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The National Gallery in the heart of London’s Trafalgar square has been running an ‘associate artist’ scheme since 1990, whereby a respected artist is invited to work in the gallery itself and produce work in response to the gallery’s collection.

The most recent of the associate artists is sculptor Ron Mueck, who first came to prominence with his sculpture ‘DEAD DAD’ which was shown at the ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997.

With a background in special effects production, Mueck’s work consists of sculptures of the body, rendered in silicone and fibreglass. The figures are made to such a degree of realism that they become almost indistinguishable from a real figure, the only difference being that they are radically different in scale.

Mueck has produced 4 new works for this exhibition which revolve loosely around the theme of birth and motherhood. As you follow the trail of the show, the process of childbirth is presented in reverse. The exhibition opens with ‘swaddled baby’, a small floor based figure of a baby in swaddling clothes, lying on a pillow. Of all the works this is the only one in scale. Mueck is reported to have been struck by how many of the artists in the gallery have depicted the infant Christ as an unrealistic baby. Mueck’s baby is lifelike in every detail, his infant Christ is tangible, a fragile new life with its uncertain future before it.

Moving into the gallery proper, next on show is ‘mother and child’, a 54 cm long sculpture of a mother and her baby seconds after giving birth. The baby lies in its foetal position on the deflated stomach of the mother, who looks at her newborn with a contemplative gaze. The realism of the figure is alarming, the hair is rough and sweaty from the exertion of chilbirth, the skin coloured perfectly.

In the main room, there are two large sculptures, the first of which breaks from the theme of birth and motherhood. A large wooden boat is presented on a plinth, in the front of which is a sculpture of a man, possibly in his late 50’s, sitting with his arms folded, craning his neck to view the scene ahead of himself. Once again the level of detail is extraordinary, but this work asks more questions than it answers.

Finally in the main room is the most striking of the works on show. Mueck has created a 2.5 metre high sculpture of a grown woman in the final term of her labour, hands held above her head with eyes closed as if exhausted from the weight of the child she carries. The upscaling of the figure means that it completely commands the space and the attention of the spectators who circle it. It is almost more compelling to watch the reaction of the viewers than the work itself, as one cannot help but question one’s own feelings about or experiences of the issue of parenthood and childbirth.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 20 minute film on the working process involved in making the sculptures, and a display of the working models and life casts used by Mueck in preparation for the work itself.

Ron Mueck – Making Sculpture
Date: March 22th – June 22th 2003
Place: The National Gallery
Address: Sunley Room, Trafalgar Square, London, UK

Text: Tim Spear from Now Wash Your Hands

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