‘Facing East’ is an explosion of vibrant colour and bold artworks that you could dismiss as merely playful. You get pieces such as Takashi Murakami’s manga style mushrooms with wide circular eyes and Chen Lei’s ‘Big Kiss’, a sculpture of a small child, kissing a polar bear that balances from his lips.
I left feeling that not much else lay behind these impressively executed sculptures. Mueck’s use of scale manipulates the viewers’ emotional response very specifically, yet there is no apparent imaginative or intellectual meaning.
Yet under their bright extravagance lies unexpected sincerity and meaning. Yue Minjun’s garish painting which features a group of identical men, skin a luminous pink, laughing uncontrollably. Rather than humorous, this piece is disconcerting. The wide grinning mouths, with rows of identical white teeth and fathomless black interiors, are intimidating. This becomes significant in light of Minjun’s use of Christian Renaissance iconography.
Laughter in the Renaissance was considered a dangerous activity, signaling potential influence from the devil; open body orifices were how the Devil accessed the soul. These men are symbolic of everyman but also demonic, they sport small horns upon their heads, bringing the moral identity of the viewer into question.
Sprawled across the gallery floor lies Bharti Kher’s life-size elephant, whose body is covered with sperm like bindis. Bindis are traditionally worn by Indian women to signal their married status and thus, indirectly, their ability to respectably bear children. The sculpture is thus paradoxical; the elephant’s position suggests it is dead, though the pattern that adorns it signals life and birth. What is first an artwork of death becomes one of hope.
This exhibition does however pose a problem; there is a lack of connection between the artworks. The exhibition’s name places emphasis on location. Yet loose geographical proximity could produce a dangerously colonial generalization or ‘othering’ of these artworks.
To group three countries with such different cultures together in one room under the heading ‘East’, is to fail to provide the viewer with a clear understanding of the cultural background or significance of each. ‘Facing East’ is the exhibition equivalent of a pick ‘n’ mix bag: somewhat random and lacking coherence, but also highly enjoyable.
Walk into the adjoining room and you will find the work of Ron Mueck. Mueck, originally a model maker and puppeteer, produces hyperrealist sculptures of human figures that are technically incredible. Standing above the miniature ‘Spooning Couple’, it is amazing to view the tiny, slightly overgrown, toenails of the woman’s feet, the individual hairs that protrude down the man’s legs, the wrinkles that adorn their eyes.
Mueck’s work, like that of ‘Facing East’, also contains an element of play. Entering the room you are confronted with a giant naked man, sitting in a position that suggests both surprise and fear at your presence; his knuckles white from gripping the edge of his stool, his lips pursed, his body leaning backwards. Mueck’s sculptures create a believable presence, while simultaneously being utterly fantastical. It feels like being surrounded by fairytale characters.
They are also highly emotive on a very guttural and sensual level. The subtle body language of the spooning couple suggests discontent and distance despite their close proximity to one another; the giant man, despite his size, evokes human weakness and vulnerability.
I left, though, uncomfortable, feeling that not much else lay behind these impressively executed sculptures. Mueck’s use of scale manipulates the viewers’ emotional response very specifically, yet there is no apparent imaginative or intellectual meaning, no subversion or argument behind these feelings, other than that these models look remarkably, eerily real. Does this matter? Maybe not.
Manchester Art Gallery
Manchester M2 3JL
Open Tue – Sun 10am-5pm
Manchester Confidential will be interviewing Frank Cohen and talking about art patronage in the coming weeks.
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