Representing reality

Ron Mueck and Guy Ben-Ner give us hyper-real and childlike imagination

If according to John Lennon “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” then the occasional reminder to pay attention to life’s less-considered aspects might not be such a bad thing.

“Real Life” an exhibition of works by artists Ron Mueck and Guy Ben-Ner does just that: prompting a closer consideration of the intimate and universal aspects of daily life. Both Mueck and Ben-Ner have been gaining increasing international attention and this touring exhibition brings together a selection of works recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada.

We currently inhabit a media-scape that provides endless simulations of real life through conduits like reality TV Second Life and online social communities. While London-based artist Mueck’s incredibly lifelike sculptures follow in this same vein they are nonetheless effective portrayals of the human body in all of its messy vulnerable and fragile states. His three works A Girl Head of a Baby and Old Woman in Bed all address what could be considered quintessential defining moments in life: birth death infancy old age. In these works real life is found in the moments of culmination transition and change common to all humans.

Rather than straight-up simulation however the Australian-born Mueck uses distortions of scale to bring these moments to the forefront. A baby the size of a beluga and an old lady the size of a mouse evoke heightened feelings of awe or sympathy. Much of the effect of Mueck’s sculptures hinges on their hyperrealism and his meticulous re-creation of the textures and colours of skin pores wrinkles hair nails and teeth.

With a background as a puppeteer and model-maker (he worked on Jim Henson’s Labyrinth ) Mueck’s sculptures use this special effects training to convincingly render human forms. Because of this realism we are able to connect with these figures on a level beyond mere marvel or specimen — they appear to be made of the same stuff we are.

The idea of real life also brings to mind the sometimes mundane experience of day-to-day existence the chores and tasks we do to keep our lives running smoothly and the activities that clearly separate us from the realm of fantasy or fiction. Berlin-based artist Guy Ben-Ner draws from these aspects of real life and uses domestic environments and family life as the starting point for his work. Israel-born Ben-Ner has made several video works using his children as collaborators and often uses his own home as the setting

Stealing Beauty from 2007 sees Ben-Ner along with his wife and two children using a hidden camera to infiltrate IKEA display rooms to shoot the scenes of a sitcom-style narrative. The video follows the family into at least a dozen different rooms as they work their way through a script that discusses issues of private property ownership and family relations. Were it not for the constantly revolving backdrop of artfully designed Swedish furniture and handy home accessories (complete with price tags) with shoppers wandering in front of the camera it might be possible to imagine the scenes being filmed in a real home.

Stealing Beauty plays with the underlying purpose of the display rooms as sites where potential customers can “test drive” particular room designs. If the idea of these spaces is to “make yourself at home” then Ben-Ner does just that stretching the boundaries between public and private fantasy and reality. Simulated rooms provide the backdrop for simulated conversations and offer reinterpretations of idealized domestic space. The father acts as though his children should be dealt with as consumers. “There should be no negotiation here only a strong hand” he says.

Ultimately Ben-Ner’s children rebel against consumer society and the tyranny of grown-ups penning a manifesto that proclaims: “Property is like a ghost. You cannot possess it without being possessed by it.”

Ben-Ner further teases apart the IKEA-dream in Treehouse Kit an earlier work from 2005. Treehouse includes a sculpture of a tree made from dismantled furniture parts and a corresponding video showing Ben-Ner as a bearded castaway harvesting the tree’s parts to build his own set of furniture. The very appeal of assemble-it-yourself furniture is made clear: It allows us to temporarily act as scavenger or provider and to engage in a seemingly authentic process of construction.

Where Mueck’s work relies on accurate and hyper-realistic representations Ben-Ner instead uses hidden cameras and low-budget slapstick effects. Stealing Home ’s deliberate “low-budget” esthetic is reminiscent of reality-TV camera work (where the intentionally jerky or out-of-focus view highlights the “real-ness” of a particular show) — it is a key part of the work’s charm. His use of homemade or borrowed props reveals a DIY approach not unlike the tricks and tools used by children playing dress-up where a cardboard box is effortlessly repurposed into a castle. It is through these simple acts of imagination and repurposing that Ben-Ner invites the viewer to suspend disbelief and play along.

If Ben-Ner intentionally reveals his methods of making and revels in simple constructions Mueck instead presents seamlessly crafted objects that disguise any mark of their making. For both artists technique and craftsmanship are very much a part of reading and understanding the work. The exhibition also includes a documentary video about Mueck’s process and sketches and maquettes from both artists. While the inclusion of these materials in some ways uncovers “the man behind the curtain” it also fully grounds the works in reality allowing a view into the processes behind their creation.

With so many alternate and constructed versions of reality now available to us the question becomes: What is left that is genuine direct legitimate or unmediated? The works in this exhibition point to instances where “real” life might actually be happening and where we can directly engage with the sensations and experiences of being in the world. These works suggest that real life can be found in moments that are mundane routine unscripted and in moments of culmination drama and transition. Life might indeed be what’s happening while we are busy making other plans but it is still in the details of all that we do.