Monday, March 15, 2010
An Australian artist who has received astounding international acclaim for his lifelike fibreglass sculptures is currently exhibiting in his home town, Melbourne.
Ron Mueck is a stunningly successful sculptor who now lives and works in the UK. Using materials such as fibreglass, polyester resin, silicone and polyurethane, he creates sculptures of mostly human, often naked forms that are scarily lifelike, yet either smaller or larger than life. Mueck’s current show at the National Gallery of Victoria in the largest exhibition of his work ever staged in Australia.
Mueck challenges the boundary between art and the real, even as the scale of his works reinforces it, yet the hyperrealism is anything but simplistic. While his work shares similarities with Patricia Piccinini’s playfully dark visions of hybridised life forms, its aims couldn’t be more different.
It struck me as I wandered through this exhibition that I should be focusing on the viewers as much as the works themselves. The large Sunday afternoon crowd were delighted and intrigued, laughing, gazing, waving cameras around and pointing out details to each other. The excited comments I overheard seemed to be mainly about how realistic the sculptures were. Children revelled in the verisimilitude and asked pointed questions.
As the crowd revealed to me, the exhibition can be experienced on many levels. Humans are naturally curious about the people we see in the street, but from an early age we’re told it’s not polite to stare. This exhibition invites us to stare at these apparent examples of our species – to marvel at the various markings on human skin, to study the expression of a figure so lost in its own world it can acknowledge no watcher. Various angles offer different facial expressions and bodily details. But the pieces are always open ended: as viewers, we’re asked to bring our own interpretations to these works.
Mueck’s extreme attention to detail invites us to wonder at the intricacies of the human animal. The skins of his subjects bear all the imperfections and gradations of colour and texture of the real thing: pale pink blotches that indicate underlying capillaries; loose folds; ghostly tracks of blue veins; moles and freckles; pimples; hair follicles, and hairs that have been individually inserted.
Despite the hyperrealism, there seem to be occasional small distortions in the proportions in order to make a point about the subject. While the figures are often naked, the clothes and appendages that some of them wear are rendered with the same loving detail that Mueck brings to the nude.
Before his career as a sculptor Mueck worked in puppetry and model making in film and television, first in Australia and then in London; he was involved in Jim Henson’s film The Labyrinth. In 1997 his sculpture ‘Dead Dad’ appeared in the group exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, held at London’s Royal Academy. The work caught the eyes of critics and shot Mueck to fame; since his stunning debut, visitors have flocked to see his sculptures, which are now included in a number of Australian, US and European collections.
Mueck unashamedly uses size to shock us into viewing his subjects with fresh eyes. ‘A girl’ 2006 is one of the exhibition’s more confronting pieces. A huge newborn baby girl, 5 metres long, lies on her side. Part of the umbilical cord is still attached to her navel, and traces of blood and amniotic fluid are strewn over parts of her skin.
Her face has the squashed ugliness of the newborn, a testament to the ordeal of birth she’s just been through. Her head has been bent back as if she’s been placed in an uncomfortable position or is protesting about her removal from the womb. One eye is partially open but her expression registers little but a kind of blind angst.
Her hugeness suggests the enormity of her neediness, the responsibility that her existence, her advent, imposes on her parents, the undeniable change she will necessitate. But, seen out of the context of a typical loving triad, she looks grotesque and alien, even monstrous, not yet fully humanised. We fear and feel sorry for her simultaneously.
This work contrasts with the first sculpture in the exhibition, ‘Dead Dad’, which depicts the corpse of Mueck’s own father. This sculpture has been placed in its own, dimly lit room. It depicts a man who is about two-thirds smaller than life size, totally naked, laid out on his back with his hands turned upwards. His skin has a grey-greenish pallor. His face still bears the marks of recent suffering but also resignation.
