- 25 July 2006
This article is from 2006.
David Pollock goes in search of sculptor Ron Mueck and comes up against a wall of silence.
As one of the National Galleries of Scotland's Autumn programme's flagship shows, this display of work by the Australian-born, London-based Ron Mueck is sure to draw the crowds and inspire discussion among those who witness his hyperrealist sculptures. Just try getting to interview those who actually know the artist . . .
From models to dealers and past curators, there seems to be an unspoken culture of Omerta about Mueck's art, with some interview requests politely declined and others going completely unreplied to after various attempts at contact. Possibly it was just a case of bad timing and lack of availability; yet so many of such instances in such a narrow space of time hints at a deliberate conspiracy of silence.
But why, you might ask, would those closest to Mueck want to offer quotes to the press? After all, commentators on his work have not exactly been kind in the past. 'There must be much to admire about sculptor Ron Mueck's astonishingly life-like representations of the human body', wrote the Guardian's Adrian Searle in a stinging one star review of the artist's show at the National Gallery in 2003. 'But, apart from the technique, I cannot think what it is . . . It is all so perfect - and perfectly boring.'
Despite such batterings, however, Mueck's creations are still hugely commercially successful, offering a perfect juxtaposition of critical pessimism alongside the gallery-going public's bullish 'if I like it, I'll go and see it' response.
Born in Melbourne in 1958 to German parents, Mueck transformed his childhood hobby of making toys into a career, first making puppets for Australian childrens' television and then moving to London, by way of America, to work with Muppet man Jim Henson.
His CV during this period was impressive by any standards, but it reinforces the feeling voiced privately by some that he's a craftsman first and an artist second; for Henson he worked on The Muppets and Sesame Street, and later on the David Bowie-starring semi-animated fantasy film Labyrinth. For those who recall this zenith of eighties children's cinema well, Mueck also provided the voice of the gentle giant Ludo, one of his own creations.
A career manufacturing models progressed in the early nineties, until 1996, when he made a model of Pinocchio for his mother-in-law, the artist Paula Rego. When Rego used the piece in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, this brought Mueck to the attention of Charles Saatchi, who commissioned work from the artist for his 1997 exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
As well as making Mueck's name as an artist, the controversial Sensation-featured piece 'Dead Dad' set the tone for his work to follow. An anatomically precise (if downscaled) fibreglass, resin and silicone recreation of the corpse of Mueck's father, this boldly personal piece saw him attempt to recreate the persona of a human body without the need for animatronic contraptions as found in modern puppeteering or modelmaking.
Among the more famous works to have emerged from this practice was the five-metre high 'Boy' - which was displayed at the Millennium Dome and the Venice Biennale - and 'Pregnant Woman', purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2002.
'It's fascinating to witness people looking at Mueck's work,' says Keith Hartley, senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who has worked closely with Mueck on the selection and presentation of works for the RSA exhibition. 'They stare at it, often for half an hour. I think this is because Ron aims for a psychological intensity in his work which people respond to; they feel that intensity very deeply for themselves.
'In his choice of subjects, Ron carefully selects the kind of "life moments" that have an almost universal resonance. These can be birth, old age and death, sexual encounters or adolescence, but they are all powerful times that we tend to remember clearly, and plugging into this empathy is a really key element in his work.'
Unlike other artists who use similar methods of duplicating the physical form, such as Duane Hanson, whose work was exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently, Mueck's creations are not simply meant to be realistic in their execution. By adjusting their scale, he adds an extra element of the fantastical to these anatomically correct three-dimensional figures, creating a kind of Gulliver's Travels effect when the viewer is in close proximity to them. Is this change of scale the key to the popularity of his art?
'Mueck is a 'hyper-realist',' says Hartley. 'Which is to say that he aims to make his subjects lifelike, even if they are constructed on a scale which is not lifelike. His woman 'In Bed' (as will be shown at the RSA), for example, is much larger than life, and yet she looks real, and standing in front of her is an extraordinary experience. Key to this realist approach is Ron's understanding that he doesn't actually work from life.
'In order to make his sculptures appear real he has to add an element of caricature; an exaggeration of certain characteristics so as to make them seem more real. In this respect, he shares the same approach as novelists such as Dickens, and certain 18th century portrait painters such as Bernini.'
Whether Mueck actually expresses himself a fresh with each new sculpture created or just plays to the crowd with a sleight-of-hand succession of visual spectacles is one for the critics to debate and the public to decide as they stand before his work. Yet, for Hartley, his lack of either personal or artistic statement can also be seen as a virtue.
'Unlike other contemporary artists,' he says, 'Mueck deliberately avoids intellectual content, and this may be why he isn't fashionable among certain critics and curators. But he pays no heed to their views. He's more interested in going further back in history, to before the changes of artistic language and conventions brought about by Marcel Duchamp and Modernism.'
David Pollock is a freelance journalist.
Royal Scottish Academy from 5 Aug until 1 Oct.