Controversial Mueck monsters spearhead compelling Artist Rooms trip to Aberdeen Art Gallery

By Ben Miller | 17 September 2009
A picture of the enormous head of a dozing middle-aged man

(Above) Mask II. Courtesy Anthony d'Offay, London

Exhibition: Ron Mueck, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen, until October 31 2009

Swinging a left inside the impressive Aberdeen Art Gallery reveals a sight so predictable and familiar it feels like paying a visit to Hannibal Lecter's cell.

A Girl, Ron Mueck's wrinkled, repulsive corpse of a semi-conscious baby, lies prostrate. Some tiptoe around this slab of processed humanity, as if they've wandered onto the set of Labyrinth and found themselves reverentially agog at the underworld Mueck's puppets and models helped populate in the film. Others – largely, but not exclusively children – can't conceal their delight.

Traces of blood, bulging eyes, bloated flesh – it's hard to imagine these brutal details eliciting such excitement in any other medium. The caricatured gruesomeness certainly sledgehammers through any misplaced hopes of subtlety, which is all well and good for those who solely admire Mueck's cartoonish freaks.

Any layers are obscured by the gross-out, in-your-face grotesqueness, draping slapstick sheen over any deeper meaning.

A picture of the enormous head of a black woman

Mask III. Anthony d'Offay, London

Upstairs, the miniature pair in Spooning Couple are locked in their awkward embrace. The fragile intimacy of it could be affecting, but it's so singularly, perfectly constructed that all you can truly admire is the artist's tremendous skill.

Like Marc Quinn's blood heads, it is the scale and level of realisation of these fake faces and anatomies which makes them compelling and terrifying – humans reduced to pocket figures or blown up to monstrous, taxidermy proportion.

Nearby, the enormous head of a middle-aged man (based on Mueck) lies dozing, as if it had fallen from his neck mid-sleep.

From this angle, there's a pillar obscuring the rope preventing visitors from stepping too close. It's a shame when it shifts into view, because the temptation to step inside the hollowed cranium would be testing.

A picture of two half-naked people lying next to each other

Spooning Couple. Anthony d'Offay, London

This is the entrapment of Mueck – when Gallery managers predicted the show's "huge fascination for the public" and "huge popularity", embodied in the busy corridors today, they were playing a winning card rather than becoming embroiled in the tussle of postulations critics seem to have assigned themselves to.

Those who denounce Mueck's schtick are probably right – it doesn't feel like art. Unless you can overlook the overpowering bizarreness of these pieces, you'll have a job discovering anything about mortality, the fragility of the skins we're born in or the human condition. Other realist shows, such as Exquisite Bodies} at the Wellcome Collection in London, have already covered the ground.

A picture of a giant naked man sitting on a chair

Wild Man. Anthony d'Offay, London

But in the context of Artist Rooms – Anthony d'Offay's mass of touring collections – that is hardly the point. D'Offay and backers The Art Fund wanted to bring big names and young minds into museums across the UK and, accusations of Philistinism aside, this show will triumph in that mission.

It never really crosses boundaries of taste, but it's still weird and ugly enough to startle in an attention-holding way. The unpleasantly faithful, giant recreation of the naked Wild Man leaves families giddy and wide-eyed.

Mueck's works amount to individual avatars of pop culture and, like most of the genre, criticising them feels as futile as flicking rubber bands at a steamroller. Aberdeen should enjoy this high-profile spot in the sun.

Guided tour with Jennifer Melville, Keeper of Fine Art, takes place on October 14, 12.30pm-1pm. Admission free, call 01224 523700 or visit the Gallery website

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