He seems recently dead and therefore close to life, as if death and life co-existed in the sculpture. There’s a sense here that Mueck is demystifying death at the same time as he presents it in all its starkness. The sculpture’s diminutiveness suggests the loss of the human presence in death, but also that the father has lost Oedipal power: not only has been demoted to ‘Dad’, but he is smaller rather than larger than life as an oedipalised parent figure might be. There’s also a sad elegiac beauty inherent in the figure. He’s a kind of hybrid: both medical specimen (laid out too neatly) and loved father.
Most of Mueck’s subjects in this exhibition inhabit inner worlds, lost in their own subjectivity. Four of them directly reference the extreme inwardness of either sleep, being in bed or both.
‘Old woman in bed’ 2002 is a particularly poignant example. An elderly woman lies in a bed, her head nestled into a pillow, her grey hair tousled behind her. A crisp sheet and neatly folded cream blanket cover her, the lack of colour evoking a nursing home or hospital. She lies on her side, suggesting a foetal position. Her eyes are half-closed and her mouth hangs slightly open.
Here is a woman long past caring about the appearance she presents to a hypersexualised world. Instead, one hand loosely fingers the sheet as if craving the security of childhood. She is vulnerable, seemingly utterly exhausted by life, yet there’s also a sense in which she has abandoned herself to the peace that sleep and the bed offer her.
‘In bed’ 2005 (pictured) is also fascinating: a giant-sized woman, somewhere between youth and middle age, lies in bed with her knees drawn up under carefully draped sheets, head propped up by pillows, one oversized hand touching her mouth and cheek. It’s impossible to read her emotional state definitively but the possibilities are endless: she could be facing some health crisis; pondering an intractable problem; or simply watching television. Much as she confronts us with her huge proximity, her inner world is closed to us. The body reveals and hides simultaneously.
‘Wild man’ 2005 is fascinating on many levels, and was attracting a huge amount of attention on the afternoon of my visit. This sculpture, almost 3 metres tall, depicts a naked man sitting terrified on a wooden stool, clutching its sides, his legs drawn together in self-protection. He stares sideways, afraid to meet our gaze. His hair and beard are wild and woolly but his body is pale and conventionally toned. There is a disconcerting contradiction between his huge size and his evident fear, although that fear is emphasised by the vulnerability of his nakedness.
This creature is a focus of curiosity on two levels: as a giant realistic sculpture, and as a supposedly uncivilised man who is perhaps being exposed to nineteenth-century style medical objectification with its implications of the freak show. He seems to quail in our gaze, involuntarily stuck in the cages of his own terror and the discourses that might seek to name and ‘civilise’ him. We’re forced to study him in an objectifying way; but at the same time we’re studying a version of ourselves, and therefore also confronting the primeval fears that may lurk within us.
One disappointment was the exclusion of ‘Pregnant woman’ from the exhibition, which is surprising given that it’s already in Australia, having been purchased by the National Gallery of Australia. This magnificent sculpture of a woman nearing the end of pregnancy is a testament to female strength, agency and endurance. As if to compensate, the show contains four sculptures that have never previously been exhibited.
‘Drift’ 2009 is one of these. It shows a man who continues to revel in the trappings of civilisation even as he disavows the work ethic that such trappings suggest. This middle-aged holidaymaker lies back on his li-lo, arms loosely out to his sides as if his hands are resting in water, seeming to drift along with not a care in the world. His attitude indicates utter vacancy, as if he has temporarily left his life behind. But while he may be carefree, everything about him suggests his context: the expensive-looking designer watch, the surfie-style board shorts, the sunnies, the tanned, well-maintained middle-aged body.
He should be horizontal but he’s vertical so we can easily view him, and the downward angle of his loosely outstretched arms curiously suggests a crucifixion: perhaps Mueck is gently mocking Christian iconography and suggesting that the pursuit of pleasure is now the official religion.
A very different kind of crucifixion is suggested by the only non-human sculptural form in the exhibition. ‘Still life’ 2009 depicts a plucked dead chicken with its neck cut open, trussed and hung upside down, its wings hanging at angles from its sides. The inner flesh from the large cut in the side of the chicken’s neck is clearly delineated. This work, with its discomforting portrayal of human objectification of animals, reminded me of Ivan Durrant’s fibreglass butcher shop window.
