Ron Mueck makes sculptures that stop people in their tracks. With breathtaking technical skill and artistry, he creates figures that are astonishingly realistic and powerfully expressive. The humans in his sculptures are either larger or smaller than life and are usually depicted at key moments of transition in the cycle of life: birth, infancy, adolescence, middle age, approaching death and the end itself. Often alone, isolated and vulnerable, his giant or miniature creatures always invite a strong emotional response. However, this work, entitled A Girl, is among his most moving to date. A magnificent rendering of a newborn’s first awareness of life outside the womb, it rarely fails to provoke mixed reactions of wonder, compassion and anxiety.
The son of German-born toymakers, Mueck was born in Melbourne, Australia. In his childhood he often made toys, a hobby that became a profession when he worked as a puppet-maker for children’s television. He moved to London in 1986, working in special effects for Jim Henson on the television shows Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Later he established his own production company making models for the advertising industry. His move into the art world began in 1996 when he made a sculpture, Pinocchio, as part of an installation for the painter Paula Rego, his mother-in-law. The following year his sculpture Dead Dad attracted much attention when it was shown as part of the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.
Mueck has made a number of sculptures on the theme of motherhood and birth. Several of these date from his period as the Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London where he was surrounded by several centuries of imagery of the Madonna and Child. In response, Mueck created a monumental pregnant woman, a half-life-sized mother with a newborn child nestled on her stomach and a swaddled baby, using his realist techniques to imbue the everyday facts of childbirth with a sense of sanctity and awe. These works were followed by A Girl which was first shown in Edinburgh in 2006. The gigantic baby is some five metres long. Still covered in specks of blood and with part of the umbilical cord still present, she seems to stretch for the first time, opening one sticky eye as if in reluctant response to her new state. With painstaking attention to detail, the artist evokes the slimy, pliant skin, the thin, matted hair and the crumpled face of the newborn.
Mueck’s craftsmanship often attracts much attention, and it is sometimes assumed that he uses some technical wizardry from his days of working in special effects. In fact his methods are quite traditional, involving an elaborate process of drawings and small studies in clay, detailed maquettes and full-sized models for casting, all of which require the skills of a sculptor working with great complexity and care. The last details on the sculptures are painted by hand and each strand of hair is inserted individually. In these days of cloning and 3-D printers, it seems that we are obsessed by our expanding scope to reproduce the world around us. However, although we may be fascinated by his technique, it is the emotional impact of his work that counts. Ron Mueck brings his formidable craftsmanship to bear on the time-honoured subject of our mysterious journey through life with all its deep-seated hopes and fears.
100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (2015)