|Ron Mueck, Woman with Shopping Bags, 2013|
Walking down Boulevard Raspail over the past couple of months, people will have seen the long line up the top, the crowds waiting to get inside the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain to the Ron Mueck exhibition. I am always intrigued by the popularity of contemporary art in Paris, or at least, by the prominence given to contemporary art by a city that in so many ways is stuck in 1789. And I wonder if, in this case, visitors are disappointed by what they find at the end of the line? Ron Mueck’s work is complicated, deeply disturbing, filled with contradictions, and so enmeshed in the history of art since Ancient times, that it is impossible to understand it through casual encounter. The Woman with Shopping, the seemingly benign Couple Under an Umbrella are pieces drenched in enigma and irresolution. Inspite of their apparent accessibility, the longer I stood before these sculptures, the more troubling I found them, the less I understood what they were doing.
|Ron Mueck, Couple under an Umbrella 2013|
Contrary to David Lynch’s certainty regarding the narrative around the Couple Under an Umbrella, one of the most powerful things about this and other Mueck sculptures is the uncertainty that surrounds their narrative. Where is the woman going with the sticks? What is the woman with the baby thinking of? How did the young boy with the stigmata get the wound? And most curious and incomprehensible of all is the man in the boat – what is he doing there? Naked, in a boat that is so elongated, it diminishes him. The man is vulnerable because he is naked, and yet, he doesn’t seem perturbed. At least, he is not perturbed to the degree I was when I stood before him; his arms are folded, as though he is relaxed. He is looking at something in the distance, his eyes red, his face more curious than afraid. But why?
|Ron Mueck, Man in Boat, 2002|
When we walk into the light filled space of the Fondation Cartier, it is as though we walk into the bedroom of the Couple Under an Umbrella. There is a discomfort in being there, so close that we see the hairs on his arms, the pores in her aging skin. The humanness is so perfectly captured that we feel as though we are violating their privacy, intruding on their most intimate moment. And so much of the unsettling effect can be attributed to the scale, as all the commentators and critics point out. The figures are always larger than life or diminished in size, just like sculpture has been since ancient times. But unlike sculpture since ancient times, these figures are intricately and realistically represented, in colour, personal, empty of apparent allegory. These men and women are so lifelike, it is as though Mueck is engaged in a kind of genetic engineering, in which people are replicated – and yet, what destabilizes the viewer is that they are never the right size, human sized. And when we get up close to them, we see these men and women with a proximity, we study their faces, with a fascination that we would only engage to study the face of a lover. We share an intimacy with these perfect strangers that is otherwise inappropriate, disrespectful, in violation of their privacy.
|Ron Mueck, Woman With Sticks, 2009|
There are other figures that we do not have to look at for long, we see them as disturbing immediately. Woman with Sticks is almost terrifying. What is she doing with these sticks? Where is she taking them, and why is she naked? Her nakedness, like the man in the boat, makes her vulnerable, her flesh is soft and pale, but her pose, with her back bent awkwardly from the weight of the sticks is deeply troubling. Her slightly red eyes, the left one which could be blind, reveal a story of trauma, the content of which we can never know.
|Ron Mueck, Drift, 2009|
Drift is uncomfortable because the man on a blow up beach mattress is splayed like a crucifixion, and yet, he is relaxing at the beach. How are we meant to understand him? To see him we look up, straining to make sense of what he would be doing, hung on a wall, flat on his back. He is the only sculpture attached to the wall, and unlike the others he is hyperreal, making him no more than a sculpture attached to the wall. Similarly, like the eerie Mask II, he is not whole, we see he is a sculpture whose arms finish where the mattress begins.
|Ron Mueck, Youth, 2009|
The young boy with the stigmata is very beautiful – the connection is drawn by the catalogue to Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St Thomas, but I resist this link. Youth examines his own wound not incredulous at its existence, but, so I imagine, to know it more intimately.
The exhibition of Mueck’s sculptures at the Fondation Cartier is first class: each is given a generous space, never interfering with the others. Unlike the works of some other artists, these sculptures do not speak to each other, but rather, are captured within a moment of self-contemplation. Their privacy is fully respected by the gallery, making their existence and, dare I say it, their aura very powerful. I did wonder if this is something to do with the work itself because reproductions of other Mueck exhibitions would indicate that care is always taken to give each sculpture its own space, it’s very own world. Given this, I was interested to see how often the sculptures are reproduced with someone looking at them, a real human sharing the photographic frame with the “replicant”. This I find to be somehow even more grotesque than the figures themselves: looking at the crowds looking, huddled around a single sculpture, it is as though the viewers we view are ogling a real person in their most private, unguarded moment.
Copyright Hauser & Wirth/Anthony d'Offray/the artist