I am standing in the middle of a room. On my left, a 2 meter (6 feet) chicken is hanging upside down; on my right, a tiny woman is hugging a bundle of sticks against her naked body. Two women sit in the corner, alternating their gaze from one piece to the other, as if they are following the ball in a game of ping pong.
I am a stone’s throw away from the mecca of London shopping, in one of the most successful Galleries in the world, looking at an exhibition that explores consumption, beauty, femininity and mortality; no, the irony is not lost on me. Add to that the scathing critique from Time Out, and the online debate about art vs craft that the exhibition generated, and the whole space fills up with expectations.
Of course, I would not expect anything less from Hauser & Wirth. Best known for representing over 40 artists and the estates of some powerhouses in the world of art, the H&W galleries are known for taking calculated risks. And I have to say that their latest exhibition with 4 pieces by Ron Mueck is one of them.
In 1997, Ron Mueck‘s Dead Dad caused ripples of shock into the art crowd during Charles Saatchi’s Sensations exhibitions. He presented a miniature version of his dead father’s cadaver, that was both haunting and beautiful at the same time, raising strong emotive reactions from the audiences that came close to it, and the critics that reviewed it. Since then, Mueck went on to exhibit his work in many cities and countries, skipping London every single time; until now.
So, for the first time in over a decade, Mueck’s hyperrealist creations are taking central spot in the capital, inside the Savile Row Gallery rooms.
The exhibition starts with Drift, a small scale sculpture of a modern day middle-aged man that is chilling on a floating mattress, swim suit, glasses and tan on. He is casually extending his arms to his sides, as if he is hoping to touch something, or someone. He is floating alone, and even though his state appears relaxed, he is oozing loneliness.
In the room next door, Still Life is suspended from the ceiling. A man-sized chicken, with bound feet and plucked feathers is hanging upside down. The detail is breathtaking, and even though I knew it was not real, I was reluctant to go really close to it, and surprised it did not smell of dead poultry.
Opposite to it I found my favourite piece of the exhibition. In Woman with Sticks, Mueck explores some of my favourite themes in art and literature: folklore, femininity, beauty, fairytales and gender. A middle-aged naked woman is wielding under the weight of an impossibly large bundle of sticks. The work touches on the expectations and near unrealistic tasks that come along the way for women in legends and real life. What is interesting though is that even though other artists that have explored the subject have often used the typical feminine archetype of the female heroine, Mueck deviates from the norm of beauty as power, and chooses to portray his subject with a realistic attitude. Tired, imperfect skin, overweight, and naked, the sticks digging into her naked flesh as she is trying to hold them together, the goal ending up hurting her. Doing, instead of thinking. It is impossible to look at the piece without feeling something for the woman, without stirring an emotion from within; pity, disgust, aversion, sympathy.
The final piece is Youth, a depiction of a young black boy lifting his blood-stained shirt to inspect a cut on his torso. The piece had been compared to Christian depictions of St Thomas inspecting the wounds of Christ to ensure he was indeed hurt. Mueck uses the same vehicle to portray the invincible self-view of youth, to demonstrate that death is a concept that evolves with age to include the person that is thinking of it. The boy looks puzzled, as if it is registering the wound, but is not registering it on his body. Is he mortal? Are we mortal?
However, Mueck’s work has sparked the classic art dilemma: is it art or is it craft? Is he an artist, or a puppeteer? is there anything artistic in the mixed media that he presents, or is it just the result of flawless technique.
Is it a piece of art, a piece of work, or a work of art?
Well, I am afraid that for me, there is, and shouldn’t be a clear-cut definition. By claiming that something is not art, one implies a knowledge of what is art, making the concept finite, with neat borders that can not be crossed. Painting by numbers and numbers of paint. Different pieces and different artists touch different emotions in different people. I have been in exhibitions where a person is exclaiming ‘how is this art?’ when her friend next to her was moved to tears.
So, in this case I will not make a decision if this is art or not; that is for you to decide. My personal view is that this is a show that if you have the chance to see, then see it. Pop inside, explore the rooms, and see how the work makes you feel. I found it powerful, and a bit sad; i found Woman with Sticks extremely interesting, and very touching; the exhibition had an underlining commentary, that even though it was obvious in its messages, it delivered them loud and clear. Is this art? Only time will tell.