The Making of Big Man


The making of “Big Man” | A Conversation with Ron Mueck

by Sarah Tanguy

Australian-born, 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 demeanour far beyond his age, to a smaller-than-life, sick old woman, who curls up in a foetal pose under a blanket, Mueck’s 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 Mueck’s work. 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 museum’s own Untitled (Big Man). More recently, exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and at the National Gallery in London included work conceived during Mueck’s 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 Mueck’s 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 technique—a 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, Mueck’s 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.

Sarah Tanguy: How and when did you get the idea of manipulating scale with your figures?

Ron Mueck: I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day.

ST: So you alter scale to raise the emotional and psychological impact?

RM: It makes you take notice in a way that you wouldn’t do with something that’s just normal.

ST: With Big Man, did you know right from the start that you wanted it to be super-scale?

RM: He didn’t actually start big at all. I had sculpted another piece—a small figure of a man wrapped in blankets. I didn’t use any reference or life model with him. He’s 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 don’t normally work with live models—I 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 couldn’t actually curl up like that. His limbs weren’t flexible enough. His belly was in the way. It meant that he couldn’t achieve the pose. I was also not used to having a model in the studio. I found it quite intimidating, because there’s another person demanding to be related to. And this guy was naked and completely shaven. He didn’t 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 wasn’t quite as belligerent as the sculpture ended up, but he was in that position. And I thought, “That looks good.” So that’s how I came about the pose.

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 didn’t 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 can’t see otherwise because you’ve 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 couldn’t 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 I’ll 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 up—just 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 him—seven 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.

ST: Is 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.

ST: What do you do after the clay?

RM: I also spray that with shellac, again to seal the clay so it doesn’t dry out when I create the plaster mold. That’s 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 it’s quite fragile. Then I paint layers of coloured polyester resin into the mold. There’s a little bit of fine-tuning. When he came out, the colour 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 in reverse.

ST: One 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 modelling 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 actually—big, hairy gorilla arms.

ST: How 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.

ST: That was fast.

RM: That was too fast.

ST: Is 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?

RM: There’s 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.

ST: Is there a difference for you when the human form is in its entirety or when it’s 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 couldn’t 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, it’s bronze and it’s 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. It’s a realistic mask.

ST: I’m curious about the relationship you have with your sculptures. Do you see them as human beings, almost? Or more like mannequins?

RM: I don’t 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 aren’t living persons, although it’s nice to stand in front of them and be unsure whether they are or not. But ultimately, they’re fiberglass objects that you can pick up and carry. If they succeed as fun things to have in the room, I’m happy. At the same time, I wouldn’t be satisfied if they didn’t have some kind of presence that made you think they’re more than just objects.

Sarah Tanguy is a writer and independent curator based in Washington, DC.

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Exhibition: Ron Mueck

Minna Mühlen

April 15, 2010

As a human who sports a rather large sized head I share a certain sympathy with Australian born sculptor Ron Mueck’s oversized sculptures of humans, with their giant craniums, torsos, faces and feet. Currently on show at the National Gallery of Victoria, from 22 January until 18 April, the exhibition comprises of Mueck’s old and new works, including his seminal work Dead Dad (1996-7). It was Dead Dad commissioned by the art collector Saatchi and Saatchi in London, for the Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, which launched Mueck from model maker on films such as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) to a contemporary artist in his own right.

Mueck’s rendering of the human form in fibre glass, resin, plastic and synthetic hair is generally disquieting not only due to the scale which swings from minutiae to gargantuan but in the eerie personality conveyed by the figures facial expressions. The first room moves from Dead Dad only an arms length in size to the huge newborn baby A Girl (2006). The fascination of a baby’s tiny form is distorted here into a colossus that seems unmanageable in its lithe heavy form. Every fold of its flesh coveys that sticky newborn appearance still marked by traces of blood.

Pervasive in many of the figures is a sense of anxiety and discomfort; both Wild Man and In Bed reference some primal state of illness, vulnerability and exposure. Wild Man is naked and awkward as he glances sideways, perched on the edge of his seat ready to spring up and away from the viewer. It’s as if he knows that he has been brought into the gallery to be gawked at. His matted beard and hair seem thick with life. The tiny follicles of hair that obtrude from his back and even a small pimple on his shoulder fully persuade us he is a live being.

In Bed seems deliberately constructed with a kooky scale to emphasise the woman’s large head, as she stares with an expression of world-weary resignation from under her blanket. Her knees and leg span are so much smaller than her torso that it prompts a desire to lift the blanket and expose her legs so as to make sense of her body.

Mueck’s newer works are less striking as they reach into unfamiliar territory. Youth depicting a young black man prodding at a stab wound is less convincing, the blood is thin and the small scale underwhelming. Woman With Sticks (2008) also has little impact, her form is not only literally hidden under a bunch of twigs but her position in the corner of the room means she is easily missed. In terms of mood the brightest and lightest of the works is Drift, where a man lolls on a lilo. However he is vertically pinned on the wall and there is less of a sense of being able to circle the figure at the intimate range that usually makes Mueck’s works so powerful. The voyeurism that the works play on of viewing humans in a state of unease is also removed from this more luxurious figure and it becomes a less moving image of the human condition.

