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A & E ART | True to Life

True to Life

Artists Ron Mueck and Guy Ben-Ner revel in the raw and real

By Tor Lukasik-Foss

“Real” is a words that gets used too often, suspiciously so. The prevalence of the word signifies that we’re slowly losing our grasp on the concept. Postmodernism kind of beat the crap out of the idea of reality; virtual media continues to dance on its corpse.  These days, it seems that we’re numbed by the problem: We flutter around, comfortable in knowing that there is likely very little of anything real inside our reality any more. Knowing that, it’s not all that bad or that different from the good old days when everything was hard and had edges and you could fix it when it was broken – with, you know, a nail.

In visual culture, the rule of thumb is that if something looks really precise and clearly detailed, then we can be pretty sure that it has been artificially generated.   Likewise, if the image is cheap, shaky, blurry, and indistinct, then we are more prone to accept it as having been taken from life.

Real Life is the name of a touring exhibition organized by the National Gallery that showcases two international art stars, Australian sculptor Ron Mueck and Israeli artist and filmmaker Guy Ben-Ner. A cynic might say that the two names have been arbitrarily stuck together by exhibition curator Jonathan Shaughnessy, that the only commonality they share is that their work has made its way repeatedly into the National Gallery’s permanent collection, and that both artists are still riding on the buzz they created by showing at the Venice Biennial (Mueck in 2001, Ben-Ner in 2005).  Other than that, what do a hyperrealist sculptor and a low-fi video installation artist have to do with each other?

The answer is certainly not immediate, and maybe that’s the point. Both Mueck and Ben-Ner are immersed in non-natural materials and circumstances, and yet both seem eager to describe ineffable and truthful things about the human experience. Real Life is less a descriptor of the artwork, and more like a looming question – or, better yet, a challenge. Go to the exhibition and see if you can separate the fabrication from the authentic. 

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It’s tempting to hate the work of Ron Mueck. His dramatically scaled figures are so precisely rendered, so theatrically presented, it easy to lump him in with any number of hyperrealist artists who use flashy cinematic prop making techniques to hide the fact that they have nothing really to say. The impact of the work is so bound up in the spectacle of scale, the thrill of mind-boggling execution.

At least Mueck comes by his special effects honestly. The child of toymakers, he worked for 20 years as a puppeteer and model-maker, most notably for Jim Henson’s creature shop (Mueck bears the nerdy distinction of designing and operating and voicing the character Ludo from the 1986 film Labyrinth). In the ’90s, he left the world of film and television to concentrate on sculpting human forms out of silicone, resin and polyester casts. The results are some of the most achingly detailed, flawless re-enactments of the human form as you are ever likely to witness.

The trick to entering Mueck’s work is to sit with it, to visit it repeatedly so that the initial success of the illusion dies down. What is left after that is an artist’s fascination with the subtleties of human expression. Scanning through some of his most notable works you find that Mueck tends to reproduce very private, very intimate moments of the human figure alone with itself. Sleep, birth, daydreaming, staring off – these moment are banal but universal, and Mueck argues that to freeze those moments and really consider them, is to open a dialogue on the essence of the human condition.

Even a newborn is capable of expressing the complexities of life. A Girl (2006) is an unapologetic depiction of a freshly delivered infant – bloody, with a big chunk of bluey umbilical cord still attached, and a none too optimistic expression on her face.   The work is rendered from polyester and acrylic and resin, and the infant is a whopping five metres in length. The work is so imposing it forces you into a consideration of single details: the curl of the toes, the vagueness of the eyes, the clutch of the hands, the way the spine lurches as if it not yet sure how to work.

Untitled (Old Woman in Bed) (2000) is the perfect a counterpart to A Girl, an aged woman, arguably near death, curled under a sheet in a bed.  Instead of inflating the scene, Mueck shrinks it down; the sculpture is  only 50 centimetres.  This dramatic use of scale, even though wielded in the opposite direction, seems  to function in the same way, it changes our relationship with the human form and gives us fresh eyes to examine the subtleties of expression, the thin opening of the eyes and mouth, the curling up of the body under the sheets. And it reminds us, that a moment as seminal as the end of a long life, is one that we rarely get to glimpse.   Birth is usually gigantic, death is sometimes a whisper.

