“… an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes, and so on.
Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny
Viewers of hyper-realist sculptor Ron Mueck’s work use words like “freaky” and “disturbing” rather frequently in connection with his creations.
Mueck was born in Melbourne, though he lives and works in London. His parents were toy makers; Mueck himself worked on children’s television shows for 15 years before graduating to the position of “creature shop artist” in Labyrinth (1986) and gaining other less visible cinematic special effects gigs, creating dragons and fairies, and designing assorted puppets for the TV show “Gophers!”.
As you can see, his sculptures are very realistically detailed, in a way that we don’t experience often in the settings where they appear — art galleries and the like. The fibreglass resin he uses allows for a sort of luminance that makes the skin tones uncomfortably real, and when this is heightened by his sheer sculptural expressiveness, his use of colour and the intricate detail of his technique the effect can be quite uncanny indeed.
The fact that Mueck comes from a background of toy-making and puppetry makes sense in terms of the way in which his work insinuates its unnerving effect on the viewer. Dolls have a tendency to unnerve, once you add a reality-fracturing element to their presentation. There are many horror films that feature dolls, puppets and humanoid toys, where signs of unnatural “life” provide the fracturing that creeps us out. The expressive and knowing swivel of a ventriloquist’s dummy’s eyes — as in the living dummy segment of the 1945 British anthology film Dead of Night and its many descendents — is enough to send shivers up our collective spine, even though there is nothing naturalistic about the dummy itself. At night when shadows and silhouettes override the artiface of a doll’s construction and emphasise its human form, it’s easy to believe that it has come alive, even though we know it can’t happen.
But there are other “reality-fracturing elements” that can create the same effect. Extremely realistic detail is one. Dolls that look totally real are rare, and are much prized by children, but when we see them the effect can be unsettling. It’s like looking into the eyes of a doppelgänger — someone who is me, but whom I know isn’t me at the same time. It creates a blurring of the boundary between the real and the imaginary. It makes us think that maybe, just maybe, what I know is true, no longer is.
Another reality-fracturing element is unnatural size. This effect can be gained from both unnatural smallness and extreme hugeness. In giant monster and Japanese daikaiju films, the monsters’ gigantic proportions evoke a sense of awe (when effectively handled, of course). It is not simply the physical danger that such a creature would represent, but, as with a living doll, the awareness of an uneasy discrepancy between what we know is real and what, faced with the artistic suspension involved in cinematic artistry, our backbrain is telling us is imaginatively real. We may not consciously think about it, but the discrepancy is there, and I reckon that it creates a tension that we translate as awe.
Perhaps, too, dolls, androids and other artificial humanoids carry a strong subconscious reminder of our mortality, hence of death. As Gaby Wood puts it in her book on automatons, Living Dolls: “… although androids have no understanding of death, they are themselves embodiments of it. Every time an inventor tries to simulate life mechanically, he is in fact accentuating his own mortality. He holds his creation in his hands, and finds, where he expected life, only the lifeless; the closer he comes to attaining his goal, the more impossible it reveals itself to be. Rather than being copies of people, androids [and other living dolls] are more like mementi mori, reminders that, unlike us, they are forever unliving, and yet never dead. They throw the human condition into horrible relief.” (page xvii)
Mueck’s sculptures combine extreme naturalism, astonishing accuracy of form, and unnatural size differentials. So it’s no wonder viewers often feel unsettled.
Remember, too, awe is a form of fear, and indeed all the above “fracturings” can be seen to provoke the innate existential terror that lurks somewhere in our psyche that what we believe to be “normal” may not be. Be it a feeling of unease, of the uncanny, of awe or even sheer terror, what living dolls, giant monsters, zombies and Mueck’s sculptures evoke is a discrepancy between what we intellectually accept and what we imaginatively experience.
This tension lies at the heart of the horror genre.
Thanks to Todd Tennant for sending me the pictures of Mueck’s work.