Monday, August 21, 2006

Ron Mueck

National Galleries of Scotland @ Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
August 5 to October 1, 2006

The first thing one notices about Ron Mueck’s work is how incredibly life-like the sculptures are. Mueck’s technical skill is indeed extensive and nearly without rival, but because this is such an automatic association and because to approach his work as a technical oeuvre has become so standard, it seems even more crucial to situate the content of the work and to pull out threads of meaning that may get lost under his skillful manipulation of materials.

Mueck is, after all, if his background is any indication, primarily a technician (Mueck oversaw the special effects in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth, in addition to other, similar projects). It is then to be expected, I suppose, that this is where criticism around his work is focussed. But Mueck’s sculptures--of full figures or only faces, sometimes made specific in a skewed portraiture and sometimes as indicators of generality--are uncanny not only because of their resemblance to his subjects, nor exclusively because of the shifted scale of the pieces. They are uncanny because both haunting familiarity and palpable discomfort are present in the subjects themselves, rather than just in their execution as sculptural objects.

Ghost, for instance, is a prime example. A sculpture of an awkward, adolescent girl in a navy bathing suit, it stands approximately 9 feet in height. The girl reclines against the gallery wall, shrugging slightly and tensed. She is plain, gangly, and has dirty-blond hair, some of which is falling in front of her face and which sways slightly from the gallery’s ventilation and the movement of the bodies around her. Her skin has a yellowed tone, simultaneously flushed with irregular traces of red. Her visual expression looks as though she has just said something non-committal, such as "I don't know" or "kind of", and then trailed off. She looks downward and to the side, averting her eyes.

Ron Mueck, Ghost, 1998

Curiously enough, in fact, I found it impossible to exactly meet her gaze, no matter where I put my head. As the girl shrinks away from all direct contact, physical or visual, one realizes also that she belongs to the most hypersexualized demographic on the planet. Her clumsy sexuality--coyness is a trait of the best Hollywood sex kittens--is as emphasized by her increased size as her physical liminality is.

This awkward liminality is present in Mueck’s other works as well, the more successful of which are Wild Man, a depiction at roughly triple life-size of a terrified Celt in retreat from the gallery’s visitors, and Spooning Couple, a small (one foot long) and perfectly detailed form of a rather sweaty proletarian couple connected physically but staring out into space, away from each other. Ghost, however, is perhaps the most successful and uncomfortable of these, due to the nature of Mueck’s subject. That is, Mueck’s Ghost is in a state of becoming, but is still for the time being (and subsequently forevermore, as this is a static, sculptural work) caught between girlishness and womanhood. The girl in Ghost has both a social presence and a kind of dismissed, non-presence; she is flawed and vulnerable but not entirely innocent and more than a little suspicious, all qualities suggested by her hesitant posture. After all, innocence and ambition are both characterized by a world-readiness, but the girl shuns both her audience and the vast spaces of the gallery. One also realizes that this work represents not only her regard for society but society’s view of the girl; as a semi-sexual entity to be controlled and capitalized upon, but not entirely trusted.

This understanding, then, allows one to see the work as metaphor for even further societal relationships (I am reminded of Nabokov’s portrayal of America--the nation itself an adolescent--as the hybrid manipulator/victim/teenager in Lolita). These works, be they the ostracized but fetishized girl in Ghost or the historical monster as opposed to the real victim as in the case of Wild Man, serve as an exploration of the nature of the uncanny itself. And the uncanny, simultaneously represented and embodied--explored here not only through physical accuracy but also through Mueck’s subjects and their treatment--in this exhibition makes for a disquieting experience in which a viewer may not be entirely certain of his or her role. The viewer, in other words, is also caught between possessing a privileged gaze and being challenged by what that gaze encounters.

--Lee Henderson

Ron Mueck, Spooning Couple, 2005

Ron Mueck at the National Galleries (exhibition site)


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