Resonant with the uncanny impression of human presence, Ron Mueck’s hyperreal sculptures provoke a queasy fascination in the viewer. Their porous, synthetic skins are painstakingly embedded with details like body hair, fingernails and sweat. However, their unnatural scale offsets the familiarity of the ordinary bodies on show—miniature or gigantic, they possess an otherworldliness that unsettles and enthralls. Simultaneously grand and vulgar, nestled somewhere between fine art and artisan traditions, Mueck’s sculptures have drawn on canonical art historical sources while echoing the ‘low’ history of wax’s all-too-real simulation of the human body.
This contradiction is reflected in Mueck’s background—the son of German toymakers in Australia, he crossed into contemporary art after a career in puppetry and special effects (he worked with Jim Henson on Sesame Street, the Muppet Show and Labyrinth) with the Charles Saatchi-commissioned Dead Dad, which was included in the influential exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. An exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, is currently showing Dead Dad, other well-known works, and some new works on show for the first time.
Of the new works, the tiny Youth, investigating a gash on his ribs with disbelief, recalls any number of art historical Doubting Thomases probing the wound that becomes a threshold between skepticism and faith, appropriate for a hyperreal work that blurs distinctions between reality and illusion.
The miniature Drift presents an almost cinematic slice of life that draws attention to the strangeness of the standard viewing format for art as well as the screen—the recumbent man floats vertically on a chlorine-blue wall, so we look across to him while looking down on him.
A plucked ostrich-sized chicken hangs by its feet in Still Life, Mueck’s only lifeless subject other than Dead Dad. Both of these works emphasize the already deathly aspect of the hyperreal sculpture, in which cold, motionless flesh always possesses morbid undertones. The work’s allusion to the still life or ‘nature morte’ tradition is made obvious through its title, while the reverse cruciform pose of the weighty, tragic chicken seems to parody the institutional worship of corpses in other contexts.
Ron Mueck at National Gallery of Victoria 22 January – 18 April 2010