Unnaturally Human

“… 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.

Muecl sculpture: Head

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.

Close up of lady in bed

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.

Little ladies

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.

Big baby head

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.

Lady in bed

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)

Sulking figure

Mueck’s sculptures combine extreme naturalism, astonishing accuracy of form, and unnatural size differentials. So it’s no wonder viewers often feel unsettled.

Woman’s face

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.

Crouching boy

Thanks to Todd Tennant for sending me the pictures of Mueck’s work.

This entry was posted in Daikaiju, Living dolls, Pictorial art, Ron Mueck. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Unnaturally Human

  1. Jess says:

    His artwork really is uncanny, isn’t it? I’ve only ever seen one or two photos at a time – having so many big and small ‘people’ is weird but cool – I particularly like the picture of Mueck (?) arranging the giant woman’s hair in photo #3. Puts me in mind of Jack and the Beanstalk (now with 20% more hairdressing!).

    I get the eerieness of dolls/androids/puppets, but this is the closest I’ve come to grokking giant monsters. Hoping your panel at Conflux will help even more :).

    And it would be somewhat remiss of me not to mention Jonathan Coulton’s song “Creepy Doll” – a horror story in miniature, and free to boot. Lyrics and song at http://www.jonathancoulton.com/songdetails/Creepy%20Doll#

  2. Backbrain says:

    The hair arrangement picture is one of my favourites, too. It really emphasises that sense of dislocation I was talking about. The sculpture is so real, right down to the fact that her eyes seem to have awareness.

    Hopefully, the philosophy of giant monsters panel will be interesting. Robin and I enjoy talking about that stuff (as everyone knows) and I think there are more like you out there, Jess, who will come along to contribute and to hear us wax pretentious.

    I’ll download the “Creepy Doll” track when my computer stops doing what it’s doing at the moment. I have a fascination for “Evil Doll” movies and will have to write something coherent about the subject one of these days. They have one advcantage over zombies and ghosts and giant monsters: there’s much fewer of them!

    I’ve been keeping a listing for some time. You can check it out here:


  3. Backbrain says:

    You’re right about Coulton’s “Creepy Doll”, Jess. Terrific song.

  4. deb says:

    i love this type of art, everything about it is so interesting and thoughful

  5. monica and liz says:

    We laughed so hard at your “art work”. We especially liked your interpretation of fairies, we thought it was very tasteful. Keep up the wonderful work.

  6. Mr Big8 says:

    that is frickin amazing

  7. taylor wheatley says:

    hi, i’m taylor, and i like this website 😀

  8. taylor wheatley says:

    hi i’m taylor and my head could be in theis exhibition, my head’s bigger than yours you lightweights 🙂

  9. taylor wheatley says:

    hi i’m taylor and my head could be in this exhibition, my head’s bigger than yours you lightweights 🙂

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