'Ron Muecks sculpture explains why man has felt the need to invent the idea of the soul'
(C. Raine, 'The Body Beautiful' in The Guardian, 12 August 2006).
The very first work in Ron Mueck's catalogued oeuvre, Big Baby astounds first with its dramatically enlarged scale, which brings an immediately de-stabilising physical presence, and then with its extraordinary attention to hyper-real detail. Immaculately crafted, every inch of the enlarged limbs and features completely convince the onlooker that this could be a real being: the delicate vertebra that carve its tender back, the rubbery feet adorned with gigantic toes, the soft tufts of seemingly real baby's hair and of course, the bright eyes that invite the onlooker with wonderment. Wide-eyed and rosy cheeked, the baby gazes out across the room with a sense of amazement. Captivated by the child, the onlooker expects to see a chubby hand gestured, or drops of saliva pool on the plump lower lip. Instead the baby remains still, captured as if in a frozen moment before it calls for its mother or considers raising tears to its big blue eyes. From a distance, Big Baby appears vulnerable; a small being, isolated and innocent, sitting with all its tiny fingers and toes curled into clammy fists on the gallery floor, waiting to be nurtured, coddled and scooped up into protective arms. Upon closer inspection however, the infant defies its appearances. Scaled close to a meter in each dimension, its size is unexpected and its solitude no longer so alarming. Through some technical incantation, Mueck has instilled a peculiar self-awareness in the child. Rather than naïve, Big Baby appears wise of the vagaries and obstacles its life is destined for, something of the enlightened infant depicted in the fifteenth century religious tribute to the Virgin and Child by Lorenzo Costa and Gian Francesco Maineri. In Big Baby, the artist has realised a sculpture that both celebrates its form and defies its facture. Where one might expect to feel the warmth of downy, soft skin or smell the traces of talcum powder, there is the reality of synthetic mixed media, artfully crafted into a life-like being.
In painstakingly attending to each fine detail of the human form, Mueck joins the stable of so-called hyperrealist sculptors such as Duane Hanson and Charles Ray. Whilst Hanson focuses on the mundane aspects of daily life and Ray entertains a cold, dissociated rendition of the modern family, Mueck achieves something special, translated through the perfected gaze of his Big Baby. It marks the first in a series of three unique babies including Big Baby II (1997), Caldic Collectie, Rotterdam and Big Baby III (1997), Stefan T. Edlis Collection, Chicago, each appearing like siblings of the original. The eyes are the very last feature that Mueck attends to in creating his sculpture. The artist builds up carefully the layers of the eye, from transparent lens to coloured iris, to dark pupil. Whereas a waxwork projects a glassy stare, Mueck's sculptures offer an uncanny sense of inner being. This spirit is what differentiates Mueck from his peers. Whilst others seek to explore irony in their strategies of realism, Mueck's verisimilitude has a unique sincerity, seeking to provide emotional portraits that provoke memories of childhood, parenthood, aging and the death of a loved one.
'Watching a baby become aware of the separateness of its body from the world and the people about it is a joy mixed with melancholy - joy that a new individual has entered the world, but melancholy that the process of individuation destines it to be alone, in the sense of being a separate consciousness, for the rest of its life'
(K. Hartley, Ron Mueck, Edinburgh 2006, pp. 8-9).
Executed in 1996, Big Baby marks the year that Ron Mueck first rose to prominence as an artist. Collaborating with his mother-in-law, the celebrated British painter Paula Rego, Mueck completed a sculpture of Pinocchio to accompany a room of her giant canvases exhibited at the Spellbound: Art and Film exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. Instead of a puppet, Mueck created a flawless boy that attracted the attention of the discerning Saatchi collection that went on to acquire much of Mueck's early oeuvre. Later in 1997, Mueck's Dead Dad (1996) became the first of his hyper-real maquettes to be officially exhibited, taking part in the pioneering show Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy. Big Baby and Dead Dad, both created in 1996, mark the full spectrum of the human life cycle, skillfully provoking a range of emotions from its viewers: sorrow, desolation, vulnerability and hope. In Dead Dad, Mueck crafts a sculptural farewell to his dead father and is remarkably successful at suggesting death, as if the viewer is looking at a corpse. In Big Baby, Mueck is equally skilled at animating life. The artist's approach to creating sculpture is unique in its singular attention to detail. The resulting figures do not represent the idealised body but odd, awkward and deeply mortal flesh, offered up with barefaced honesty. Their final forms are either exaggerated or minimised according to the subject, but rarely life-size. As Susanna Greeves has pointed out,'small objects have been traditionally associated with the precious and delicate, reserved for careful and private handling. The monumental by contrast has been associated with power and status. Mueck playfully subverts these preconceptions' ('Ron Mueck - A Redefinition of Realism', H. Bastian (ed.), Ron Mueck, Ostfildern-Ruit 2005).
Through a combination of its shrunken body and solitude, Dead Dad fosters empathy, tenderness and curiosity. As the artist himself once said: 'I didn't really get on with my father but, as I made the piece, I found myself thinking about him, caring' (Ibid.). Big Baby by contrast, with its gigantic form, juxtaposes the natural concerns of parenthood with the sense of this baby's surprising independence and self-awareness. As Keith Hartley has so aptly pointed out, 'watching a baby become aware of the separateness of its body from the world and the people about it is a joy mixed with melancholy - joy that a new individual has entered the world, but melancholy that the process of individuation destines it to be alone, in the sense of being a separate consciousness, for the rest of its life' (K. Hartley, Ron Mueck, Edinburgh 2006, p. 8-9). Mueck's Big Baby appears already struck by the realities of the world, reminiscent of the confident and expectant Christ Child depicted in Lorenzo Costa and Gian Francesco Maineri's altarpiece, The Virgin and Child with Saints (1499). Standing unsupported by his mother, Christ appears composed and collected, aware of his destiny; something of this spirit inhabits Big Baby.
Big Baby is a remarkable example of Ron Mueck's technical mastery. Through his process of creation, he provides an illusion of life that is both rewarding and perplexing. The desire is to reach out and touch the crouched child with its flushed baby skin, to corroborate the warmth and life that our eyes tell us. In spite of our understanding that the baby is inanimate, a creeping suspicion enters our mind. Turning our backs we almost expect to catch the glimpse of a gurgle or the unfurling of a finger. It is an artful deception that plays upon our fascination with the human figure, recalling the story of Ovid's Pygmalion and the longing to infuse a work of art with life. KA