Ron Mueck’s works will be on show at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 18. The exhibition will then be shown at the Queensland Art Gallery from 8 May to 1 August, followed by Christchurch Art Gallery from 30 September until 23 January 2011.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The internet has supposedly created an eternal present, but this phrase is tailor made to describe the experience of middle age. It’s a time of reckoning, when you suddenly find that you’re living the future your younger self so excitedly anticipated.
In her novel Reunion, Andrea Goldsmith introduces five close friends welded together by emotional, sexual and intellectual bonds. Despite their closeness, each must grapple alone with the dilemmas that beset them at this stage of life.
**Plot elements given below**
Jack, Helen, Ava and Conrad (‘Connie’), form a tightknit group at Melbourne University in the late 1970s and go on to study at Oxford, where they meet Harry, a rich boy from Adelaide. Their careers scatter them to different parts of the world and when they reunite as a group for the first time in two decades, some time ‘early in the new millennium’, they must re-establish and renegotiate their relationships with each other, as well as their own lives.
Jack is a scholar of comparative religion whose steady career slide is the result of his unrequited passion for the beautiful Ava, a successful novelist. Connie, a decade older than the others, is an ambitious philosopher and serial adulterer, while Helen is a globe-trotting research scientist determined to find a vaccine for a deadly bacteria.
Harry is the outsider in the group, an honorary member because he’s married to Ava. A ‘squat chest-of drawers sort of man’ who collects ‘corkscrews and barbed wire’, Harry is nevertheless practical and worldly. He has formed the Melbourne-based think-tank Network of Global Australians, and Jack, Helen and Connie have returned to Melbourne to take up the inaugural NOGA fellowships Harry has dealt out to them.
Reunion deals with the forgotten generation between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, ‘the post-Vietnam generation, wise to authority but not stymied by cynicism’. The four younger group members have been part of Australia’s golden age of free tertiary education, when university became ‘a promised land where anything seemed possible’, where for the first time at conservative Melbourne University, mature-aged students mixed with ‘throngs of people from Melbourne’s multicultural heart’.
But despite having discovered ‘a secret intellectual city’ in ostensibly dull Melbourne, Jack, Helen, Ava and Connie have been all too keen to leave Australia for the intellectual heartland of Europe. The globalised Melbourne to which they return two decades on is not the city they left behind.
**Plot elements end**
Reunion is long and ambitious in scope; the story is a bit slow to start but gathers pace. The novel employs a narrative structure that in some ways resembles that of Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game and Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. As in those novels, both also set in post-millennium Melbourne, the reader sees the world through the eyes of each of its main characters in turn, with the story moving forward as characters shift in and out of focus. However, the maturing friendship between Ava and Jack forms the novel’s emotional core.
Goldsmith uses these individual viewpoints to provide flashbacks to the past, sometimes the characters’ shared past and sometimes their individual experiences. Events in the characters’ early lives and thus the reader's knowledge of those events unfold gradually: as the characters travel forward in the present, they revisit various scenes from the past, using such ruminations to make sense of their current dilemmas.
Goldsmith is not a particularly lyrical writer. There’s a brisk quality to her prose; like Tsiolkas she’s driven by the urge to tell the story and create strong characters. You won’t get the taut conciseness of Helen Garner’s sentences here or the poetic lilt of Sonya Hartnett.
What Goldsmith does specialise in, however, is a particularly rich brand of irony. While she stays close to her characters, she seems at times to be viewing them with one eyebrow raised. The novel is Jamesian to the extent that Goldsmith explores the inner lives of her characters in great detail, affording their emotional responses the status of plot. The novel is also rich with punchy metaphors and telling aphorisms: ‘the future was like fiction … a ream of blank pages waiting to be filled’; ‘nothing was relative any more: getting a new job was in the same category as getting new shoes’; ‘this man and this woman who had spent years in a fine frenzied feasting on each other’.
