In the vast glass cube that is the main gallery space at Paris’ Fondation Cartier, a giant elderly couple lie half-dressed underneath a parasol, the sweat on their brows seemingly about to drip onto the polished concrete floors. Nearby, a miniature woman carrying miniature Sainsbury’s bags looks so tired you think she might fall over, while another small-scale couple stand close together with protective expressions that suggest they might spring to life if you come too close. Although sculpted in varying scales, the lifelike quality of these figures is startling and was evidently achieved through painstaking work. Indeed, this is the latest work of Ron Mueck, which has been three years in the making, and is being exhibited alongside an additional six of his recent sculptures.

Famously reclusive, the Australia-born, London-based Mueck is not only revealing new work in this exhibition, he also provides a glimpse into his working process. Though he didn’t allow himself to be interviewed, Mueck did invite his friend and colleague Gautier Deblonde to film him working on his new sculptures in his small London studio. Made over two years, and detailing the sculptural process from the first clay maquettes that Mueck moulds by hand to applying eyelashes to the finished casts, the film captures the Mueck method in its entirety.

"What struck me was how quickly they come alive," Deblonde says of what he witnessed. "The first part is the clay, and this is almost like the negative of his work: all the details you need to have a human body alive. That's the first half of the film, and he's very slow – because he knows when he gets that right, then the sculpture will be good."

As the photographs that accompany our showcase of Mueck’s new work attest, his method continues right up until they arrive in the gallery, where he will make finishing touches to the skin colour to account for the new lighting. Mueck’s secret is out in this lesson in how to achieve new levels (and scale) of hyperrealism.

Ron Mueck at Fondation Cartier
Until September 29


“People are going to respond in a different way to a figurative sculpture than they would to something abstract. There might be a certain degree of identification or empathy. They might go with that impulse, or resist it and remain objective or analytical...or have an entirely different reaction...regardless of what anyone thinks they're ‘supposed to experience’. I think that is as it should be.”

“Sometimes I use a reference (photos, occasionally a friend or model), sometimes my imagination. I always use a mirror. The pieces evolve. I might see something that gets the ball rolling—an image, a scene in the street, a suggestive pose. I might start with a space and wonder what could work within it. But those are just the starting points that a piece will develop from.”

“I certainly haven't worked out histories for them. I guess I get trapped in their moments with them. Sometimes, if I haven't seen them for a while, it's like seeing a relative you've been out of touch with—except they haven't gotten any older!”

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

The Making of Ron Mueck’s Sculpture
Charlie Clarke, who has accompanied Ron Mueck for many years in the production of a number of his works, reveals some of the stages in the conception and production of the sculptures.

What changes now is that Mueck must sculpt the exact form he intends to cast, i.e. without the clothes, hair, or props that will be added later. A figure that will eventually be fully clothed and with a full head of hair might look rather ghostly at this stage, but Ron Mueck can see beyond this, sculpting the form that will be apparent from within a T-shirt or trousers, even if in the final work only flesh on display needs to be fully detailed down to the pores and wrinkles. Even at this stage there is room for adjustment. Fully detailed limbs may need to be sacrificed and remade.

Freed from the mold comes a hairless, eyeless, unclothed object that will require weeks or months of nurturing to become whole. Whether naked and requiring endless body hairs, each to be cut, sanded, painted, and inserted with the correct pattern and fall, or with clothes that must be made from cloth sourced to have the correct weight, weave, texture, and pattern for the scale, the work goes on and on. Eyeballs must be made; irises painted with the care of miniature portraits and encased within Perspex spheres. Shoes are sculpted so their character replicates tired hardened leather, worn softened canvas, or perished rubber. Wristwatches and sunglasses are conjured, and tarnished wedding rings dig into indentations made in the clay fingers weeks before.