publication of the International Sculpture Center
Progress Big Man A Conversation with Ron Mueck
by Sarah Tanguy
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Man in a Boat, 2002.
Mixed media, 75 centimeters high.
Courtesy Anthony DOffay,London
London-based Ron Mueck is as enigmatic as his sculptures. From a distended
baby, stuck to the wall crucifixion-style and bearing an unnervingly intelligent
demeanor far beyond his age, to a smaller-than-life, sick old woman, who
curls up in a fetal pose under a blanket, Muecks works command an
uncanny ability to amaze with obsessive surface detail and intense psychic
discharge. Engaging and wildly popular, they expose our need to validate
our humanity, even as they thwart our attempts at full disclosure.
Mueck first gained
international attention with Dead Man, a naked, half-scale impression
of his father shown in Sensation: Young British Artists from the
Saatchi Collection (1997) at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
With no formal art training, he perfected his skills in the commercial
world of special effects, model-making, and animatronics. In 1996, he
presciently created for his mother-in-law, well-known British painter
Paula Rego, a figure of Pinocchio, the quintessential embodiment of truth
and lies. Saatchi saw this sculpture, and smitten, began acquiring Muecks
Man in a Boat (detail), 2002
Mixed media, 75 meters high.
Courtesy Anthony DOffay,London
Since then, he has
been making silicon or fiberglass and acrylic sculptures cast from clay
models. A solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington,
DC, in 2002, featured the museums own Untitled (Big Man).
More recently, exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sidney
and at the National Gallery in London included work conceived during Muecks
two-year residency as Associate Artist at the National Gallery. One of
the sculptures, Pregnant Woman, an eight-foot-high Ur-mother with arms
crossed overhead, feet squarely planted, and a downward glance, was purchased
by the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, for $461,300, the highest
price paid at the time for art by a living Australian.
To get bogged down
in a debate over naturalism, realism, and illusionism when trying to sort
out the hows and whys of Muecks oeuvre is to miss the point. More
interesting is a discussion of his standing in the history of figuration.
A certain freshness and sincerity of vision distinguish him from the blasé
irony of many of his contemporaries who also explore strategies of realism.
Above all, Mueck is a master at orchestrating tensions that both attract
and estrange. His figures invite close-up inspection of blemishes, hairs,
veins, and expression, taking you on a psycho-topographical journey. If
you stare long and deeply enough, you experience a horrific beauty. Yet
the very same verisimilitude creates a weird distance that is as equally
penetrating of our current existential state.
In this interview,
Mueck explains the genesis of Untitled (Big Man) and offers
an explanation of his techniquea bold adaptation of traditional
conventions in defiance of computer-assisted design. Part intuitive, part
willed, his multi-staged process involves a series of experiments and
discoveries. Far from a servile copyist of nature, he reveals the need
of making selective adjustments to maximize the physical and emotional
aura of his figures. In the end, Muecks success hinges on faith
and control. Through mastery of his materials in a seamless, seemingly
effortless way, he awakens our willingness to believe in images that our
imagination keeps alive.
and Below Right: Untitled (Big Man), 2000.
Views of the work in progress and detail.
Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.
Elm Leaves Scotland, 2002.
View of site-specific work.
How and when did you get the idea of manipulating scale with your figures?
I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting.
We meet life-size people every day.
you alter scale to raise the emotional and psychological impact?
RM: It makes
you take notice in a way that you wouldnt do with something thats
Big Man, did you know right from the start that you wanted it to be super-scale?
RM: He didnt
actually start big at all. I had sculpted another piecea small figure
of a man wrapped in blankets. I didnt use any reference or life
model with him. Hes sculpted completely from imagination. At the
time, I had just started an artist residency at the National Gallery,
and they were doing a life drawing class with the public. I joined in
and did my first life drawing in one of these classes, which I quite enjoyed.
Coming back into the studio and looking at the sculpture, I thought, How
would it be different if I did exactly the same thing but working from
life? I dont normally work with live modelsI use photographs
or references from books, take my own photographs or look into the mirror.
I tried to find a
live model who matched the little guy wrapped in the blankets. I located
one who was physically similar, got him into the studio for three hours,
and found that he couldnt actually curl up like that. His limbs
werent flexible enough. His belly was in the way. It meant that
he couldnt achieve the pose. I was also not used to having a model
in the studio. I found it quite intimidating, because theres another
person demanding to be related to. And this guy was naked and completely
shaven. He didnt have a single hair on his body. He was quite disturbing.
I thought, Right, what am I going to do with this naked man?
I asked him to sit in the corner while I figured this out. He suggested
some poses that he might be able to strike for me, and he took on all
these ridiculous classical poses that live models like. They were so phony
and unnatural, and I realized there was nothing at all I could do with
him. As I was summoning the courage to ask him to leave early, I glanced
over at him in the corner waiting for me to make my mind up. He wasnt
quite as belligerent as the sculpture ended up, but he was in that position.
