It doesn’t matter if you’re getting an early train when the destination is Paris in the springtime. In fact, to quote Cole Porter – and why ever wouldn’t you? I love Paris in the springtime.
But this was no mere blossom-spotting tour of the City of Light. Instead, a trip to that evergreen art space the Fondation Cartier, it of the glass walls and the demure garden, just beginning to spring this week. As with any serious artistic treatise, we’re interested on what’s on the inside, though.
And that was a show by Australian-born, London-based sculptor Ron Mueck. The man who you’ll probably know for his hyper-realistic human studies that often incorporate a lot of pale flesh, a lot of hair, a lot of unstinting humanity, such as the supersized self-portrait “Mask II”.
For this eponymous show, Mueck made three new works. Only three? He’s a famously deliberate, relatively unprolific artist, is Mueck. He produces his sculptures from clay and casts by hand, with maybe an assistant or two; a painstaking process in his North London studio.
The three newies were these: “Couple Under an Umbrella”, a giant study of an old couple under a parasol in their swimming costumes. They’re supersized – how big? They’d be 10ft tall if they stood up. These giants have a whole room to themselves, such is their size. And maybe that’s the intention, too – that we don’t look anywhere else.
Scale is one of Mueck’s interests, one of his motifs, one of his tricks: are those huge feet? Why is the wife’s wedding ring so small? Where’s the sand, too? These guys are having a bit of a miserable holiday by the look of it. Are they relaxing or are they simply exhausted? It looks like a parasol they shade under but maybe it’s just an umbrella.
Then there’s the equally no-nonsense “Woman With Shopping”, a small mother, a bit sad-looking, too – or just tired again; with an infant stuffed under her tweed coat. She’s been to Sainsbury’s for some tea and beans and basics in bags that are bulging with the weight of the tins and boxes and she’s struggling under the weight of drudgery. She’s so real, this woman. You’ll see a dozen similar portraits on the streets of London but less in this, the Fondation Cartier’s smart part of Paris.
“Young Couple” are just that, dressed in standard urban leisurewear and have a secret, I think. What’s going on behind them? He’s got her by the wrist. His knuckles are white with the effort; he’s not letting go. What’s happened to them? What’s going to?
The rest of Mueck’s work here – it’s a minor survey show of nine very good pieces – look a little alike because they’re people with detail; you’re tempted to fill in their biographies and tell your fellow visitors what might happen next. They’re full of life and doubt and a bit of pain, too. They’re just human, after all.
They’re not mirrors, though, these sculptures. Not just because our prone sunbather (“Drift” 2009) is slightly too long of limb or because he apes the pose of crucifixion, up there on his lilo, adrift in the limitless blue. Or because “Man In A Boat” seems like a naked straggler or a sad survivor of a tragedy. Or because “Youth” is so vulnerable as he lifts his T-shirt to inspect the fresh and bloody wound that seems to have surprised him.. Or because it seems to mimic an altarpiece exactly, seems to be the wound that Christ told Doubting Thomas to touch in order to test his faith. The same wound that Caravaggio painted so perfectly in 1602.
They’re not mirrors because we can’t quite handle that these small horrors, these lonelinesses and crosses to bear, could be all about us.
In fact, there’s a tenderness and celebration of human frailty in the thin skin and spooky lifelikeness of Mueck’s muses that send a shiver of recognition up the spine. Lucky it’s springtime outside.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle.