If you live in Houston you must have already visited or known someone who visited the Ron Mueck exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Filled with ultra lifelike figures at surreal scale, it is quite sensational.
Along with the rest of the staff I visited the exhibit as part of an enrichment outing thanks to the largesse of our president John Graham. Like so many others I was blown away by the realistic details of the works. But moving through the exhibit I started to feel something else slowly building in my solar plexus, expanding from my chest, washing through my being and finally breaking out as goosebumps all over- an existential awe at the immensity of the human experience.
The term spirituality covers a vast array of topics because by definition spirituality gets at the very essence of humanness and encompasses all that we do, and are. I certainly perceived this exhibit through that existential-spiritual lens. A lot of art has been created around the topics touched on by Mueck but his particular expression is at once familiar and yet entirely new. In the introductory plaque, the works are described as illustrating “the artist’s ongoing investigation of the cycle of life, from the first moment of consciousness, to love between both the young and the old, and ultimately to oblivion.” This is an extraordinarily accurate summary. Three themes in particular stuck out to me.
The first and most salient theme was the sense of the lifespan as a journey. The newborn, depicted twice; lying on top of the mother and the larger than life version signals the beginning of the journey and the depictions of the elderly bookmark the tail end of the trip. The effect of such realism contrasted with the unnatural sizes of the subjects compelled me to sink into a much more contemplative examination of each piece. In that headspace, the mundane miracle of these everyday moments/states became almost overwhelming. The old lady sitting and staring into the distance spoke volumes to me of a life hard-lived, her faded fabrics and tired gaze a hymn of the inevitability of struggle and the wear and tear the years bring.
But the artist does more than just depict the chronological order of things. The second theme that took form in my mind was communicated most viscerally by two particular works next to each other. The first was a man in a boat, naked, small(half-scale) and alone with an uncertain expression on his face. He embodied the ultimate solitude of each person’s journey. I felt the sheer lonesomeness of person-hood in the face of the vast unknown. I was reminded that none of us really knows for sure what any of this is. The nakedness of the man called up the raw vulnerability of humanity in the face of this primal uncertainty. When I glanced off to the side, I noticed a display that appeared to be a baby bundled up in a heap of blankets, stepping closer to inspect it I was intrigued to realize it was an adult male at the scale of a little child dozing peacefully nestled in a fortress of comforting layers. Seeing this piece side by side with the man in the boat, I was struck by the contrast and pondered the meaning. Perhaps our beliefs about the world, drawn from religion, philosophy, science or culture, perhaps they provide the warm protection represented by the blankets. However, there was more to this theme of uncertainty versus security, I found it curious that the man wrapped in the blankets was fast asleep while the one in the boat was wide-awake and engaged, albeit anxiously, with his experience. Thoughts of consciousness, spiritual seeking versus blissful ignorance fleeted through my mind.
Beyond the comfortable warmth of beliefs versus the naked cold of uncertainty, the theme of connection was also prevalent throughout the exhibition-connection between mother and child, and connection between lovers. The first of the lover-themed displays depicts a young couple still new to this sense of intimacy with the other. They lean in towards each other, the girl, eyes averted, the boy, a little intense and grabbing the girl by her wrist. The body language indicated to me a certain anxiety about the bond reflected in the girl’s averted gaze and in the grasping nature of the boy’s hold. They react in different ways but both are a reflection of the anxiety and insecurity so typical of young adulthood.The second couple display, on the other hand, was a meditation on the comfort and trust that is possible after presumably a lifetime of bonding. The man casually rests his head on the woman, hand wrapped around her arm and looks off into the distance while the lady stares down at him. The easy companionship appears more tangible and easier to absorb than either the lonely man in the boat or the sleeping man in a bundle.
The final meaning-tapestry woven by my impressions can be described thus; we are born, a miracle in and of itself, into a mysterious unfathomable experience. At various times, we feel the stark uncertainty of the journey and at other times we are blissfully asleep to all that existential wilderness but either way while on the trip we encounter the other. And this offers some deeper form of meaning and perhaps, might even be the point of it all.