As a human who sports a rather large sized head I share a certain sympathy with Australian born sculptor Ron Mueck’s oversized sculptures of humans, with their giant craniums, torsos, faces and feet. Currently on show at the National Gallery of Victoria, from 22 January until 18 April, the exhibition comprises of Mueck’s old and new works, including his seminal work Dead Dad (1996-7). It was Dead Dad commissioned by the art collector Saatchi and Saatchi in London, for the Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, which launched Mueck from model maker on films such as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) to a contemporary artist in his own right.
Mueck’s rendering of the human form in fibre glass, resin, plastic and synthetic hair is generally disquieting not only due to the scale which swings from minutiae to gargantuan but in the eerie personality conveyed by the figures facial expressions. The first room moves from Dead Dad only an arms length in size to the huge newborn baby A Girl (2006). The fascination of a baby’s tiny form is distorted here into a colossus that seems unmanageable in its lithe heavy form. Every fold of its flesh coveys that sticky newborn appearance still marked by traces of blood.
Pervasive in many of the figures is a sense of anxiety and discomfort; both Wild Man and In Bed reference some primal state of illness, vulnerability and exposure. Wild Man is naked and awkward as he glances sideways, perched on the edge of his seat ready to spring up and away from the viewer. It’s as if he knows that he has been brought into the gallery to be gawked at. His matted beard and hair seem thick with life. The tiny follicles of hair that obtrude from his back and even a small pimple on his shoulder fully persuade us he is a live being.
In Bed seems deliberately constructed with a kooky scale to emphasise the woman’s large head, as she stares with an expression of world weary resignation from under her blanket. Her knees and leg span are so much smaller than her torso that it prompts a desire to lift the blanket and expose her legs so as to make sense of her body.
Mueck’s newer works are less striking as they reach into unfamiliar territory. Youth depicting a young black man prodding at a stab wound is less convincing, the blood is thin and the small scale underwhelming. Woman With Sticks (2008) also has little impact, her form is not only literally hidden under a bunch of twigs but her position in the corner of the room means she is easily missed. In terms of mood the brightest and lightest of the works is Drift, where a man lolls on a lilo. However he is vertically pinned on the wall and there is less of a sense of being able to circle the figure at the intimate range that usually makes Mueck’s works so powerful. The voyeurism that the works play on of viewing humans in a state of unease is also removed from this more luxurious figure and it becomes a less moving image of the human condition.
Overall Mueck’s eerie realism silenced in sculpture form reminds you of your own mottled skin, tiny hairs and uneven toenails. Even after leaving the exhibition there is a lingering sense that these creatures will come alive behind you or that you will come across them in some familiar domestic setting curled on your bed or perched on your kitchen chair.