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Larger than Life: Ron Mueck at Fondation Cartier

(Paris.) If your son is traumatized by a too early lecture of Gulliver's Travels - don't worry, it might be just the perfect start to a career in art. ... No, don't panic, please: A very successful career in art, a collaboration with Cartier even!

The Australian Ron Mueck brings Jonathan Swift's visions to life with hyperrealist sculptures of dwarfs and giants that now are shown for the second time by Cartier Foundation, following a first blockbuster exhibition in 2005/06.

In Mueck's sculptures, every detail is taken care of with the uttermost precision, each pore and every hair appears almost uncannily authentic (the hair probably is genuine human). The habitual becomes special by way of presentation. In enlarging or diminishing the human size, Ron Mueck distinguishes himself from mere spectacle (Madame Tussaud's, John deAndrea, etc.), he changes the whole without changing a detail and thus escapes the photographic trap - art has to be more than just a copy of nature. The change of scale is the one decisive step back, a sort of alienation effect that grants relevance. Mueck shows life through a lens, distorted just enough to count for a metaphor.

Ron Mueck's preferred motives are ordinary people in ordinary situations, but he lacks the contempt, the mocking misanthropy of a Martin Parr. There is a deep affection instead; even where his characters make us smile the laugh is never on them.

Mueck does not spare them though, he refuses to photoshop life. We se a miniature woman with a baby tied to her breast, carrying two shopping bags that contain not only diapers but also a box of aspirin, and she looks as if she needed them badly (the pills, not the diapers; probably). Her eyes seem to reproach us, or the world, for something, deeply disillusioned by all of her burden.

A teenage couple stands united in a grip of tender violence. She skeptically fixes the distance, as he anticipates a reaction to something he just told, or asked, her.

An aged couple lies under a parasol as if teleported to the spot from a remote Australian beach. With 3m (10 ft) in height (seated), they would be a sure first round draft pick in the NBA, but that's not the point here. Both seem tired but satisfied with - or at least don't complain about - what lies behind. Again, the details show just how much Mueck invested in his work, her marriage ring grown into the finger's skin, the dirt under his toe nails making the spectator hold his breath in fear of a smell that cannot be there.

All of these people silently tell a story, and often it is a story about age, about a period of change, the most ordinary story of human life and life itself. Teenagers, elderly people, the afore-mentioned woman tied to the final proof that her youth has gone.

An old-school gigolo with thinning but deeply black dyed hair hangs from a blue wall like a crucifix. Floating on a pool air mattress, he gives his best to keep on going, to resist. Looking up, maybe hypnotized by the rear of some nineteen-year-old nymph, his throat is all cramped and the muscles deliberately form the wrinkles that the Ray Bans hide around the eyes. Roasting under a merciless sun, he is not comfortable with his situation, though he has lots of style left (btw, the watch is not a costly Cartier). Again: his creator manages to show his heroic struggles without ridiculing him.

Not much has changed since hunting-gathering times: a hairy troll - no, a naked middle-aged woman actually - carries a bundle of wood larger than herself; she will take care of the fire in some Lascaux cave. Or use the ashes to mark her chakra points for a pagan ritual in a forgotten hippie commune in the Australian outback, who knows.

Ron Mueck never tricks the audience, but he knows the limits of realism. In a sculptured still life, a dead chicken shows every detail of the slit throat, but there is no need to present a human being in the same way. Once there is a giant head (a self portrait?) lying on its cheek, and we approach with the slight fear of how the artist has managed to avoid cheap splatter effects. Would his realism not bind him to show every trace of the axe that separated head and body? Mueck found a way to bypass the problem: Turning around the work, we realize there is nothing behind the face, it is only a mask.

A documentary about the artist at work confirms a suspicion that has slowly built up during the visit: Ron Mueck is cool as a cucumber. Inferring from this film, Mueck is indeed the living Buddha type of man, not fully present in this world, not talking much, only focused on his work. His assistants adore him, but even in joking he keeps a distance, the distance of somebody who understands much about human life.

Ron Mueck, Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, 16 April-29 September, 2013



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