Encountering Ron Mueck’s sculptures is like suddenly being in a contemporary version of ‘Gulliver’s travels’: everything looks real and familiar but the scale is wrong. Giant boys and pregnant women tower over us, small men row boats and lie dead, a swaddled baby is shrunk to miniature size. In ‘Untitled (old woman in bed)’ a frail elderly woman lies under a blanket on a gallery plinth, her small scale increasing her vulnerability as we loom over her. This is one of Mueck’s most poignant works: the woman seems only to have a tenuous hold on life as she shrinks from this world into whatever comes next. It is imbued with the pathos of our own experiences of the death of elderly friends and relatives just as it foretells our own inevitable demise.
As with all of Mueck’s sculpture, this figure is more than life-like. The moist eyes, veins just below the skin and flushed cheeks all add up to an near palpable sense of life, or in this work of life ebbing. We almost expect to hear a rattling breath as we look at the work for signs of the life that is about to end. The realism of his sculptures is like a series of three-dimensional freeze frames taken from the world, life momentarily paused but still fully evident. This filmic metaphor is not inappropriate as Mueck has worked as a modelmaker for television and film. While we know these people are sculptures, it is almost impossible not to touch them to make sure that they are indeed not real. Mueck’s deployment of scale distances this realism just as it entices us by the sense of wonder it evokes. The expressions of his sculptural subjects are subtly exaggerated to increase their emotional impact; indeed their heightened emotional and psychological states and the response this triggers in the viewer is the subject of Mueck’s art rather than their extraordinary verisimilitude. His figures are almost always alone and there is a strong sense of isolation and vulnerability to many of his works.
Mueck’s realism is perhaps sculpture’s riposte to the virtual reality that digital technologies have made possible. Filmic and digital photographic recreations of past worlds, mythical places and future possibilities have stretched the real in so many directions as to make it no longer a viable visual category. There is no digital sleight of hand to Mueck’s work, however, as he makes his sculptures traditionally, applying clay to a framework, modelling the figure until he has the form to create a mould and then casting the final work. It is a labour-intensive and highly skilled process. The resulting works seem to have the weight of the history of sculptural realism behind them, just as they seem to mark its end by leaving it with nowhere further to go.
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Curator insights - Contemporary galleries Untitled (old woman in bed)
25.4 x 94.0 x 53.9 cm
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Not on display
© Ron Mueck, courtesy Anthony D'Offay Gallery
Shown in 5 exhibitions
Ron Mueck Sculpture:
DE OVERKANT/ DOWN UNDER, The Hague Sculpture, The Hague, 01 Jun 2007–09 Sep 2007
Great collections (2009):
- Campbelltown Arts Centre, Campbelltown 12 Dec 2008–18 Jan 2009
- Tweed River Regional Art Gallery, Murwillumbah 06 Feb 2009–15 Mar 2009
- Western Plains Cultural Centre 03 Apr 2009–10 May 2009
- Albury Regional Gallery, Albury 29 May 2009–05 Jul 2009
- Art Gallery of Ballarat, Ballarat 24 Jul 2009–30 Aug 2009
- NGV: International, Melbourne 22 Jan 2010–18 Apr 2010
- Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane 08 May 2010–01 Aug 2010
- Christchurch Art Gallery, Christchurch 30 Sep 2010–23 Jan 2011
- Museo de arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey (MARCO), Mexico 17 Mar 2011–31 Jul 2011
In the flesh: Experiencing the new real, National Portrait Gallery [Parliamentary Zone], Canberra, 07 Nov 2014–09 Mar 2015
Referenced in 8 publications
Lisa Baldissera, Ron Mueck, 'The art of excess: five movements', pg.43-47, Melbourne, 2010, 42 (colour illus.), 44 (colour illus.), 46-47. illustration on page 42 is a detail
Sidney Lawrence (Curator), Directions: Ron Mueck, Washington D.C., 2002, (illus.). illustration is of the National Gallery of Canada's edition
John McDonald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'On our selection: a moonlit mix', pg. 16-7, Sydney, 21 Feb 2009-22 Feb 2009, 16 (colour illus.), 17. Review of 'Great Collections' exhibition.
John McPhee, Great collections, Sydney, 2008, 120 (colour illus.).
Robert Rosenblum, Ron Mueck, 'Ron Mueck's bodies and souls', pg.41-78, Paris, 2005, 64, 74-75 (colour illus.), 111 (colour illus.). this work is not in the exhibition but is referred to and illustrated in the catalogue. illustration is of the National Gallery of Canada's edition
Jill Sykes (Editor), Look, 'Moving sculpture, taking the sculpture off the plinth and putting it back in the real world' Tony Bond and Jill Sykes, pg. 29-31, Sydney, Aug 2003, 30 (colour illus.). illustration is a detail
The Hague Sculpture, De overkant = Down Under: den Haag Sculptuur 07, Rotterdam, 2007, 150-51 (colour illus.). illustration is a detail
Wayne Tunnicliffe, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Reality bytes', pg.382-423, Sydney, 2006, 408-9 (colour illus.). illustration on page 409 is a detail