Melbourne-born London resident Ron Mueck’s current show at the NGV international brings together a number of the artist’s pensive characters – giant and Lilliputian – from over the last decade. The works, from various collections nationally and internationally, will be on show until April 18 before travelling onto Queensland and Christchurch later in the year.
Mueck’s frequently naked, astonishingly real sculptures are some of the most widely acclaimed and recognisable in international contemporary art. This exhibition presents the most comprehensive Ron Mueck collection ever displayed Australia, and includes four new works in addition to some of his major, most famous works including the iconic Dead Dad 1996/97.
Mueck’s roundabout entry into artistic practice is a story worth telling – not just because it’s an interesting example of a certain time and place (when London swung again in the 90s) but also because it offers a certain key to his work.
Starting his career as a window-dresser, Mueck went on to work as a puppeteer and model maker for children’s television in days when computer generated imagery still could only do squares and took six months to render. In the mid 80s he travelled to the USA, where he worked for some time with Jim Henson. Remember the Storyteller? He also worked on Sesame Street and The Labyrinth (for which he also provided the voice of the rather Chewbaca-esque character Ludo)
After relocating to London to start his own animatronic and special effects props company, Mueck married the daughter of Portuguese painter Paula Rego who, in 1996, invited him to collaborate on a sculptural tableaux at London gallery The Hayward that year.
This would be his transitionary work; advertising guru Charles Saatchi, a leading patron and one-man economic driving force of the 90s Brit art explosion, was so impressed with Mueck that he began to collect and commission works.
With Saatchi’s support, Mueck’s piece Dead Dad was included in the era-defining 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy in London, alongside key Young British Artist (YBA) players of the time, such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers.
Interestingly this show’s planned appearance in Australia was cancelled, not because of its controversial content – controversial if you’re the editor of a tabloid newspaper – but because it was too close to the art market, with funding coming from parties deemed in conflict of interest.
The Sensation exhibition was funded in the large part by Saatchi, who owned most of the works, with extra funding coming from other parties that at the time were accused of being financially invested. It’s not in any way detracting from the artistic merit of Mueck’s practice to note that this path of entry into the contemporary art scene is heightened case of patron creating the artist, or so the story goes.
Most writing about Mueck’s art focuses strongly on the dramatic gestures of the figures and on the updated Christian iconography: his themes of mother and child as well as his healthy embrace of the human body in its disgusting, frail reality. It’s good clean wholesome stuff. No fake tan or body modification finds its way into his work.
The unbelievably well rendered flesh and play on scale is a nauseating and dizzying augmentation of the human bodily scale of reality and experience; so much so that my co-attendee to the exhibition said that the sculpture of the mother in the bed made her feel like she was an actual child again, looking up at an adult; the sculpture had rescaled her, physically – and emotionally – manipulating her sense of presence in front of the work.
The work plays on our notion of our own presence in space and time, offering the viewer an unexpectedly vertiginous visit to the NGV.