Mueck wants to depict the body at its most unconscious, absent-minded, or unreflective states, freezing the smallness of those moments, and then making them the focus for his devotion. At times, I can convince myself that Mueck (who shuns the media and works in relative solitude) pursues these sculptures as religious objects, secular buddhas which require a meditative engagement before they reveal their secrets. Other times, I struggle in my understanding of resin and acrylic and polyurethane as appropriate materials for an investigation of the human form. While it’s exciting to see what convincing shapes rubber and plastics can be twisted into, they are always at the end of the day, rubber and plastic. Indeed, you can create a very convincing corpse out of those materials, but you can’t replicate the glint of life. In other words Mueck is chronicling the certainties of flesh, not the mysteries.  Oil paint and black and white photography still seem better ways to communicate the hot irrationality of living flesh.

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Every artist has a story to tell about the sacrifices they have made for their art, or the pain and eccentricity that has been hoisted onto their families as a result of their art.  In many cases, an artist makes art either without their family, despite family, or against their family. Sometimes they can make art alongside their families, and even with or about their families.  Guy Ben-Ner, as near as I can figure it, makes art through his family.

Unlike Mueck, you can’t accuse Ben-Ner of showboating his expertise.  In fact, it might be tempting to dismiss him for opposite reasons; Ben-Ner’s work is so unspectacular, so loose, so casual, so effortlessly funny, that it tempts the viewer into treating his videos as nothing more than a collection of oddball home movies or successful bits of YouTubery, his installations as a cheaply charming array of crafts and home-made play structures.

There’s much more going on here, however. The informal tone is a deliberate part of an artistic practice consciously rooted in the sphere of Ben-Ner’s home and family.  If he engages with literature, or philosophy, or geo-politics he must do so using that which is available to him: his children, wife, household items, and hand held video camera.    The resulting videos are unique unto themselves, investigations into art and politics that somehow retain the wholesomeness of family quality time.

Take 2007’s Stealing Beauty, for example. The 17-minute video is immediately charming because it depicts the Ben-Ner family awkwardly acting out a scripted family drama inside a succession of Ikea showrooms. Almost imperceptibly, it begins to reveal its layers: the Ikea price tags keeps changing languages for example, revealing that this film has taken place in stores in multiple countries around the world.   It also becomes apparent that the Ben-Ners are trying to shoot scenes with neither the awareness of the store owners nor customers. The film  (in which the parents are disciplining their children against theft, and staying out past curfew) is itself an act of trespassing. Even the premise of a domestic drama placed in an Ikea showroom is not Ben-Ner’s, he has stolen that from a 2002 Ikea ad campaign (later ripped off by British furniture retailer in 2007).  By the end of the film, the themes of theft and transgression has echoed and refracted themselves so often as to become nearly empty. Yet the unity of Ben-Ner’s family is somehow preserved.

The family therefore is depicted as a provocative unit, capable of making complex statements about art and society. Stealing Beauty makes the argument that covertly shooting a quasi-Marxist sit-com can be a meaningful, even fun, family activity. More importantly, it argues that family activities can make credible contemporary art.

Ben-Ner’s daughter Elia certainly seems to be having a ball playing multiple roles in Moby Dick (2000), an absurd attempt to re-cap  Melville’s nautical epic in under 13 minutes, with no sound, with only Elia and her father as the principal actors,  with only home-made props, and without leaving the confines of their kitchen. What ends up happening is an infectious series of set pieces derived from early cinema, which keep the viewer engaged by virtue of their sheer inventiveness. That we’ve seen the sight gags a zillion times before is somehow part of the appeal.

Similar to Stealing Beauty, it’s hard to understand just what is being made here.  It doesn’t really add anything to Melville’s opus, nor does it say anything about Guy or Elia Ben-Ner. And it’s just so casually, flimsily made that it teeters on the verge of being nothing. However, it does manage to make an argument that the domestic sphere is not a compromise, it can be as complicated and rich an environment as you have energy to make it. Indeed, with a little imagination, it has the capacity to be as suffocating, redeeming, maddening, and expansive as Melville’s whaling ship. All it really suffers from is that fact that it is ubiquitous, familiar, and a place where we contemptuously believe contemporary art does not reside.

Slowly, with much thinking, Ben-Ner begins to draw close to Mueck.   They are both trying to articulate something essential, something undeniably real about the human condition, something that is right under our noses all the time. They are playing with our expectations in order to tempt us to see these things with fresh eyes. We should congratulate them for the crazily elaborate means by which they strive to grab our attention.

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Real Life shows at Oakville Galleries’ Gairloch Gardens (1306 Lakeshore Rd. E., Oakville) and Centennial Square (120 Navy Street , Oakville) through Sept 5, 2010.

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