness that Mueck’s lack. But that’s not to say that Mueck’s works don’t have their own special power. Mueck is one of those rare beasts, a modern artist who is also completely accessible and for the most part (except for the Christ-like pose of the guy on the lilo) avoids ‘conceptually clever’ ideas and one-shot ‘statements’ in favour of human emotions represented by real, identifiable figures.

Go check it out (if you haven’t already) and tell me what you think!

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 25, 2010 11:10 pm

    Can’t believe he replicated Rdoc’s head for the last one. Pretty beautiful head though.

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