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Ron Mueck

In the half hour I had to wait for the Christchurch Art Gallery to open I went and had breakfast in the Art Centre. I had a bagel and coffee in the foyer leading to the room I used to go for psychology lectures when this set of old earthquake cracked buildings was the University of Canterbury and I was a lost and lonely student. I sat there remembering my time there: perhaps the unhappiest three years of my life, grateful for all the distance travelled since then and for all that had been given me since. Then I crossed the road and walked up the street to enter the exhibition of artworks which affected me more profoundly than any other I have  seen, and I have seen some very old ones with some very famous foreign names written on them.

Ron Mueck makes hyper realist sculptures from fibreglass and resin. Almost all of them are of people, rendered in the most meticulous detail. The exhibition appealed to me on so many levels. The works themselves are all quite beautiful; wonderfully proportioned and balanced and coloured. They were well lit and intelligently exhibited, with bare white walls and skillfully placed screens and openings so that none of them unduly interfered with the others and so that they could be encountered at varying distances. Ron Mueck's craftsmanship is simply astounding. Every body hair and pore and crease has been exquisitely observed and rendered so that the humanity of the subjects is laid out with stiletto sharpness. They demonstrate an acuteness of observation which is the real gifting of the artist. These sculptures don't have the greasy, cross-eyed, bewigged sense of unreality  of waxworks, but rather, demonstrate the shape and textures and colours and variety of people so authentically that I expected them to speak or move at any second. Except for one thing: scale. They are all very big or very small, and this gives them a sense of disjunction which allows them to speak so deeply. While the works are almost unbearably human, the size differential allows for a sort of objectivity; there is no sense of voyeurism or intrusion as they are studied and engaged with and admired. But perhaps more than that, the scale works  with some deeply buried instincts and memories. The very large pieces are encountered much as small children must encounter adults: we see them and are unconsciously driven back to our own childhood  relationships with the powerful, huge people in our lives; but now we are seeing through adult eyes and with the adult abilities to understand and to empathise. The very small figures usually speak of aging and death, but they diminish the fears  associated with such terrifying prospects and invite us instead into compassion.
In the entrance to the exhibition, the corpse of a man lies on the floor. He is about my age, lying naked on his back, pallid with death. He is about three feet long, and his diminished size draws me into his vulnerability and fragility.

Near him is the head of the artist, just the head lying on it's side, sound asleep with the mouth slightly open and a tiny dribble of saliva escaping, and a few hours stubble covering the chin. The head is huge, and hollowed behind like a mask. Turn a corner and a heavily pregnant woman stands naked with her arms clasped above her head. Her  face is wet with sweat and tears and shows the pain and terrible burden of pregnancy. Her expression encapsulates at once the great power and the great vulnerability of womanhood. She is eight feet tall and her pose evokes Atlas bearing the world but the great globe of the world is not above her, it is within her. She is a weight bearer, physically and metaphorically. Through a door is a newborn baby, umbilical cord still attached, the body still covered in blood and vernix and bearing the creases of the recent passage into life. The baby is about 3 or four metres long, and as she squints at the world with the perfectly captured, unfocused half gaze of the newborn,  she is at once pathetically vulnerable and filled with enormous power and potential. Nearby a tiny man sits in a boat, personifying millennia of archetypes relating to journey and death. He quizzically peers past the bow, into life and death, adopting a pose and expression that is calm, and curious and appraising  and intelligent and disconcertingly like mine as I encounter him.
Through another portal there is a giant, wild man, stating the power and vulnerabilities of masculinity as strikingly as the pregnant woman  had done for femininity. And through yet another portal  is the work which affected me most. A huge woman lies under a duvet, dressed in a simple cotton garment. Propped on two giant pillows she stares pensively into the distance with a perfectly executed hand resting lightly on her cheek. Every hair on her head, and the light down on her face and the slight imperfections of her skin  have been knowingly and purposefully placed. The lines around her eyes and the texture of her skin tell me she is somewhere in her late thirties. She is thinking about something - who knows what?  She is away in a reverie about the coming events of the day or her money worries or the dream she has just had or... I walk around her and  manoeuvre myself into the position where she is looking directly at me and there is an electric jolt of connection. The uncertainties resolve themselves into a single thought: she is looking at me: suddenly I know her and I am known. And then I remember that this is not "she" but "it". There is no woman here, just a lump of fibreglass. This "woman' is a figment of Ron Mueck's imagination in just the same way that Elizabeth Bennett is a figment of Jane Austen's, and all that sense of connection and recognition has come from me; it is my invention and my projection onto this shaped piece of inanimate material. It is a powerful moment of self knowledge for me.
I drove home grateful to be alone; thinking about the woman in the bed, and about other relationships in my life; about the way I (and I assume all people) see connection because I have projected it there. About the way the unhappiness of my time at Canterbury University was my own creation, for which I had to take complete responsibility in order to overcome it. And, by implication, about the way in which the happiness of yesterday was also my own creation and my own responsibility.

I didn't stop and take any pictures. I thought instead about changes to be made. Ron Mueck's work has allowed me insight into myself and called me into change, as all great art should do.

(photographs are all taken from other sources. copyright is unknown)


Elaine Dent said…
Amazing art and a powerful reflection on it. Thank you.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing this moving reflection Kelvin. I was up in Christchurch last week for the Leonard Cohen concert. Unfortunately, domestic duties meant that I was not able to stick around any longer in order to see Mueck's show, and that despite the praise heaped upon it by friends. You make me ask again if I made the right decision ...
Anonymous said…
Artwork that evokes compassion, that reflects human vulnerability and fragility, that gifts us glimpses of how we project our feeling and experiences onto the world around us, throughout our lives, is very rare and profound, indeed.

Wish I could have been there.

The exhibition seems to be a gift of insight that speaks to life's meaning, and to “why are we here.”

Thank you for sharing reflections on it, and really hope it comes to Auckland.

There is no substitute for experiencing something like this in person.

Many Thanks,

Kelvin Wright said…
Christchurch will be the only venue for this particular exhibition but it's there for a long time. I certainly hope to get back for another look.

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