More real than real

‘From the Womb to the Grave: The Journey of Life’ by Ron Mueck at MFAH

One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small

And the ones that mother gives you/Don’t do anything at all.

— “White Rabbit” Grace Slick/Jefferson Airplane

A hookah-smoking caterpillar must have given me a call: suddenly the world around me lost its usual scale and proportions. I was in Alice’s Wonderland and its inhabitants looked exactly like people except for one thing: they were either much smaller or significantly larger than humans. Presiding over this strange nation was their creator, artist Ron Mueck, although the word “presiding” is not totally accurate — he was represented only by his sleeping head. Lying on its side, this enormous head exuded a commanding presence evoking the images of temple statues of Reclining Buddha.

Creating highly realistic sculptures is not a new idea in contemporary art. Artists like Duane Hanson or John De Andrea have taunted, provoked and tricked us for decades with their amazingly true-to-life figures. However, unlike those creations, Ron Mueck’s sculptures can never be mistaken for real people because they are never of a normal human size. They also intrigue us, but in a different way. There is something about them that is simultaneously familiar and strange, mundane and mystical, profane and sacred.

Australia-born, of German descent, Mueck took the art world by storm in 1997 when, at the age of 39, he exhibited his first sculpture, “Dead Dad,” a standout work that was featured in “Sensation! Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” in London.

Although it seemed that this talented sculptor was brought into the limelight from nowhere, the public at large had seen his work prior to this meteoric rise to fame without realizing it. For 20 years Mueck worked as a model maker for film and television, having created sophisticated animatronics for such movies as Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” (1986) and “The Storyteller” series (1987). The beginnings of his career can be traced to even earlier times when as a teenager he was making puppets and toys at his father’s shop.

Today Ron Mueck is regarded as one of the most remarkable artists of our time. This spring, the American public has a rare opportunity to see 13 of his works, approximately one-third of the sculptor’s total output, from public and private collections around the world, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Walking into the exhibition galleries one may feel surprised at first by the large space allocated to each sculpture regardless of its size. However, it does not take long to understand the reason for such layout. If we compare the exhibition “Ron Mueck” to a book, it is a collection of short stories, not a novel. Each of these works has a story to tell and bringing them closer would have caused interference and overlapping of narratives.

At the same time, all these stories are united by a common theme — the circle of life. As we walk through the door, we embark on a journey that takes us through all phases of human existence. We encounter infants; gawky adolescents; young mothers; an adult “at the mid-point of the path through life”; men and women facing the perils of the old age. An old man swaddled in blankets like a baby signifies the end of the journey, the symbolic return to the womb.

“A Girl” by Ron Mueck

Mueck is a keen observer who scrutinizes humankind with uncompromising honesty which, at times, could be off putting. His newborn babies are not cute — they have wrinkled old faces and bodies smeared with blood and secretions. The most astounding among them is “A Girl” of the gargantuan size in the last gallery. Mueck witnessed the birth of his daughter and sketched the baby only moments after she came out of her mother’s birth canal, the purplish umbilical chord still in place. One eye half open, she seems to be looking disapprovingly at visitors as they congregate around her formidable body.

There is not a single image in the entire exhibition which shows a slightest hint of flattery. The adolescent boy and girl in “Young Couple” are a far cry from the stereotypical romantic ideal of young lovers. They appear self-conscious and tense and, judging by their body language, they must be arguing. The girl tries to free herself from her boyfriend’s grip – one has to walk around the sculpture to see that he is firmly holding by the arm in a gesture that looks possessive rather than affectionate.

The elderly man and woman in “Couple Under an Umbrella” bear a resemblance to the young lovers; maybe it is the same couple many years later. While “Young Couple” is small, these figures are gigantic and, therefore, all telling signs of the old age are magnified and unapologetically exposed. The artist does not shy away from portraying every wrinkle, every flaw, from the sagging skin to flabby bellies.

At the same time, he conveys something else: a deep connection between these people that needs no words and comes from years of sharing life’s trials and tribulations. The man has wrapped his fingers around the woman’s arm in the manner similar to that of the boy in “Young Couple,” but here the gesture looks gentle and reassuring.

Mueck is painstakingly detailed in his recreation of the human body — he even provides his own hair to be inserted in the scalps of his sculptures one hair at a time. He is no less meticulous in regards to the clothing his characters are wearing. Every item of their outfit is an exact replica of an actual piece of clothing or footwear one can find at a store, only produced in either a diminutive or a gigantic size.

Yet, despite all this attention to the minutiae of everyday life, Mueck’s works are more than sculptural trompe-l’oeils. They have philosophical and symbolic meaning and often contain art-historical and cultural references. “Crouching Boy in Mirror” brings to mind the famous eponymous sculpture by Michelangelo. The young black man in “Youth” raises his T-shirt to inspect the knife wound on the right side of his torso in a gesture that reminds of Christ revealing the spear wound to the disciples. The human-size dead chicken with outstretched wings in “Still Life” evokes associations not only with Dutch paintings of game and poultry but also with the Crucifixion and sacrifice.

Two sculptures in the show reference one of the most popular subjects in European art, mother and child. However, in Mueck’s works motherhood is far from glamorous. The first one, “Woman with Shopping,” features a tired-looking woman who is almost crumbling under the burden of her duties. Both of her hands are weighed down with heavy shopping bags and a baby is strapped to her chest under the buttoned trench coat. Will she have a chance to rest when she finally gets home? Not likely — the baby has to be fed and changed, the dinner cooked, and numerous housekeeping chores attended to. Where will she get the strength to do it all?

The second one, “Mother and Child,” shows the moment immediately after the birth. The woman is lying on her back, exhausted, with the newborn on her belly, their bodies glistening with sweat and the umbilical chord still connecting the two. She does not exhibit any emotions, just acknowledges the fact. The birth, like the death, are just stages on the journey of life.

Mueck’s philosophical stance is perhaps most poignantly expressed in “Man in a Boat.” The sculpture is displayed in a darkened gallery; a single beam of light is shining on a pale naked figure of a middle-aged man. He is sitting all alone in a boat that seems too large for him to handle (the artist used a real boat, but made the figure at half scale.) His predicament is made worse by the fact that the boat has no oars, sail or rudder. Unable to control its course, the man looks resigned and aloof.

The inspiration for this work came from a small detail in Velázquez’s painting “The Immaculate Conception” at the National Gallery in London. However, Mueck imbued this image with a new and powerful meaning having created a haunting symbol of a man at the moment of the existential crisis in his life.

The exhibition “Ron Mueck” will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through May 29.

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Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE staff writer