Friday, 20 April 2012
A six foot chicken hangs upside down from the ceiling by a meat hook. Its throat has been cut and it's body plucked of feathers. It's bald flightless wings hang morbidly at 90 degrees, mimicking the effects of gravity upon it's tragic frame. The opening between its legs, through which it's innards have been pulled, falls slackly open, speaking mutely and eloquently of its vulnerability and the indignity of its end. Tufty white hairs form a ruff around its scrawny neck, like the wayward stubble of a bent old man unaware that he can no longer see clearly enough to shave himself clean.
Ron Mueck has titled this piece Still Life and in so doing has relieved the viewer of any ambiguity that might have remained as to the issue he is addressing with his gargantuan dead bird.
Mueck is speaking to us on the theme all artists eventually come around to speaking to us on, the theme that in many ways lies at the heart of life and art and everything we are. Mueck is speaking to us about death. Still Life is the classic momento mori.
The instruction to the viewer to contemplate our own imminent and inevitable death is the same one that invites us to investigate what our lives might be about. It is the trope that Hirst engages in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Only Hirst does it much better.
The problem with Still Life is it isn't credible. The viewer can't possibly believe this chicken ever lived. For one thing it's 6ft tall. 6ft is a common height for a human being, not for a chicken. Once again Mueck is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. It's about us. We get it. Thank you.
For another thing its skin is shiny. Shiny like a cheap special effect, not shiny like a greasy carcass. The object looks the way you might expect a ginormous dead chicken to look if it were preparing to appear in pantomime, not the way you might expect a ginormous dead chicken to look if it were preparing to appear in the lexicon of art history. Which might sound petty, but the point is, if we're to contemplate death it is crucial we're able to believe that life prefigured it. Otherwise the whole thing becomes meaningless theatrics. What is death without life? Which point Hirst understood and played on to such profound effect. The shark looks uncannily life-like. Even hanging in a glass box in an ocean of chemical stabiliser we feel the life it once owned. Call it skill if you will.
Three other works join the chicken to make up Mueck's first solo show with Hauser & Wirth and his first major solo presentation in London for over a decade. A smaller than life-sized, naked, middle-aged woman struggles to carry a bail of twigs far too large for her to reasonably manage. She bends backwards almost to breaking point in her battle to keep the thing aloft. The wood that makes fire that sustains life also threatens to expunge it. Somehow Mueck manages to take an archetype and make of it a cliché and a self-pitying cliché at that. My feminist sensibilities bristled. So too did my existential ones.
And Drift, again a smaller than life-sized depiction, this time of the sort of fellow who wears Vilebrequins and Raybans and drifts about a swimming pool on a lime green lilo. The sort of fellow who can't sit still for a moment and who will, at any second, be laughing too loudly into his Blackberry, even as he relaxes in the pool.
But here he is, pinned to the wall, immobilised, stranded forever in his own private hell with, ironically, only his own demise to think about. He's alive, but in so many ways he's deader even than the chicken.
Hauser & Wirth
Savile Row South Gallery
19 April to 26 May
Written for Spoonfed