Skull and bones: Ron Mueck's outsized installation gets under the skin

Sculptor embraces the unambiguous and unsettling skull motif in his world premiere installation for the NGV Triennial

If there’s one immediate theme of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial exhibition, it’s an arresting exploration into the symbolic power of spatial relationships. It’s an appropriate concern to exhibit within the NGV International building.

The visage of the NGV’s vast, flat-walled fortress rises from a dark corner of prosperous St Kilda Road, hoarding its treasury of precious objects as the visible corner of a triangle unites the green, organic expanse of the Botanical Gardens with the cold, pale bones of the War Memorial ahead.

There’s more than a little symbolic consideration within the Triennial of how artistic intrusion into the creation of spaces can spawn new worlds, and how moving through the rooms created by artists can be an experience of both transformed perspectives and cultural instruction.

There’s always been something Tardis-like to the layout of the NGV’s wings, multiple floors and unexpected corridors, and its spatial playfulness is well indulged by Triennial work. Shilpa Gupta and Pae White’s untitled installations, and Yayoi Kasama’s Flower Obsession, alternatively allow viewers to be absorbed into a sonic immersion, find themselves lost in a sudden wilderness of tricks with line perspective or become part of an artwork they’re empowered to cover in flowers.

Reclining in the entrance hall is Xu Chen’s giant figure of an iconic sleeping Buddha. The sleeping godhead’s potential to recontextualise an artistic gallery as a recognisably religious one is frustrated by the presence of figurative sculptures styled from the western classical canon, who perch and pose on Buddha’s limbs. The questions provoked: is the Buddha a dream of the western canon, is classicism a dream of the Buddha, or does the juxtaposition of two aesthetic traditions harmonising within a gallery space speak to a dream from the artist or the viewers?

It’s an appropriate visual welcome to an exhibition of 100 international artists, drawn from across diverse forms of artistic practice as well as identity, nationhoods, generations and experience. Yet the centrepiece of the exhibition, Mass, created by Australian/UK artist Ron Mueck, provides a staggering, simple, brilliant symbolic unification of the common humanity contained within.

The artist, known for his hyper-real sculptural techniques, has created 100 precise, outsized replications of human skulls. A pile of these are “massed” in a room within the NGV’s heritage wing – their chalky, jawless bones gathered beside 18th century oil paintings that depict bewigged, white European people, represented at the height of their power and prestige. A portrait of the feted castrato, Farinelli. A painting by Tiepolo.

Mueck’s inspiration for the work was a personal reverence for the visual unambiguousness of the skull. “The sight of a skull grabs us at an unconscious level,” he says. “Even as children we know what it is, what it means. It attracts and repels simultaneously. In archeology, forensics or investigative journalism, the image of a group of skulls begins to suggest a story. Often an unsettling one.”

As a contrast to the objects celebrating the vanity of the imperial cultures that sit around them, the skulls radiate a potent narrative for their Melbourne context. The NGV may be a bone-house of western treasures but it squats on the land of an Aboriginal genocide. The catalogue notes remind us that Australia houses the world’s second largest proportional population of Jewish Holocaust survivors, as well as a considerable refugee population from the genocide in Cambodia.

NGV director Tony Ellwood has identified that a repeating subject within the Triennial is “the movement of people across borders”, which he says is “the defining issue of our times”.

Mueck’s Mass reminds the viewer that multiculturalism itself is created by forces of dispossession, resettlement and exile, and the wealth required to afford the self-flattery of 18th century portraiture was won by a colonial project of brutal expansionism that birthed a legacy of bone-piles throughout the world.

It is a devastating artwork – monumental and polyphonic. In a Triennial of so many engaging and interesting contributions, Mass poses the harshest questions of the politics of the very notion of a gallery space in itself.

The skulls offer a question implicit – and so often unacknowledged – within every collection of precious, guarded things: what terrible thing has happened here?. It’s a reminder echoed in full voice by the explicit protest of Triennial artists who have been renaming their artworks “Wilson must go” to protest that the same security service retained to guard the exhibition, Wilson, also provides the guards for Australia’s brutal offshore refugee camps.

Here, in the country that created the camps, the empty eyeholes of Mueck’s skulls face outwards to the oil paintings that surround them, through the bodies of those who view them. “These images can stir fear and sympathy and guilt,” says Mueck of the fleshless, indistinct heads of human dead. “We think of disease, war and atrocity. Of terrible past events and those still to come.”

“In these piles of human remains we recognise ourselves,” he says. “These were people. People like us. They are us.”


Van Badham

The GuardianTramp

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