And I thought, That looks good. So thats how I came
about the pose.
Pregnant Woman, 2002.
Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 252 cm. high.
Installation view with spectator.
Photo: Mike Bruce, Courtesy Anthony DOffay, London
I did a clay study,
about a foot high, of him in that pose. At that point, I thought perhaps
that might be the final size of the sculpture. After I got a little way
into sculpting this foot-high version with him there, he left. I didnt
actually get him in again because I had all the information I needed without
any further input from him. I then carried on playing with the sculpture
a bit. In the process, I took photographs of what I was doing, as I often
do, because I find that if I photograph the work I can see it with a fresh
eye. You can do the same looking in a mirror. If you look in a mirror,
you see all the imperfections and asymmetrical things that you just cant
see otherwise because youve been looking at it too long.
While reviewing the
photographs, I sketched a little figure on the photograph with a felt-tip
pen a little person, standing and gazing at the maquette. The scale
of what I had sketched made the figure about eight feet high. It was kind
of intuitive. I had doodled this little man because in the photograph
you couldnt tell the size of the figure. With him there, I could
see that the sculpture worked as a big thing. He looked like a bull of
a creature. I thought, Well, maybe Ill try it that size.
Once I decided on
the scale I was going to aim for, I snapped some photographs. I took a
profile view and squared that upjust drew lines all over it and
squared that up onto paper. I then did a drawing of him on brown paper
the size that would suit himseven or eight feet tall. As soon as
I sketched that out, I thought it would do. Working with the drawing,
I made a chicken wire and plaster armature. Afterwards, I lined up the
armature to see if it would fit within the profile of the drawing.
the yellowish material the plaster?
RM: I use
a very hard dental plaster rather than plaster of Paris, and it does have
yellow pigment in it. After I put the plaster on over the chicken wire,
I also paint shellac over the plaster, which stops the plaster from sucking
the moisture out of the clay. It might be the shellac as well that looks
yellowish or brownish.
do you do after the clay?
RM: I also
spray that with shellac, again to seal the clay so it doesnt dry
out when I create the plaster mold. Thats what makes it suddenly
look so dark brown. I construct a wooden structure to support the mold
and hold it rigid because the mold is a very thin layer of plaster with
Hessian scrim. And its quite fragile. Then I paint layers of colored
polyester resin into the mold. Theres a little bit of fine-tuning.
When he came out, the color was a little bit new-born. He
was very clean and pink. I just weathered him on the surface. I gave him
some age spots, veins, and things would have been too hard to figure out
of the traits you already mentioned that both attracts and repels me is
his lack of body hair.
RM: The model
was a smoothie as they call them in the live modeling trade.
It was very creepy. I had actually intended to put some hair on the figure,
but in the end, the creepiness suited the size. I did think, however,
that hairs on those big arms would have been quite nice actuallybig,
hairy gorilla arms.
long did you work on Big Man?
RM: Four weeks.
I had a deadline: a week sculpting, a week molding, a week casting, and
a week finishing.
RM: That was
Clockwise from left: Untitled (Baby), 2000. Pigmented polyester
resin on fiberglass, 10.25 x 4.75 x 2.1 in.
and Child, 2001. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 24
x 89 x 38 cm.
Swaddled Baby, 2002. Mixed media, baby: 51 cm. long; plinth:
107 x 91.5 cm.
Photos: Mike Bruce, Courtesy Anthony DOffay, London
there a difference between when you work with a live model and when you
work with a photograph, a found image, or from your imagination?
no denying that I have more information readily at hand when I have a
live model. Even when I have had a model, however, what I have to do in
the end is to consciously abandon the model and go for what feels right.
Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in duplicating something. Sometimes
what feels right is not what actually is right. With Big Man, his
feet were too large for his body. I ended up distorting the work in order
to enhance the feeling of the piece rather than to make it look precisely
like a particular person.
there a difference for you when the human form is in its entirety or when
its a fragment, as in your self-portrait Mask?
RM: The only
way I could do a fragment was to make it a mask, because a mask is a whole
thing in itself. I couldnt do a decapitated head or half a body.
I have to believe in the object as a whole thing. A bronze bust is an
entity because, for starters, its bronze and its not pretending
to be anything other than a fragment or a sculpture. But my things are
pretending to be something else as well. A mask is complete already. This
is just a different kind of mask. Its a realistic mask.
curious about the relationship you have with your sculptures. Do you see
them as human beings, almost? Or more like mannequins?
RM: I dont
think of them as mannequins. On one hand, I try to create a believable
presence; and, on the other hand, they have to work as objects. They arent
living persons, although its nice to stand in front of them and
be unsure whether they are or not. But ultimately, theyre fiberglass
objects that you can pick up and carry. If they succeed as fun things
to have in the room, Im happy. At the same time, I wouldnt
be satisfied if they didnt have some kind of presence that made
you think theyre more than just objects.
Sarah Tanguy is
a writer and independent curator based in Washington, DC.