Anyone who’s been in a room with a Ron Mueck sculpture has probably felt a few, often conflicting, sensations. The Australian artist is a master of both anatomy and the human experience, from birth to death, and all the beauty and mess in between.
Mueck grew up in the family business of puppetry and doll-making and began his career in film, TV and advertising. Artistically, he had his breakout moment (like many) in the 1997 group show, ‘Sensation’ at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, where the artist introduced the world to his sculpture Dead Dad, a three-foot representation of the artist's father. The piece dropped jaws and emotional barriers with its uncanny realism and its profound, agonising embodiment of grief, and parental bonds.
Mueck became one of the most renowned sculptors of a generation. His hyperreal sculptures, of which there are a total of 48 over a 25-year career, dwell on the minutiae of the human body and often take years to create. A new show at Fondation Cartier (8 June- to 5 November) will embody the arc of Mueck’s practice, from iconic works to a newly-created piece specifically for the show.
Among them are Mass, 2017, the show’s centrepiece. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, it comprises one hundred colossal human skulls stacked in a stifling ritualistic tower of mortality and intrigue. ‘The human skull is a complex object. A potent, graphic icon we recognise immediately. At once familiar and exotic, it repels and attracts simultaneously. It is impossible to ignore, demanding our attention at a subconscious level,’ Mueck said of the work.
Elsewhere, Mueck takes us back to the 2000s, and the beginning of the human life cycle with iconic works such as Baby (2000), a minute sculpture of a baby boy inspired by a medical textbook featuring a baby held up his feet moments after birth. In a variation on the theme of newborns, A Girl (2006) sees a giant baby with traces of her recent birth still intact; here, Mueck highlights both the exquisite miracle and visceral ordeal of birth. ‘In a way, Mueck has always given us an immersive experience; the smallest of his sculptures drawing us into an intimate and personal space, even in the crowded room of a busy exhibition. The tiny wall-hanging Baby seems to envelop us in its aura, whilst the colossal A Girl reaches out and demands the attention of the whole room,’ says Charlie Clark, associate curator of the show and director of Ron Mueck studio.
The exhibition will also debut a new work created especially for the exhibition, a sinister pack of large dogs, for which the artist had begun planning ahead of his 2013 solo show at the Fondation Cartier. ‘Ron Mueck’s sculptures have never felt like snapshots of movement frozen in time; they are moments of stillness drawn out for us to dwell on long enough to plumb their depths’ says Clark. ‘Untitled (Three Dogs), despite the threat of impending action, is no exception. A focussed tension and anticipation of what might be about to happen is created by the skilful rendering of musculature and anatomy, and communicated, as ever, by the play of light on sculpted form.’
Mueck’s sculptures induce a hyper-awareness of our own bodies through the meticulous attention he offers his. The resulting sensations are a jarring, visceral sense of unease, but also of awe, in their beauty and surreal reality.
Ron Mueck's exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain runs from 8 June - 5 November 2023. fondationcartier.com
Harriet Lloyd-Smith is the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.
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