At the Royal Scottish Academy

Eleanor Birne

Ron Mueck sculpts mottled skin, wrinkles, hairy forearms, calluses, double chins, freckles, bumpy nipples, yellowing nails and lined foreheads. His work depends on detail. He wants his meticulously constructed figures to be more human than the living things. His babies, adolescents, pregnant women, parents, isolated adults, old people are all intensely, studiedly, obsessively realistic. The son of toy-makers, Mueck trained as a puppeteer – he worked on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show under Jim Henson – and he seems still to be fascinated by the idea of controlling from a distance. In his exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, which runs until 1 October, it is the reactions of the gallery visitors he is looking to direct.

The first thing you see when you walk into the gallery is an oversized sculpture of a newborn girl, covered in blood, umbilical cord still attached, five metres from head to toe, a slimy baby giantess. As I approached her – massive, red, wrinkled, fingernails curled into the palms of her hands – a woman near me muttered: ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’ A Girl is a brand-new sculpture, designed to arrest. She is deliberately repellent: no one would go near her. Conversely, in another room, visitors overstepped the white markers around the plinth supporting the tiny and possibly tender Spooning Couple, wanting to touch but not daring (there are large ‘do not touch’ signs in every room). And people hovered, hands held out, around Two Women, a sculpture of two small, wizened old ladies dressed in sagging overcoats, wrinkled stockings and sensible shoes. The figures are half life-size and might be twins. One looks stricken by an interruption, as though an unexpected grandchild or neighbour had disturbed her; while the other looks knowingly at you, as if she were about to cackle, Yoda-like, in your face. As you look at the skin on the scalp of one figure or the other, you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be appalled or amused.

Sometimes Mueck makes it very clear indeed how he wants you to respond. Man in a Boat shows a tiny, naked man, seated in the prow of a long black boat, staring into the distance. Adrift! The Styx! He sails into the future! We feel for him. We’re also meant to feel for the pair in Spooning Couple, a man and a woman lying together. She is naked from the waist up, he from the waist down; he is curved into her back; they gaze glassily at nothing. A caption explains: ‘Early on in the gestation of this work, the man had his arm embracing the woman lying next to him. For the finished work the simple act of removing this arm so it is held tight against the man’s own body changes the whole tenor of the sculpture. Instead of being a couple in a close emotional bond, they have become two individuals, aware of growing apart from each other.’ If Mueck had indeed left the thing with an arm touching, it would – at its tiny scale; it is two feet long – have been cloyingly sentimental. Even as it is, it is very nearly too sweet.

Other captions – which are sometimes hectoring, sometimes inane – tell the story behind the scene Mueck has created and what we are supposed to feel about it. The caption to the massive In Bed – a three-times-life-size sculpture of a woman lying under a white coverlet on the gallery floor, her face resting on her hand, looking coldly into the distance – declares: ‘We are made to feel like small children again, approaching our mother who looms over us.’ That wasn’t how I felt as I approached her. I felt as though I was standing by the sickbed of a woman struck down too young by illness. Her skin was clammy, waxy looking. She didn’t look healthy. It was hard to imagine her as my mother, but it was amazing to see the blood massing under her pale skin. The mechanics of their flesh is the most striking thing about the sculptures, and explains their immediate effect; it explains why, despite the caption’s insistence that ‘we find it hard not to be moved’ by A Girl, nobody I saw looked moved – though some certainly did look as if they wanted to be sick.

Blood mottled under pale skin; goosebumps; wrinkled elbows; veins; hair. The way a woman’s breasts fall as she lies on her mattress; the sag and give of her skin. The wild, scared look in her partner’s eyes; his stubble; his unwashed hair. These are the perfectly executed details Mueck wants us to concentrate on, and be moved by. Moved I don’t know about. I almost feel sorry for his whiskered, shrunken, swollen figures, displayed to the world against white walls in bright light. I want to think this isn’t because he wants me to: it’s the fact that he has done what he’s done to them that troubles me. Perhaps that’s part of his aim. Realism invites empathy, but this level of realism – with every vein and blotch and hair in place – interrupts the sentiment, often to striking effect.

A video at the end of the exhibition shows Mueck at work, and the penultimate room, dedicated to Mueck’s technique, explains how the things are made. The figures are sculpted in clay; in the case of the large ones, the clay is applied to plaster and wire mesh supported by a wooden frame. The mould is made in stages: first the clay figure is coated in a layer of silicone, a substance chosen because it is best able to pick up all the surface detail; then layers of resin are applied to give the mould rigidity; finally, fibreglass makes it inflexible. But it is the casting stage that is key. Mueck uses a paintbrush to apply pre-tinted polyester resin to the inside of the mould, and builds it up in stages before he allows it to harden. It is something about polyester as a material that gives many of his sculptures’ surfaces their wax-like, slightly translucent quality. It is the reason his most successful figures look so ill: as the skin’s surface loses circulation and becomes less opaque, it has the waxiness of approaching death. It’s as though Mueck came to his preferred subjects through a technical accident: he gets the most out of his material by allowing it to dominate in the finished sculpture. His least successful work is the one that goes most against the grain of the stuff it is made from: Mask III, the five-foot-tall glossy face of a double-chinned, round-cheeked black woman, which is presumably meant to seem full of earthy vitality – but which instead is vacant and leering.

All the rest is window-dressing. The sculptures are finished in acrylic paint, and all the mottles and blotches added. The individual hairs – human or horsehair or nylon, depending on the scale – are inserted one by one, usually by assistants. Apparently – so Mueck likes to report – the eyes are done last. His pride in this suggests something of the Pygmalion fantasy: he is breathing life into inert matter. The first work Mueck showed in a public gallery was – tellingly – a model of Pinocchio. (This was for inclusion in an exhibition of works by his mother-in-law, Paula Rego, which rather gives the lie to the protests he has made about his outsider status in relation to the art establishment. Charles Saatchi invited him to contribute to his 1997 show Sensation; the sculpture he exhibited there, Dead Dad, a small, greyish corpse he made while his own father was dying, made Mueck’s name.) Despite his showmanship, he wants to preserve some of the mystery of his technique. Mask II – a representation of the artist’s face while sleeping, eyes closed, cheeks sagging, forehead wrinkled as though concentrating on a dream – is only a slice of face, displayed on a plinth that invites us to move behind it in order to see its workings. But the back of the mask is sheer white: the inside of the hollow mould is all there is to see.