**Plot elements given below**
Reunion is very much a novel of ideas. One of its major preoccupations is the shattering of illusions that must occur before emotional maturity can take place. The characters endure many losses, but loss of their illusions is surely a major one. Jack has carried on an intense, mostly epistolary relationship with Ava for the last two decades, maintaining the ideal of a perfect sublimated love between them. Now he must face the reality of Ava’s reliance on the practical Harry.
Meanwhile, Helen, who has always viewed the scientific endeavour as a force for good, must confront the fact that her funding comes from military sources that could use her research to advance biological warfare. And Ava is forced to face reality far more harshly than are her friends, as well as the realisation that they cannot offer her the help that their loyalty demands.
The protagonists are the offspring of globalisation, having worked, lived and holidayed on different continents, but they are also the children of the post-war welfare state. This has diminished the role of class to the extent that Ava has been able to ‘transform herself from an hereditary shopgirl with a confined future to a university student and woman of the world’. Yet, having largely left their families of origin behind and forged strong familial bonds based on the life of the mind, it's perhaps no wonder that the friends view themselves as self-created; but this assumption may prove to be just another illusion. It is the non-intellectual Harry, a perfect fit for the times, who has brought them back together; and Harry – in a role that unsettlingly echoes that of the novelist – seems all too keen to control the efforts of his beneficiaries.
Goldsmith cleverly entwines this theme with the issue of creative endeavour and its sources, particularly passion and love. Jack’s career has stalled because of his preoccupation with Ava; but for another of the characters, an obsessional affair has led to a frenzy of creativity, even as it destroyed peace: ‘A bad love is very demanding. You’ll twist yourself so out of character in an attempt to get it right that the misshapen scrap you present to friends and family is hardly recognisable’. In some cases illusion can fuel creativity, but the death of illusion can produce its own breakthroughs.
For Goldsmith, the intellectual life can assist in the slow groping towards personal change that occurs when illusions dissolve, even though it is no substitute for that change. The novel is full of quotes from and references to an array of writers such as Rilke, Yeats, Wharton, Auden and Frost, as well as artists such as Picasso. Yet Goldsmith’s characters move through life, like all of us, partially blindfolded.
Overarching her thematic concerns is Goldsmith’s contention that civilisation and barbarism are not polar opposites, that to participate in one is to be implicated in the other. Goldsmith finds the modern world especially illustrative of this idea, and she threads the notion through her explorations of quotidian life and of contemporary issues like the so-called war on terror and the militarism that accompanies it.
To this end she ably constructs believable scenarios that reflect the complex structures characterising globalised life in the West. The trappings of the fictional NOGA are described with a fine ironic touch, its convenient ideological muddiness perfectly contemporary: what matters to Harry is not whether it is a force for good but that it is influential. The war on terror revives Jack’s career even as it threatens Helen’s; yet at a US conference, feeling conflicted about continuing her research, Helen revels in the civilised downtime her intellectual colleagues offer her, replete with the strains of classical music.
**Plot elements end**
Like The Slap and The Danger Game, Reunion is a novel that celebrates Melbourne, particularly the inner city so beloved of baby boomers and the generations following them. We shadow the characters as they stroll through the Melbourne Cemetery, loiter in the grounds of Melbourne University, get swept up in the lunchtime crowds of the city centre’s thriving laneways, catch trams along a St Kilda Road that was once majestic rather than commercial, or hunker down at an inner suburban beach on one of the oppressively hot evenings of a typical Melbourne summer.
The novel was marred but not spoiled for me by frequent minor lapses in diction and grammar. This could have been fixed with a good copy edit and Goldsmith has been let down by her publishers, Fourth Estate, in this regard.
Goldsmith refuses to tie up all the loose ends at the close of the novel; while there is a powerful climax it does not offer complete resolution any more than life does. Jack, Connie and Ava find greater clarity, while Helen and Harry seem to become more bogged down in illusion and contradiction. Although some of these five friends ultimately act more bravely than others, none is a hero in the traditional sense; instead, all remain painfully human.