Ron Mueck and the Narrative of Scale

Ron Mueck is an Australian artist born in 1958 in Melbourne, Australia. After starting out his career as a modelmaker for children’s TV, he became internationally known in 1997 after he made his sculpture of Dead dad. His work focuses singularly on the human figure, which he presents to his viewers through uncanny and beautifully detailed fibreglass and silicon sculptures. These present his perspective on existential topics such as birth and death, touching heavily on vulnerable emotional states experienced during these experiences.

Researching Mueck has been a significant influence on my project, most predominantly in the scaling of my model of Edith Kramer. Originally debating between creating her head bust in full scale or an alternate size, Mueck’s Two Women model’s manipulation of scale pushed me towards undersizing my model.

Ron Mueck’s Two Women showing the under-sizing of the model against a visitor.
Close-up of the Two Women faces.

‘I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day’

S. Tanguy, ‘The progress of Big man: A conversation with Ron Mueck’, Sculpture, vol. 22, no. 6, 2003

Senior Curator of the National Gallery of Victoria, Alex Baker, explains how through manipulating the size of his models, it ‘intensifies the physical and emotional aura of his figures.’ Mueck expands that this is because it ‘makes you take notice in a way that you wouldn’t do with something that’s just normal.’ In the case of the Two Woman, Justin Paton instigates that their diminutive size inspires ‘a kind of protectiveness in viewers, as if we’ve become custodians looking down upon the inhabitants of a small world’ (2013, pg. 34). At the same time, we also feel strangely defensive of ourselves, as the women are positioned in a suspicious pose, as if they are silently judging someone in their presence.

Therefore, despite, or perhaps due to their small size, the Two Women inspire both careful attention and solitude from the viewer, building an emotional narrative. Combined with the realistically finished look, this ‘creates a tension between artifice and reality’ (Baker, A.) that overall, results in this model’s meaning and narrative.

As such, scale can be deemed as noteworthy to the narrative of a model. My representation of Edith Kramer centres around a narrative of quiet significance of a warm and caring woman who has helped many in her life, and afterwards. Thus, under-sizing her just as Mueck did with his figures in Two Women, will help me to frame her importance to the viewer. They will be invited, almost drawn, to a realistic representation of a woman half the size we would expect to find her in, promoting quiet introspection and respect. I almost want the viewer to want to step ever closer to inspect her from up close, letting their imagination participate in an object-subject interaction of curiosity, an imitation of the theories of artistic exploration that Kramer emphasised in her work.


Narratives in Museums – Respect for Authenticity in Realistic Human Recreations

Before continuing, I would like to acknowledge the setting for which I am making my portrait bust of Edith Kramer.

In their collection of essays ‘Museum Materialities’ Sandra Dudley collates different definitions of the object within a museum setting, which all collectively acknowledge the materiality of the museum object. While materiality is, essentially, us and everything around us, within a museum setting this comes down to the physicality of the object, which triggers the viewers sensory experiences, and emotional and cognitive associations (Dudley, 2010, pg. 7).

One of the broad definitions of object materiality presented through Dudley’s collection of essays (2010, pg. 7). An object’s meaning, or ‘materiality’, is constructed both through the object’s sensibilities and the viewer’s interaction with it. Thus, its materiality sits in this in-between state of subjective perception.

This definition of object materiality also insinuates an ‘interaction between [the] inanimate, physical thing and [the] conscious person’ (2010, pg. 5) known as an ‘object-subject interaction’. Through this understanding, I would like to propose the development of a relationship between an object and the viewer, which in a museum setting happens due to the visitor bringing their own frame of reference towards the object. Each viewer will bring their own individualistic frame of reference construed from their own knowledge and life experiences. Thus, an object’s materiality is important to respect as an open-ended question left to be explored by the visitor of the museum.

‘We are material bodies in a material world, and our engagement in the flow of things can only be through our sensory perceptions.’

Susan M. Pearce cited in Dudley, 2010, pg. xix

I wanted to raise the significance of object materiality within a museum setting, as I believe that this unique and intimate relationship creates a narrative that is to be experienced by the museum visitor. As such, they can undergo an emotional and cognitive reaction, leading to educational value, which I can utilise to present the significance of Edith Kramer. This is something that the Madame Tussaud’s museums utilise – they encourage their visitors to physically engage with the exhibits –but which goes beyond just interaction.

It is not only through touch that viewers experience objects – our sight and imagination are just as important tools for engagement. Thus, along with the primary function of being a museum model, I have chosen for this portrait bust of Edith Kramer to be a realistically finished object. In ‘Realisms in Contemporary Culture’ Birke, Butter, and Auer (2013) describe how there is a ‘hunger for ‘the authentic’ in an age saturated by virtual reality, artifice and commodification.’ (pg. 6). The visitor, a likely participator of this ‘contemporary desire for authenticity’ (Birke et al., 2013, pg. 8), will make this a part of their interaction with the object. Consequently, I would like to respect their frame of reference by providing a realistic depiction of the individual I am introducing them to, leading to an authentic narrative.

If realism is the goal though, why am I not using the processes of facial reconstruction? Simply put, I am not interested in presenting an object of identification of Kramer’s features. If the visitor wanted an exact recreation of her image, a video screen could be used by the museum to meet this function. Instead, I am emphasising the narrative of authenticity, by creating a representational object for the viewer to experience. As such, the viewer is introduced to Kramer through the perceptions of the maker (me!), which relates to the work of Kramer within the art therapy field – the focus is as much on the end-product of an artistic creativity, as the process the maker took to get there. Lastly, the material from which it is made (wax) expands on the aspect of authenticity through its natural rawness and history of human usage.

