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Untitled (Old Woman in Bed)

Ron Mueck
Untitled (Old Woman in Bed), 2000
Silicone rubber, polyester resin, cotton, polyurethane foam, polyester, and oil paint
24 x 94.5 x 56 cm; pedestal: 100.3 x 94.5 x 56 cm
Purchased 2001
© Ron Mueck, courtesy Anthony d'Offay

Ron Mueck worked in advertising, children's television, and film before turning to fine art and figurative sculpture. In 1983 he moved to London and became a professional model maker for Jim Henson's Muppets. His art first came to public attention with Dead Dad (1996-1997), a hyper-real replica of his dead father, which he exhibited in 1997 at the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. The father's naked body is positioned directly on the floor lying face up, the figure so accurately detailed that it might be described as a trompe l'oeil. But where most hyper-real sculptors such as Duane Hanson or John D'Andrea work life-size, Mueck's Dead Dad is hardly a metre in length. More recently, Mueck's hugely over-sized sculpture Boy (2000) was on display at the Millennium Dome in London and at the latest Venice Biennale.

With Untitled (Old Woman in Bed), Mueck continues in a similar vein. An elderly woman swaddled in blankets lies sideways in a foetal position, her hands curled under her chin and into her body. Cradled by a pillow, her head protrudes from the bedclothes. The head is rendered in a super-naturalistic fashion; grey hair falls over her forehead and her eyes and mouth are open. Unlike Dead Dad, the woman is still alive, indicated by her glistening nostril. Like Dead Dad, she is child-size. Both sculptures, in their diminutive proportions, objectify the moment when the parent becomes the child and the child must in turn begin to parent. The choice of a small scale also points to the unreliability of memory in recalling the size of things.

Mueck's work can be understood in the context of much recent British art, said to be preoccupied with life and death. Untitled (Old Woman in Bed) may be a portrait of the end of life, or a re-interpretation of the still-life genre. The aging body - whether our own or another's - elicits complex, if not conflicted, feelings: there may be anger, empathy, and the realization of impending mortality. With this work, Mueck opens up a space for spectators to meditate on or publicly discuss this inevitable stage of life.