The purpose of a themed exhibition should be to provoke a different understanding of said theme. Yet in squaring off London-based hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck and Berlin-based video artist Guy Ben-Ner, curator Jonathan Shaughnessy does not necessarily expand our perception of what constitutes his titular “Real Life.” Nevertheless, the contrast between Mueck and Ben-Ner does prompt questions about the ideal of the real in contemporary art.
Image credit: Ron Mueck A Girl 2006
Photo credit and copyright: National Gallery of Canada
In the main gallery, Mueck’s 17-foot-long figure A Girl lies frozen and alone, her giant baby fists clenched and her enormous newborn eyes struggling to open for the first time. Known for using scale to distort viewer perception of his subjects, Mueck crafts his sculptures out of proportion in order to elicit a psychological presence of frailty or dominance.
Demonstrating the monstrosity of birth and the beginning of life with A Girl, Mueck’s exaggeration of size and life situation swings to the other end of the spectrum with Old Woman in Bed, a diminutive sculpture (less than a foot in length) of an old woman nearing the end of her days. Situated in the room next to A Girl, the woman is seemingly curled up asleep underneath a swath of blankets. But upon closer viewing, her eyes and mouth are half-open, with heavy lids barely able to blink and thin lips parted as if taking a last gasp.
Paired head-to-head, it seems almost reductive to render death as diminishing and birth as colossal. And for all his visual realism and attention to surface detail, Mueck’s subjects are not about the realistic portrayal of life and death; rather, they address mortality through the rendering of the face and body—inspiring humanity rather than recreating it. Hyperreality, here and elsewhere, in fact reaffirms the power of the false, just as to appear real primarily asserts the power of apparition. Mueck’s sculptures are, ultimately, haunting in the way that they estrange us from the monumental and minute moments of real, everyday life and death.
The theme of real life is equally questionable in Ben-Ner’s video works, but in a wholly different manner.
Image credit: Guy Ben-Ner Stealing Beauty 2007
Shooting candidly in several Ikea stores over the course of two years and various countries, Ben-Ner and family created Stealing Beauty. It’s a satirical narrative framed as a television sitcom, one structured on the loose plotline of young Amir caught stealing at school. Ben-Ner’s directions to his kids and wife were edited into subtitles during post-production, and the artist also chose to include moments of the public finding his hidden cameras.
The discontinuity in Stealing Beauty is heightened by editing the same scene’s dialogue across many different Ikea showrooms, a move that goes beyond simple sleuth-style artmaking. Because Ben-Ner underlines the construction process behind the work, his piece ceases to be about real life. (Notably, his sound choices include the clanking of invisible dishes and the turning on and off of unplumbed showroom water faucets.)
As demonstrated in past works like Treehouse Kit, Ben-Ner is a master of playing the straight man in his own world of make-believe. Both then and now, his works mainly serve to exacerbate the absurdities of our everyday realities, rather than reflect them accurately.
*First published online at Canadian Art