Hyper Real

January 25, 2018
Ron Mueck, 'Pregnant Woman' (2002)

Hyper Real at the National Gallery of Australia is one of those exhibitions that must have seemed like a great idea at the time. Realism may appear to be the most obvious approach to making art, but it has been the exception rather than the rule throughout different cultures and epochs. The Seated Scribe of 2,500 BCE, found in the tombs at Saqqara, is a radical departure from the flat, stylised forms of most Egyptian art. Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (1849-50), depicted a contemporary funeral in the countryside on a scale previously reserved for grand history painting.

It’s only with the invention of the camera that realism loses its edge, as the skill required to record a close resemblance to appearances becomes devalued. Although kept alive throughout the modernist era by artists such as Balthus and Hopper, realism does not come into its own again until the rise of Pop Art in the 1960s, largely as a reaction to the lofty claims made on behalf of abstraction.

And so to the present day, when all the historical movements have burnt themselves out, and new technology enables artists to make the most painstakingly realist works that have ever existed. It’s the incredible detail in a silicone sculpture by Ron Mueck or Sam Jinks that makes audiences stand and gasp. Such closeness to life is marvellous to behold when we know in our minds that it’s all artifice. At the most basic level the invitation to examine another human body brings out the voyeur in everybody.

The NGA show originated at the Institute for Cultural Exchange in Tübingen, which in 2016 put together an exhibition called 50 Years of Hyperrealistic Sculpture that travelled to Spain, Mexico and Denmark. Canberra is the last stop, and the NGA has taken the liberty of adding another 20 works to the 31 sculptures selected by the Germans.

Hyper Real is a more ambitious and broad-ranging proposition, but in expanding the range of the display, curator Jaklyn Babington and her team have blurred the concept of realism almost beyond recognition. The original show featured 31 sculptures by 25 artists, the new version includes digital work by Cao Fei, a virtual reality piece by Shaun Gladwell, and a typically vast, wrapround video work by AES +F.

'Old people's home' (2007) by Sun Yuan and Peng You

‘Old people’s home’ (2007) by Sun Yuan and Peng You

The results are diverting but surprisingly empty. After a while the procession of hyperrealist sculptures begins to feel like a visit to Madame Tussaud’s. There’s such a concerted effort to be entertaining, or shocking, or both, that the show resembles a series of stunts vying for our attention. In this respect, nothing is more of a self-conscious crowd pleaser than Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Old people’s home (2007), which features realistic mannequins of senile old men in uniform – church leaders, generals, politicians – circling aimlessly in motorised wheelchairs.

The greatest works of art don’t reveal all their secrets at once, but what can one say about a piece such as Paul McCarthy’s That Girl (TG Awake) (2012-13), which consists of three virtually identical, life-size sculptures of a naked young woman who sits with her legs apart leaving nothing to the imagination? That exposure is the entire point of the work, as if the artist is daring us to see it as pornography rather than art.

Paul McCarthy, 'That Girl (TG Awake)' (2012-13)

Paul McCarthy, ‘That Girl (TG Awake)’ (2012-13)

As Jeff Koons and others have demonstrated, the most blatantly pornographic imagery is magically transformed into art when shown in a museum. This is not the case with the naked figures of Ron Mueck, notably the giant-sized Pregnant woman (2002), whose bulging belly and exhausted face convey a powerful sense of the sheer physical drudgery of child-bearing.

In his sculpture of a tiny, old woman wrapped in a blanket, Mueck looks at that moment when life has almost run its course, reducing the body to a fragile, shrunken state. Sam Jinks brings together both extremities of life in Woman and child (2010), in which an elderly woman holds a newborn baby.

Sam Jinks, 'Woman and child' (2010)

Sam Jinks, ‘Woman and child’ (2010)

Mueck and Jinks are working within a humanistic tradition that stretches at least as far back as the Renaissance. The same might be said of John De Andrea (b.1941), whose nude figures were considered models of naturalism in the 1970s. Today his methods seem a little crude alongside the new obsessive hyperrealists, but the feeling remains intact.

De Andrea is often linked with Duane Hanson (1925-96), who would create realistic sculptures of everyday people, left standing innocuously in the corner of a gallery. The NGA has borrowed Woman with a laundry basket (1974) from the Art Gallery of South Australia, but blunts the impact of the work by exhibiting it on a pedestal, making it unambiguously a sculpture.

Duane Hanson's 'Woman with a Laundry Basket' (1974)

Duane Hanson’s ‘Woman with a Laundry Basket’ (1974)

If quantity counts for anything Patricia Piccinini is the star of the show with no fewer than eight works. Piccinini recently enjoyed massive attendances for two exhibitions in Brazil, suggesting there’s huge public appeal in her factory-made sculptures of children snuggling up to ugly, misshapen creatures we are encouraged to view as “cute”. Perhaps a more appropriate word would be “coy”, as all these critters seem so meek and mild. It’s a vision of a world in which the fear of the Other is replaced by trust and acceptance.

Given the current state of the planet, in which political leaders are allowing the most blatant forms of racism and ethnic tension to become normalised, Piccinini’s interspecies fantasies seem horribly far-fetched. Some may believe this confers a moral nobility on her work, but I can’t bend to the idea of a totalitarian cuteness as the antidote for the undesirable aspects of human nature. It’s the anthesis of realism.

If viewers want to experience a more searching examination of our vexed relations with ‘otherness’, I’d recommend Guillermo del Toro’s movie, The Shape of Water.

Patricia Piccinini, detail from 'The Welcome Guest' (2011)

Patricia Piccinini, detail from ‘The Welcome Guest’ (2011)

It’s the Disneyfied aspect of Piccinini’s work that’s most grating, and to a certain extent this is a problem for the entire Hyper Real exhibition. What one misses is the sense that a work has evolved significantly from its first conception during the process of creation. Too many pieces in Hyper Real feel like immaculately executed plans. It may work for architecture, but when it comes to sculpture one craves a little more mystery, depth and gravitas.

Hyper Real
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
20 October, 2017 – 18 February, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January, 2018