18- St Kilda Road
22 Jan – 18 Apr 2010
There is an undercurrent of introspection and vulnerability that permeates throughout Ron Mueck’s exhibition at the NGV International. Born in Australia but currently residing in London, this is the most comprehensive survey of Mueck’s work. It charts his oeuvre from his work Dead Dad 1996-1997 which was exhibited as part of the Sensation, the seminal 1997 exhibition of the Saatchi collection to new works such as Drift 2009 produced solely for this exhibition. Mueck’s previous experience working as a puppeteer for the Jim Henson Company is well known, however this exhibition focuses very much on his fine art career which has seen some of his work featuring in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and GOMA.
In the first dimly lit gallery space, the work Dead Dad lies on a plinth in the centre of room, softly illuminated only from above. Here we witness Mueck’s fascination in the human condition, from its physicality to the various psychological landscapes we experience as we realise our own mortality. The scale of the work is decidedly miniscule – a representation of Mueck’s own father, he appears to be trapped inside child-sized body. His hands and feet appear proportionally too large for the figure and his face devoid of any signs of life, withered and a shadow of his former self. This hyperreal representation of the human form – overtly corporeal with mortality placed front and centre – promotes a visual double take from the viewer, prompting an engagement that is never momentary or fleeting but requires further examination.
Occupying a significant amount of the floor space in the main gallery, In Bed 2005 exposes an inherently personal space to the spectator. Here, Mueck has fashioned a monumentally scaled sculpture of a woman, presumably middle aged, lying in bed with her knees bent underneath a giant sized quilt cover. Peering into the distance with her hand resting languidly on her cheek and appearing to be totally removed from her physical surroundings, it is unclear as to the subject of her attention. The confluence of these nuanced details suggest that this work is very much an exploration of the act of introspection – exposed for all to see.
Such nuanced details are also delightfully evident in Wild Man 2005, where making the unknown public, provides the spectator with an uncomfortable frisson. Here Mueck has created a giant sized sculpture of a nude bearded man, skinny and dishevelled with a slightly caved in chest, he appears to cower away from a deep latent fear – perhaps its his first encounter with the outside world – though Mueck cleverly leaves this unknown. The scale and augmented technicality of the work acts as a smokescreen which fades away as Mueck renders the work with a sense of helplessness. It is a truly arresting representation that distils all of our own latent fears into a hyperreal sculpture of the human form. The work not only elicits the need to delve deeper into the subject’s personal history but also as spectator, exposed to the subject’s state of psychological distress, you are also overcome with empathy.
In Rosalind Kraus’ essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field, which examined sculpture within a Postmodern context, she argues that the logic of sculpture is no different from the logic of the monument. By virtue of this logic, a sculpture is a commemorative representation. It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place.
Whilst Mueck shares an obvious technical and aesthetic link to his contemporaries like Patricia Piccinini and Sam Jinks, his work is very much rooted around the investigation of moments of reflection and despair. The notion that sculpture has a symbolic tongue about place is reflected in Piccinini’s biomorphic blobs and creatures which evidently blur the lines between science and the organic. Her work speaks, very much of our current point in time, and the cultural and societal choices that we are faced with. Mueck on the other hand does not take on such considerable concerns instead his symbolic tongue lies in his works’ exploration of the self.
As I made my way through the exhibition what became evident was the lack of conceptual dialogue and sense of interconnectedness between the works. Whilst thematically his older works touched on notions of human frailty, deep thought and vulnerability, his newer works like Youth 2009 and Drift 2009 appeared to lack an emotional layer, referencing instead the minutia of daily life – from the banality of the everyday to the aftermath of an act of violence. Consequently each work was its own personal allegory; a vignette that is demarcated and separate yet continues to exhibit Mueck’s examination of the multiple layers of the human condition.
Copyright Leon Goh & Art Monthly Australia
 Rosalind Kraus, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), p.33. This essay was first published in October 8, 1979