The special-effects branch of the film industry has been working its way toward verisimilitude for a long time. The latest obstacle—where the acting troupes of simulacra have been waylaid—is the Uncanny Valley. In their efforts to deceive us, they’ve hit a snag: like dogs barking at the Terminator, we can smell when they’re faking humans. And when we’re given something that’s almost convincingly human but just isn’t quite right, we get to feeling uncomfortable.
The Australian-born artist Ron Mueck has occupied the Uncanny Valley—that lapse just short of believable humanity—and made it his artistic stomping ground. With a background in advertising and film—including work on Jim Henson’s Labyrinth —he has embraced a craft increasingly bypassed by the industry, and uses it to astonishing effect. So while film increasingly shies away from modelling in any material other than ones and zeroes, Mueck makes uncannily lifelike mannequins and dresses them in isolation, unease and otherness.
His disembodied ‘Head of a Baby’ would be a perfect imitation were it not for the controlled, critically appraising look with which it challenges the viewer. ‘Dead Dad’ is a hyper-realistic recreation of grief—the artist’s father is presented unflinchingly, prostrate on the ground, naked, his body apparently hardening with death. ‘Boy’ crouches, wearing only shorts, his arms partially obscuring his face, seeming to exist on a quite different plane from the audience. And he does, because they are barely the height of his calves: even crouching, ‘Boy’ nearly touches the ceiling. ‘Dead Dad’ is only two-thirds size. ‘Head of a Baby’ might derive the confidence of its gaze from being more than two metres in width.
Unfortunately, reproduction in a book largely robs the works of their sometimes surprising scale. Mueck’s neurotic attention to detail is so absolute that photographs betray little indication of size: the viewer cannot be dwarfed or amplified by the encounter.
However, the final section of the book—which documents the process in a series of studio photographs—shows Mueck and his assistants interacting with their oddly proportioned progeny; and these make up some of the more striking images in an already compelling collection. Even this glimpse into the mechanics of Mueck’s creations—a mould hung with a silicone mask; or a figure waiting for hairs to be punched into it—emphasises the vividness of the completed works.
Alan Trotter is a writer with words for sale