|Ron Mueck, Old Couple under an Umbrella, 2013
The most arresting thing about Ron Mueck’s sculptures, some of which are on view at Thaddaeus Ropac’s London Ely Street gallery, is their size. These works are always the “wrong size.” They are diminutive or oversized, but never life-sized. Everything else about these carefully crafted figures is as realist as realism will allow, but their size makes them all at once, curious, tragic, frightening and poignant.
|Ron Mueck, 25 Years of Sculpture
Although many of the same works are on show in London as were in the Mueck exhibition at Fondation Cartier in 2013, I saw them from a new perspective. I was particularly struck by the sculptures’ overwhelming focus on life and death. They are not necessarily reflecting on the cycle of life, but about birth and death. There is little in the exhibition that would suggest the joy of life being lived in between times, despite the blurb on the gallery website. In all the works of mothers with their children, life is just beginning, and often shows the exhaustion that brings for the mother. In others, life is coming to an end, through expiration, or through growing old. In the well-known, Dead Dad, 1996/97, life has already left the figure who lies supine on a plinth. In Youth, 2009/10, a young black boy lifts his t-shirt to examine a wound on his midriff. The resonance with St Thomas poking at Christ’s laceration is immediate. However, of course, this young man is black, and as visitors we are hard pressed to ignore the immediate thought of the danger and threat of the streets for people such as him today. The figure tells a multitude of stories—biblical, art historical, and a simple narrative of urban life—that makes him very familiar. At the same time, his diminutive figure makes him vulnerable and his sensuous, life-like skin gives the urge to protect him. He is both realist and a representation of violence—or not. Perhaps he has simply cut his torso accidentally.
|Ron Mueck,,Youth, 2009.2010
Thus, we are constantly moving between the stories associated with the figure and marvelling its status as an art object. Moreover, we keep questioning our responses. In the sculptures that depict dead beings—an oversized chicken, a tiny father, a huge skull which shows its signs of production—the vividness of the decaying skin can be somehow repellent. The melancholy has been removed from the body as matter. Similarly, the baby just born, lying on its mother’s stomach with the umbilical cord still attached is overwhelmed by the blood and mess of bodies opened and connected, emptied of emotion.
|Ron Mueck,Dead Dad, 1996-97
And yet, they are both empty and overflowing with emotion. By turns, there is a sadness and poignancy to the fact that some of them are like masks, they are not full faces. The masks are sad or angry, violated in some way, even if that violation happens in the form of a baby being born. Amid the well of emotions, there is intimacy to the figures. This often comes in the multiple figures, for example, the mothers with their children, or the enormous couple under a beach umbrella. The couple are complete with wrinkles, sun spots, hairs sprouting in unsuspected places. The physical body stripped bare reveals an emotional vulnerability. Indeed, the figures are often at their most vulnerable – the father, naked on his death bed, a man wrapped in a blanket, perhaps trying to survive on the streets. Even the old couple are caught in an unguarded moment, enjoying the depth and longevity of their relationship together as she bends her head to look into his eyes, he gently rests his hand on her arm.
|Ron Mueck, Mother and Child, 2003
Wandering through the exhibition, I felt as though I was walking in the land of the giants, particularly as I watched other people hover over tiny figures, or look up to massive ones. When others surrounded the miniature figures, I started to sense a discomfort, wanting to protect them. Then as I moved up close to the giants as if gawking at them under a microscope, I felt as though I was intruding on their privacy. The complexity of Mueck’s sculpture, as well as our responses to it, envelop them in endless intrigue. That said, this exhibition included a series of stills of Mueck in his studio, unveiling the mystery of these life-like compositions. Which is to say, we may see how they are made by the artist, but the photographs only served to underline that the sculptures might be constructed, but we nevertheless continue to behave towards them as though they are beings. Dead or alive, it doesn’t matter.