Ron Mueck<br/>
<em>Mass</em> 2016-2017 (detail)<br/>
synthetic polymer paint on fibreglass<br/>
Felton Bequest, 2018<br/>

Writer Response: Emotion and Empathy


Now more than ever we are appreciating the way art can connect us to what it means to be human. In this feature on Ron Mueck’s Mass, 2016–2017, Alice Pung considers how his work can sink us deep into the complex, emotional and at once beautiful and unsettling depths of being human.

One of very first symbols I recognised was the skull on the bottles of potassium cyanide that my mother used for chemically gilding and buffing gold. As an outworker jeweller, her single-woman ‘factory’ sprawled through our spare bedroom and into the garage. My father also hand-drew skulls on every ‘poisonous’ container at home, from bleach to mercurochrome solution. Some parents use fear as a way of abusive control but my parents used it to keep us safe.

After surviving the Killing Fields of Cambodia, there was no image more terrifying to dad than the disembodied human skull. During that time, he’d been tasked with burying the dead so they would become fertiliser for the next season. These dead weren’t strangers – they were fellow workers, childhood friends, and half the family I will never meet.

Ron Mueck also said that the Killing Fields of Cambodia left indelible marks on his senses. Mueck is known for breathing life into his sculptures through their skin, with beads of sweat on the forehead of a pregnant woman, stubbly hairs on the upper lip of a sleeping head, pores on Wild Man. But there is no skin in his latest and largest work, Mass. These staggering skulls cluster like carcinogenic cells writ large, roaming over rooms filled with eighteenth-century landscapes, portraits and still lifes.

Skulls don’t have faces, but most of these skulls don’t even have teeth. There is nothing to distinguish one from the next unless you’re an orthopaedist or archaeologist. Yet skulls house our minds, and all five of our senses. To see that home in its vacated state, hollowed out, is to see the ultimate emptiness. To see a mass of skulls is to bear witness to the end – of a family, a clan, a civilisation. During the Pol Pot regime, ninety per cent of the nation’s artists were murdered. ‘To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss’, said their executioners.

If the soul rests in the whole human body – the form of the once-alive human composed of organ and skin and blood – then is a mere section of that body enough for the soul to find residence and respite? Does the soul reside in the arm? The torso? The head? These disembodied skulls terrorise us with their empty eye sockets. These skulls are voids, and these massive voids are eclipsing centuries of civilisation, telling us that art is never enough. Perhaps this is the largest ever memento mori to grace a gallery, a boulder-sized shadow over the vanities in gilt frames. Art will not bring back the dead.

We have now appropriated the skull as something kitsch, stripped it of its previous potent power to remind us of the transience of life and the vanity of the ego, made it a teenage emblem to be appropriated on earrings, approximated as Halloween decorations and printed on children’s leggings. Even memento mori paintings have devolved into cute tattoos of roses blossoming from skulls with perfectly spherical crowns.

Yet the skull has never lost its power to overwhelm in Chinese or Cambodian culture. They are stacked up behind glass, hundreds and hundreds, in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. One of the worst profanities with which you could curse someone is to call them a dead bone head, literally, a skull. My father doesn’t go to the gallery very often, but if he does,it is certainly not to see reminders of mortality. Surviving Cambodia was enough. When you are starving, human life is reduced to the length of a person’s digestive tract; when you are gone, it is reduced to bones.

I realised, when looking at small photographic images of Mass, that skulls without the lower jaw are proportioned like children, or the attributes that make children plaintive and helpless, particularly the big eyes in the centre of the round head. The skulls reminded me of my friend U. Sam Ouer, a Cambodian poet in Texas, who lost his twin baby daughters in the genocide. Ouer wrote about the night in October 1976, ‘when the moon had fully waxed, it was cold to the bone’, his wife’s labour pains began. ‘Two midwives materialised – one squatted above her abdomen and pushed, the other reached up my wife’s womb and ripped the babies out.’ They ‘choked them and wrapped them in black plastic’ before handing the babies to Ouer to bury.

Ouer had survived the Khmer Rouge by burning all his poetry and his masters thesis, obtained at the University of Iowa in the late 1960s. He’d made it out alive, still remembering how to recite Walt Whitman. I first became friends with Grandpa Ouer (as I call him) after reading his poetry in America. He’d sent it to me as a gift. I’d read countless survival memoirs and knew about the powerful art of Vann Nath, who was one of only seven survivors of the hellish Tuol Sleng prison out of 14,000 prisoners. Ouer was attempting something with his work that was more than ‘bearing witness’. He was attempting to create art, to rekindle the lost forms of Khmer poetry that had been banned by the Khmer Rouge. Ouer may not have survived the death of his twins but for his art. Art cannot bring back the dead, but it can give the living a reason to stay alive. In his poem ‘The fall of culture’, he writes:

O, monument of Independence!
O, library! O, books of poetry!
I can never chant the divinely inspired poems again!
O, quintessential words of poets!
O, artifacts I can never touch or see again!

I’ll be nowhere,
I’ll have no night,
I’ll have no day anymore:
I shall be a man without identity.

The faces in Mass are without identity, while the works of art on the walls of the gallery are carefully signed by the artists. For those who have been fortunate enough not to have been so closely touched by genocide, Mueck’s work reminds us that our own culture does not reign permanent, that the line between creation and complete annihilation is just a hair’s breadth. To be awakened to the impermanence of existence through art is a blessing, not a curse. It means we can’t take the life – and art – we have for granted.

This feature was commissioned for the Mar–Apr 2018 edition of NGV Magazine.

Alice Pung OAM is an Australian writer, editor and lawyer.