In this way, the viewer is introduced to Edith Kramer through an authentic object-subject interaction, creating a representational function in an open-ended narrative. As she herself was an avid participator of the social realism art movement which aimed to symbolise the importance of others through art, it deepens the narrative through which the viewer learns of Kramer.

My representation of Edith Kramer in oil paints. A study exploring the forms of her face and emotional realism. I found it important to explore her in paint form before moving onto three-dimensional form as it represents Kramer’s ideals of using creativity as a tool for understanding and growth.
Edith Kramer in the foreground, with a portrait of herself in the background.

Broad Thinking Stage – Summary of Initial Design Process

Sticky notes – Starting out designing the fun way.

Doing the research into immersive museums before starting the design process helped me to acknowledge all the different features I would need to consider for the model. Additionally, deciding what were the key benchmarks of the model, really helped structure my design thinking.

I started the design process by thinking broadly about the project. I thought about the different ways I could demonstrate the concept of ammonite buoyancy through an immersive design that would engage the audience in the narrative of the creatures, while increasing information retention.

Some of the first ideas I thought about focused predominantly on portraying the rise and fall of the ammonite as a consequence of their buoyancy system.

In the design to the left, the ammonite is positioned on a rod that would allow it to move up and down, controlled by levers. These are shaped like the helm of a ship to link the design into the narrative of the ammonite being in the sea. The model would have also been housed in a suitcase for easy transportation.

This second idea placed the ammonite behind a curved glass, similar to the ones that can be found in aquariums. This would insinuate the narrative of the creature being a sea animal, while also adding a playful narrative for the visitors who have visited aquariums beforehand. It would give context to the ammonite.

There would be a lever to the side of the model – turning it would move the ammonite up and down.

London SeaLife aquarium display featuring curved glass.

This design is based on one of the first models I made during the course – a simple wooden mechanism with a lever and two interacting elements. As you turn the lever, the two components interact and vertical movement is created.

I could use this design in my model to move the ammonite up and down.

I found that the lever was too constricting and would not have been engaging enough for the audience, so I began thinking about other ways that I could instigate movement in my model. It is at this point that I thought about putting the ammonite on a spring, which has a natural up and down movement.

I really liked the idea of the spring but started wondering how I would use the spring to create the vertical movement, such as by putting in extra weight to make the ammonite sink, and taking the weight away to make it rise. This is very similar to how ammonites controlled their buoyancy – they had natural chambers inside their shells which they filled with water.

I could simulate this extra weight through puzzle pieces that would slot into these chambers. If the ammonite was also on a spring, adding the additional weight would naturally bring the ammonite down, while taking the puzzle piece out would let it rise.

I was really intrigued by the idea of the puzzle pieces and the spring, which I decided to explore in more detail. I did this by creating a physical maquette of the idea out of grey board. This helped me to see the idea from a new perspective, and I realised it was very static. The puzzle pieces were to represent water, but the way the ammonite filled in their chambers was more fluid than the motion of slotting in puzzle pieces.

Greyboard maquette demonstrating how the shell would be split up into chambers. These would then have corresponding puzzle pieces that could be slotted into the chambers

With this in mind, I created a second physical maquette to explore how I could demonstrate how ammonite chambers filled up with more fluidity. I thought about having a mechanism that pushed material into the shell. In the image below, water is represented by the yellow paper balls, and I am pushing these further into the shell. I liked how this idea was more accurate to how the bouyancy system actually functions inside the ammonite shells. Please see below for three movement progress shots. For the full video demonstrating this please click here.

Image 1 – Material loose in the shell

Image 2 – Starting to push more material in
Image 3 – Material pushed in the furthest.

At this point I realised I became too engrossed with the puzzle piece idea and that I didn’t think broadly enough at the beginning. I wanted to avoid narrow design thinking which could potentially ignore crucial elements of the model that could make it more engaging and effective for the audience. Therefore, I went back and began thinking about other ways I could portray the buoyancy concept for The Etches Collection. Please see below for a collection of the sketches from this design stage.

During this broad design stage, I considered some very different ways I could explore the interactive elements of the model. For instance, I thought about creating a wearable model, such as a hat where the model would hang on a spring. I also considered creating a massive chair shaped like an ammonite, which would be situated on a movable platform. As more people sat on the ammonite chair, the platform and the chair would go down and vice versa.

I played around with some more abstract ideas involving scales and very simplified shapes. With these I wanted to focus purely on the buoyancy concept and tried to portray in the simplest ways possible. I was inspired by the experiment developed by Earthlearningidea. They used a water bottle and a testing tube to demonstrate how ammonites used to control their density and how this affected their buoyancy. These designs ensured that the concept was simpler to understand, however it got rid of a lot of the narrative that was part of the engagement of the model.

Moreover, I also looked into a game concept. I wanted to focus more on the narrative of the ammonite, specifically as to why they had to evolve a buoyancy system. To survive, the ammonites would have had to do two things – get food and escape from predators. Therefore, they needed a system that would let them move in the water, and as they did not have flippers, they developed this buoyancy system. To capitalise on that, I thought about framing my model around the idea of a game visitors could play. The ammonite would be attached to a fixed path, and the visitors would control how fast and how far the creature moves along this path. They would do this in order to help the ammonite get to food, or escape from predators.

In summary, this initial design process has emphasised the importance of engagement and narrative for me. It has helped me realise that there are many ways that this model could portray the concept of ammonite buoyancy, and it depends on the context of the exhibition which would be best. Overall, it has helped me to understand what elements I would like to focus on – I am aiming to highlight the physical vertical movement of the ammonite by engaging the audience. At the core of the brief is the movement concept, and if the audience is creating this movement, they are directly interacting with the concept, fulfilling the purpose of the model.