|Photo Mike Bruce|
Woman with Sticks is a pared down version of a fleshy, naked, middle-aged woman, about half life-size. She’s bent backwards, struggling to keep hold of a bundle of bristling sticks which spike out in all directions. You certainly wouldn’t want to get in her way. Lay your head on your right shoulder and you can look straight into her eyes, She’s not unfriendly, but she’s giving nothing away. You marvel at the technical perfection. Her hair and skin, her toenails, her red roughened elbows, muscles, tendons, a hint of blue veins are rendered perfectly.
She’s certainly a surprise. We’ve all seen middle aged ladies and bundles of wood and nakedness – but not all together. Why is she on her own? No helping hand from child or neighbour. Where is she going? To light a fire, fuel a furnace, sweep a ballroom floor? Is she a woodcutter’s wife from a fairy tale or a symbol of women of a certain age who struggle through life when they can no longer make men’s hearts beat faster? Perhaps she's political, designed to remind us how women (and children) are exploited in the workplace.
I first saw Mueck’s work at the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997. Like many other people I was bowled over by Dead Dad, a 3ft long sculpture of the artist’s father, a man undoubtedly dead, not sleeping, stretched out on a plinth which was also a tomb. I know that no work of art can claim attention solely on the feelings it arouses. Feelings come and go. But this was a poignant image, made stronger by the fact that it was child-sized. I was moved by the figure’s helplessness, his vulnerability, how his unique repertoire of memories, skills, knowledge, ways of speaking and dressing and laughing had all been emptied out.
Muek's critics say that 'soul' is missing; that we marvel at his precision but then can only stand and stare. I don't think that was true of Dead Dad, an intimate, haunting reminder of death and of our own mortality. It's one son's unfinished conversation with the father with whom, he says, 'he didn't get on'.
All Mueck's work tries to get round 'the deadening effect of habit'. Viktor Shklovsky in a famous essay of 1917 declared that that is the essential purpose of art.
Habituation devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.
(Quoted in David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction).
Captain Spock put it another way. In Startrek he talked of 'life, but not as we know it...'