NOTE: I should’ve posted this earlier, I suppose, when the Triennial was still showing but alas, I’ve missed the mark. Still, I like this review so there you go.
Ron Mueck. The Australian artist prolific in the international visual art community for his large-scale hyperrealist sculptures has once again outdone himself with his newly featured work, Mass(2016-17). Commissioned for the NGV International’s first Triennial, showing exclusively in Melbourne until April 15, it is Mueck’s largest work yet.
The installation encompasses a large room of the gallery usually designated for featuring 18th Century aristocratic portraiture. A selection of these remain hanging in areas, staring back at a colossal one hundred hand-cast skulls, each one unique compared to another.
Before encountering the full work, you’re greeted by a teaser: a singular skull placed centrally in a space two rooms away. It’s a cheeky little lure to prepare and excite gallery goers over what’s soon in store for them. Given the heavy publicity of this particular artwork in the Triennial’s promotional material, many of us may know already what lies ahead. Others may be going in without any knowledge of what will be revealed in Mass. Either way, the placement of this first solitary skull is effective at evoking curiosity and excitement as well as a reflectiveness that comes with an image of death. From this room you can peer past the work in the room adjacent and into Mueck’s through aligning archways, making it difficult to really stop for long at any of said work along the way. As you get closer, the immensity of the installation’s scale comes into realisation. I for one, was left gob-smacked before even entering. These clever sneak peaks allow a viewer to ease into the room as those before it ready them to experience its impact. Described in a press statement as, ‘an immersive and overwhelming experience for the viewer’, I would imagine, without this pre-empt, Mass could hold the potential to shock certain viewers into strong unease and believe this is a sensitive decision from the curatorial team.
The skulls are piled in organised haphazard; a phrase which may seem oxymoronic but upon viewing, can be understood. It’s a heap which has identifiably been meticulously stacked to convey the thoughts, and issue the emotional responses the artist had hoped to: Calculated imposure.
Mass is a particularly political piece from Mueck and arguably rawer for it. “The skulls recall the Paris catacombs as well as the mass graves resulting from human atrocities…” according to the press release. While he has involved himself in themes such as life and death before in such works as Dead Dad (1996), A Girl (2006) and Youth(2009-2010), Mueck has always sculpted his figures with an emphasis on whole-humanness carried by facial expression and body language to build pathos. Here, he strips one hundred heads back to the bone where one might assume they’re devoid of expression and yet each one of them still has their own personality, though inanimate; their own life, though dead; their own identity, though faceless.
The fact that we are so able to relate to these skulls and so strongly associate an anatomical replica with the notion of a person’s life still being attached is a testament to the medieval concept of memento mori; the reminder that we all have death still to come and that corporeal life, in all its vanity, is only a fleeting moment in time. Mortality unites us all. So sociologically, we can all innately relate to this style of art and this is one large component of what makes Mass so successful.
The ambitious scale, attention to detail, and dedication to craftsmanship is what makes it stand apart. The skulls, each about a metre or taller, dominate all thought in the room and demand interpretation. Each one is individual, be it slightly starker or duller in its shade, what teeth it is missing, what cracks or chips out of the bone it bears.
Where it would’ve been much easier to simply cast one mould and use it for all of them, Mueck has realised the nuance that this individuality brings. This is prominently what gives the skulls their personality rather than appearing as a sterile product of an assembly line.
The title alone inspires different sentiments, “mass” in reference to the sheer size of the work, the mass graves they represent, and the catholic union of Mass; my favourite to unpack. For through all the hype and astonishment we might find in viewing this artwork, I still found that the room had a sombre feeling that comes with the seriousness of a death symbol. It asks for respect. For reflection. This installation, we must remember, is a memorial to those of the mass graves and catacombs. Those piled unceremoniously into unmarked pits after their murders. This work is for acknowledging the unacknowledged as the 18th century bourgeoisie types, inspirers of colonialism and genocide, either vainly look through them or continue on in the scenes within their gilded frames, oblivious to them. Denying them validation.
And here, the irony is too strong. We have this feeling of sanctity in the representation of a grave site resulted from war crimes. But in history we know one of the root causes of essentially every war is religion, and largely Christianity. Coincidentally, what faith can we assume those pasty characters in the portraits follow? Memento mori was a catholic concept but has seemingly only proved important to the uncorrupted of us, regardless of if we hold to religion or not.
Proving this point further is the way audiences respond to the work. So many visitors mirror the neglect towards respectfulness that the blank-eyed aristocrats on the walls show, only in a more modern sense. The vanity still shows through. As seen through the whole exhibition, many gallery-goers seem to come less to appreciate the art and more to show they went. Posing for photos with the art because apparently the work alone wasn’t artful enough without their faces in there too. An artwork like Mass, so profound, so effective, with subject matter asking, pained, all through history to be recognised and understood turns into merely Instagram aesthetic. Sacredness denied once more. Mueck exposes the lack of care society still shows.
Thankfully there are art lovers of whom Mass still speaks volumes to but I fear for those who can’t leave their selfie sticks at home or abide by the basic gallery rule of ‘do not touch’ when viewing art. It is both despite these people and because of them that Mueck’s work is still effective overall. Since, as the press release suggests, “it demands consideration of human mortality and meaning.”
I just wonder what this technology-intense way of viewing exhibitions means for art in the future.