Ron Mueck's: Making Sculpture at the National Gallery (on now for about three months)

From: Simeon
Category: Exhibitions
Date: 26 March 2003


This is an exhibition that people seem to like. The young are coming and the old too. Mueck is the one of a number of artists, including R Kitaj, and Peter Blake, to have collaborated with the NG in recent years.

Did you know the NG is developing a new wing? Easy access, greater facilities are some of the words used to justify the use of lottery money and private benefactors (big banks). The theory goes something along the lines of them needing to attract a younger more fashionable audience. Mueck should help in this "strategic adjustment" of the gallery's "target audience".

The powers that be at the NG have cottoned on to the success of galleries like Tate Modern. There's rich picking to be made in contemporary art and don't they know it. Contemporary art is the adrenaline shot needed to make the NG funky, cool and a place to be seen in.

What Mueck's work in this exhibition has to do with the National Gallery's permanent collection is anybody's guess. Judging by the less than imaginative title of the Exhibition: Making Sculpture at the National Gallery maybe the organisers were asking themselves the same question.

The most consistent reaction to Mueck's work is the: "it's so life like" one. Once that's played itself out you start to ask where he's coming from. What's his view of the world? Let me explain.

As you enter the exhibition (just one room) you are struck by the spaciousness. Mueck has been selective and included three pieces, plus a smaller piece near the entrance to the show. In contrast to the rest of the NG, nothing hangs on the walls.

One piece of work is of a seven or eight foot woman, naked and heavily pregnant- a ripe giant about to burst. Her stomach is fully extended and her back distorted by the weight of her labour. The change in scale lends the work a kind of Disney quality that is both goofy and sad at the same time.

In another work the artist goes small. This time a mini woman (about quarter scale) reclines on a plinth after having just given birth. Attached to her by umbilical chord is a newly born. No medical paraphernalia is anywhere to be seen so any kind of context is missing. Everything is here to see (Mueck's no prude). The newly born looks the epitome of fragility and vulnerability, an impression intensified by the lack of any physical contact between mother and child. The mother looks at the child with some bemusement, as if she can't quite believe she's just given birth.

By far the most outstanding work in the show is a work titled simply: Man in Boat. Planted rather incongruously in the room a boat sits suspended on top of a wooden support. A tiny middle aged man with thinning, wispy hair and a rather anaemic looking complexion sits at the front of a boat with his arms crossed. A look of annoyance and frustration on his face. Technically this really is astounding. The level of detail Mueck is able to muster is breathtaking: from facial hair down to the man's stubby little penis. What's this every man doing in a boat, without a crew, on his own, lost at sea? The fact that there's no sea or water makes the piece enjoyably idiotic and borderline surreal.

What Mueck intends to say isn't at all clear. While I was looking at the pathetic figure of the man sat at the front of the boat the song "Message in a Bottle" by the Police sprang to mind. I thought of this anxious man in the context of that song and the work seemed to fall into place. "A year has past since I wrote my note I should have know this right from the start". "Only hope can keep me together" as the song goes.

Another work on a small scale packs a large punch. Again a newly born but this time without a mother or any other human contact apart from those who pass by to stop and stare. The baby seems to be crying, eyes closed it looks the very image of helplessness. Wrapped in brown cloth, rather too tightly to be comfortable, we aren't sure if the child is crying because it is alone or the cloth surrounding it is too tight. Has this child been abandoned and why is it wrapped like something out of the old testament? Is this a contemporary version of the Christ child abandoned because its mother couldn't afford to keep it or is it more mundane?

Scale is something Mueck likes. As in the work of artists like Claes Oldenberg (and the guy who wrapped the German Rheichstag) this is tricky game to play. How far can you go with just scale as a parameter for your art? Rachel Whitread suffers from the same problem in a different way. Like single issue politics artists can get bogged down in one preoccupation.

You'll enjoy this show and you'll be astonished at how he does it. Have a look at the large glass cabinet containing Ron's sketches and mock-ups. His drawings are rather lifeless but it gives you some insight into his working method. There's also a video presentation, though I didn't see that.