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THE National Gallery of Australia, in collaboration with Germany’s Institute for Cultural Exchange in Tübingen, has produced a most uncanny and enthralling exhibition experience.
The institute’s retrospective of international artists working in hyperrealist sculpture over the last 50 years, toured venues in Denmark, Spain and Mexico during 2016. In this iteration, “Hyper Real”, the NGA’s senior curator of Contemporary Art Practice Global, Jaklyn Babington, has extended the original exhibition’s contemporary relevance with the inclusion of Australian artists, who are working at the cutting edge of this fascinating genre.
The exhibition’s uncanny nature arises from an intersection of perspectives. An initial response to many of these sculptural works, where the possibly of real and definitely not real, collide almost simultaneously in eye and mind.
32 artists, including six Australians, re-imagine, through video and sculpture in 49 works of art, the human form. The artworks are variably sized, both nude and fantastically garbed, whole and segmented, true to life and strangely mutated across human and animal genetic codes.Patricia Piccinini’s sculptural vignettes privilege familiar animal and human hybrids. These transgenic beings have had individual human and animal characteristics genetically melded through either design or evolution. The overwhelmingly hopeful nature of these works is often assisted by charming life-like children who, in works such as “The welcome guest”, interact with these creatures as loved companions.
Tenderness for the human condition thrums through the sculptures of Australian artists Piccinini, Sam Jinks, Ron Mueck and Serbian artist Marc Sijan. Mueck’s monumental “Pregnant woman” (2002, fibreglass, silicone, polyester resin, oil paint, fibres) and “Wild man” (2005, fibreglass, silicone, polyester resin, oil paint, aluminium, wood, horse hair, synthetic hair) are breathtaking both in size and in the evocation of their separate interior struggles. When standing quietly beside “Wild man’s” thigh; it is possible that blood flows beneath the skin, that the muscle twitches, that the figure retreats marginally further in fear at another’s proximity.Distinctly apposite, Mueck’s impossibly tiny “Old woman in bed” (2000-02, silicone, cotton, polyurethane foam, polyester, oil paint, fibres) is close to home for any whose own mothers or grandmothers may have Alzheimer’s.
In a number of sculptures, such as Jinks’ “Woman and child” (2010, silicone, pigment, resin, silk, human hair)” and “The deposition” (2017, silicone, pigment, resin, fabric, human hair) or Sijan’s “Embrace”, the verisimilitude of extremities, of flesh, folded and creased by loving hands or intertwined limbs creates a mesmerising intimacy.
Among the exhibition’s larger set pieces is an electrifyingly subversive video installation, from the Russian collective AES+F. “Inverso Mundus” (2015) is presented in the round. The video’s stunning, homoerotic opening devolves into a series of set pieces whose scenes up-end society’s power relationships between youth and age, male and female, animals and humans, race and religion. This work is technically marvellous, with a cast of fascinating characters, and by turn is abject and amusing.
I was intrigued by the Chinese artist Cao Fei’s video work “Live in RMB City” (2009). Created in the online virtual world “Second Life”, Cao Fei’s avatar China Tracy and her talkative, philosophically inclined baby China Sun, discuss perceptions of reality as they lead viewers on a tour of RMB City.Piccinini’s “The Breathing Room” (2000), where three wall-sized videos of moving fleshy folds and protuberances are matched with audible breathing that runs the gamut of resting to panicked, is deliciously creepy and claustrophobic.
Sean Gladwell’s VR experience “Orbital Vanitas” (2017), is interesting and I look forward to his further development in this area.
Piccinini’s large installation “Boot flower” and “Meadow” is wonderfully imagined, though I would love to see non-distorting infinity mirrors replace those currently in situ.
Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere’s intensely confronting torso “Elie” (2009), American artist Tony Oursler’s distressed and disembodied simulated head “Incubator”, (2003) or British artist Marc Quinn’s on-going blood project “Self”, (2011) are serious philosophical and art historical ruminations that remain accessible to all.
The presentation of works, by artists who are grappling with complex themes around what it means to be human, will delight, perplex and satisfy the broadest range of visitors. “Hyper Real”, as a whole, is a marvellous spectacle. It’s a hopeful and at times a mind-blowing invitation to imagining.