Ron Mueck: The MAC, Belfast 29th July to 20th November 2022

The Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC) is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a major exhibition of eight astonishingly life-like sculptures from the acclaimed Australian sculptor, Ron Mueck. This is quite a coup for the MAC as this is the first exhibition of any of Mueck’s works in the island of Ireland.

Mueck produces these works of art using a variety of materials: silicone, polyethylene, styrene, synthetic hair, fibreglass, steel, wood, and fabric. The result is mind-blowing; you keep expecting the figures to come to life.

How does Mueck do it? Visitors can find out some of his secrets by watching a short film, running on a loop in the Sunken Gallery, Still Life: Ron Mueck at Work. They can see how some of his best pieces are put together. There are some comically macabre scenes involving outsized sculpted body parts in unexpected places. A photographic display in the back room off the Upper Gallery shows large photographs of some of the MAC exhibits in preparation.

The main space in the Upper Gallery is dominated by In Bed, (2005), which features a giant woman sitting up in a huge bed. This certainly gets the visitor’s attention. To her right is a small work on a pedestal of a woman carrying two heavy bags of shopping, simply called Woman with Shopping, (2013). She has a little baby tucked into the neck of her coat. This woman has not had an easy life. She’s burdened by looking after her child and the weight of the two shopping bags. Her face is drawn and careworn. Mueck captures this woman’s travails perfectly.

The remaining piece in the Upper Gallery is another heavily burdened woman, Woman with Sticks (2009). This two-thirds-scale woman is naked, carrying a huge bundle of sticks that is either too awkward or too heavy to carry. She’s not a classical beauty. She has curves and folds in her skin. Every hair and fold is visible. She’s bent backward. You can see the pain in her eyes. The sticks are probably scratching her. Why? Is she being punished? Is she a slave? We don’t know.

The Tall Gallery features Youth, (2009-11). This small piece depicts a barefoot young man lifting his bloodstained tee-shirt to examine a bloody stabbing injury. Despite its small scale, every detail is clear; a look of disbelief, surprise, and concern on the young man’s face, the bloodstained tee-shirt, the deep injury, and the beltless low-slung jeans exposing his underwear. Was he in the wrong place at the wrong time or another victim of gang violence? We can only speculate.

Mother and Child (2003) has to be for this reviewer the most startling feature of the Ron Mueck exhibition. A newborn child rests on the belly of its exhausted mother. This moment of bonding is captured in amazing detail; the mum’s sheen of sweat on her forehead and body, her lank hair tied back in a rough ponytail, the unwashed child resting on her belly, while the uncut umbilical cord extends back into her vagina. The mum’s eyebrows and pubic hairs – and even her toenails – are faithfully reproduced at approximated half-scale.

After this image of new life coming into the world, the visitor encounters Dead Dad (1996-7) in the adjoining room; a shocking naked half-scale figure lying prone on the floor. This is based on Mueck’s own late father. He lies dead on a slab, pale and bloodless. Again, Mueck captures every hair in fine detail, whether on the face, the arms, and legs, or the pubic area. After seeing the mother and baby next door, this is a somewhat sobering reminder of the fate that will inevitably come our way, ‘in the midst of life, we are in death’ as the Book of Common Prayer would have it.

Finally, Dark Place (2018) is a huge disembodied man’s head. He stares out at visitors with a baleful glare. It’s quite unsettling to stand in front of it for more than a few seconds.

Admission to the Ron Mueck exhibition is free. Mueck’s talent for reproducing every aspect of human life and death in both smaller-than-life and larger-than-life scales is incomparable. If you’re in Belfast before 20th November do check it out. Just note that the MAC is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Review and photographs by David Kerr

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