Overall Mueck’s eerie realism silenced in sculpture form reminds you of your own mottled skin, tiny hairs and uneven toenails. Even after leaving the exhibition there is a lingering sense that these creatures will come alive behind you or that you will come across them in some familiar domestic setting curled on your bed or perched on your kitchen chair.

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Edinburgh Festival 2007

David Pollock goes in search of sculptor Ron Mueck and comes up against a wall of silence.

As one of the National Galleries of Scotland’s Autumn programme’s flagship shows, this display of work by the Australian-born, London-based Ron Mueck is sure to draw the crowds and inspire discussion among those who witness his hyperrealist sculptures. Just try getting to interview those who actually know the artist . . .

From models to dealers and past curators, there seems to be an unspoken culture of Omerta about Mueck’s art, with some interview requests politely declined and others going completely un-replied to after various attempts at contact. Possibly it was just a case of bad timing and lack of availability; yet so many of such instances in such a narrow space of time hints at a deliberate conspiracy of silence.

But why, you might ask, would those closest to Mueck want to offer quotes to the press? After all, commentators on his work have not exactly been kind in the past. ‘There must be much to admire about sculptor Ron Mueck’s astonishingly life-like representations of the human body’, wrote the Guardian’s Adrian Searle in a stinging one star review of the artist’s show at the National Gallery in 2003. ‘But, apart from the technique, I cannot think what it is . . . It is all so perfect – and perfectly boring.’

Despite such battering’s, however, Mueck’s creations are still hugely commercially successful, offering a perfect juxtaposition of critical pessimism alongside the gallery-going public’s bullish ‘if I like it, I’ll go and see it’ response.

Born in Melbourne in 1958 to German parents, Mueck transformed his childhood hobby of making toys into a career, first making puppets for Australian children’s’ television and then moving to London, by way of America, to work with Muppet man Jim Henson.

His CV during this period was impressive by any standards, but it reinforces the feeling voiced privately by some that he’s a craftsman first and an artist second; for Henson he worked on The Muppets and Sesame Street, and later on the David Bowie-starring semi-animated fantasy film Labyrinth. For those who recall this zenith of eighties children’s cinema well, Mueck also provided the voice of the gentle giant Ludo, one of his own creations.

A career manufacturing models progressed in the early nineties, until 1996, when he made a model of Pinocchio for his mother-in-law, the artist Paula Rego. When Rego used the piece in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, this brought Mueck to the attention of Charles Saatchi, who commissioned work from the artist for his 1997 exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

As well as making Mueck’s name as an artist, the controversial Sensation-featured piece ‘Dead Dad’ set the tone for his work to follow. An anatomically precise (if downscaled) fibreglass, resin and silicone recreation of the corpse of Mueck’s father, this boldly personal piece saw him attempt to recreate the persona of a human body without the need for animatronic contraptions as found in modern puppeteering or model making.

Among the more famous works to have emerged from this practice was the five-metre high ‘Boy’ – which was displayed at the Millennium Dome and the Venice Biennale – and ‘Pregnant Woman’, purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2002. ‘It’s fascinating to witness people looking at Mueck’s work,’ says Keith Hartley, senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who has worked closely with Mueck on the selection and presentation of works for the RSA exhibition. ‘They stare at it, often for half an hour. I think this is because Ron aims for a psychological intensity in his work which people respond to; they feel that intensity very deeply for themselves.

‘In his choice of subjects, Ron carefully selects the kind of “life moments” that have an almost universal resonance. These can be birth, old age and death, sexual encounters or adolescence, but they are all powerful times that we tend to remember clearly, and plugging into this empathy is a really key element in his work.’

Unlike other artists who use similar methods of duplicating the physical form, such as Duane Hanson, whose work was exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently, Mueck’s creations are not simply meant to be realistic in their execution. By adjusting their scale, he adds an extra element of the fantastical to these anatomically correct three-dimensional figures, creating a kind of Gulliver’s Travels effect when the viewer is in close proximity to them. Is this change of scale the key to the popularity of his art?

‘Mueck is a ‘hyper-realist’,’ says Hartley. ‘Which is to say that he aims to make his subjects lifelike, even if they are constructed on a scale which is not lifelike. His woman ‘In Bed’ (as will be shown at the RSA), for example, is much larger than life, and yet she looks real, and standing in front of her is an extraordinary experience. Key to this realist approach is Ron’s understanding that he doesn’t actually work from life.

‘In order to make his sculptures appear real he has to add an element of caricature; an exaggeration of certain characteristics so as to make them seem more real. In this respect, he shares the same approach as novelists such as Dickens, and certain 18th century portrait painters suchas Bernini.’

Whether Mueck actually expresses himself a fresh with each new sculpture created or just plays to the crowd with a sleight-of-hand succession of visual spectacles is one for the critics to debate and the public to decide as they stand before his work. Yet, for Hartley, his lack of either personal or artistic statement can also be seen as a virtue.

‘Unlike other contemporary artists,’ he says, ‘Mueck deliberately avoids intellectual content, and this may be why he isn’t fashionable among certain critics and curators. But he pays no heed to their views. He’s more interested in going further back in history, to before the changes of artistic language and conventions brought about by Marcel Duchamp and Modernism.’

David Pollock is a freelance journalist.

Royal Scottish Academy from 5 Aug until 1 Oct.

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Ron Mueck |Times article

A Girl | BBC press

In the field of stubble


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