An image of Old woman in bed

Ron Mueck

(Australia, England 1958 – )

Old woman in bed

Not on display
Further information

Encountering Ron Mueck’s sculptures is like suddenly being in a contemporary version of ‘Gulliver’s travels’: everything looks real and familiar but the scale is wrong. Giant boys and pregnant women tower over us, small men row boats and lie dead, a swaddled baby is shrunk to miniature size. In ‘Old woman in bed’ a frail elderly woman lies under a blanket on a gallery plinth, her small scale increasing her vulnerability as we loom over her. This is one of Mueck’s most poignant works: the woman seems only to have a tenuous hold on life as she shrinks from this world into whatever comes next. It is imbued with the pathos of our own experiences of the death of elderly friends and relatives just as it foretells our own inevitable demise.

As with all of Mueck’s sculpture, this figure is more than life-like. The moist eyes, veins just below the skin and flushed cheeks all add up to an near palpable sense of life, or in this work of life ebbing. We almost expect to hear a rattling breath as we look at the work for signs of the life that is about to end. The realism of his sculptures is like a series of three-dimensional freeze frames taken from the world, life momentarily paused but still fully evident. This filmic metaphor is not inappropriate as Mueck has worked as a modelmaker for television and film. While we know these people are sculptures, it is almost impossible not to touch them to make sure that they are indeed not real. Mueck’s deployment of scale distances this realism just as it entices us by the sense of wonder it evokes. The expressions of his sculptural subjects are subtly exaggerated to increase their emotional impact; indeed their heightened emotional and psychological states and the response this triggers in the viewer is the subject of Mueck’s art rather than their extraordinary verisimilitude. His figures are almost always alone and there is a strong sense of isolation and vulnerability to many of his works.

Mueck’s realism is perhaps sculpture’s riposte to the virtual reality that digital technologies have made possible. Filmic and digital photographic recreations of past worlds, mythical places and future possibilities have stretched the real in so many directions as to make it no longer a viable visual category. There is no digital sleight of hand to Mueck’s work, however, as he makes his sculptures traditionally, applying clay to a framework, modelling the figure until he has the form to create a mould and then casting the final work. It is a labour-intensive and highly skilled process. The resulting works seem to have the weight of the history of sculptural realism behind them, just as they seem to mark its end by leaving it with nowhere further to go.

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006

Mixed media
mixed media
25.4 x 94.0 x 53.9 cm
Signature & date

Not signed. Not dated.

Purchased 2003
Accession number
© Ron Mueck, courtesy Anthony D'Offay Gallery