A review of Ron Mueck’s Mass

By Bridget Slattery

On level three of the Ian Potter Centre there lives a small exhibition that is very different in colour and appearance to the rest of the gallery. Here the floor and walls are not simply housing works like the rest of the gallery, but instead are coloured a dark grey, almost black, which both complements and enhances the works. The works it houses belong to the exhibition ‘Mass’ by Ron Mueck. A fitting name; equally as ominous as its dark entrance and atmosphere. This cave like exhibition may be short, comprising of only two rooms of installations and one short documentary at the end, but that certainly does not stop the works from sticking with you long after you leave the final room. As with many works by Ron Mueck, ‘Mass’ is an exhibit depicting extremely life like sculptures which use their scale to create a sense of awe, intrigue and curiosity.

As one steps into first room of the exhibit, they are faced with four large-scale, resin human skulls. At this point the meaning behind the ominous name starts to reveal itself. The term mass denotes volume, size, and an occupation of space; a perfect title for such large and commanding works. This meaning is even more prevalent in the main room of the exhibition which holds what can only be described as a mountain of skulls. These skulls that soar metres into the sky certainly occupy space and command the room. They perfectly fit their title. The confusion and intrigue around these large ornate skulls, however, continues once passing the two main rooms. The intrigue around how an instillation like this comes to be is then partially explained in a short documentary placed just after the exhibits themselves.

While the exhibit may be quite short in length it is clear from both the documentary and the attention to detail within the space itself that many hours were spent on designing a cohesive exhibit that has made the most of the floor space provided. Not only are the skulls of the mountain almost all slightly different in appearance, but they have all been perfectly placed in a way that looks effortless but was certainly a major engineering feat. Even the lighting perfectly glows only on the major installation drawing the visitors eye in and up to the top of the mountain. This use of lighting and colour throughout the exhibit not only draws the eye but also aids viewers to create their own cohesive story without requiring any written text.

The lighting sets the mood of the exhibit right from the entrance; creating a sense of mystery as if one is stepping into an unexplored cave. The lighting mixed with the lack of sound and the dark interior walls created the perfect concoction for visitor’s imaginations to run wild. The atmosphere creates a story, similar to that of a children’s book. One asks themselves who was this large monster or how did these skulls come to be. This intrigue and lack of written information allows visitors to speculate and create their own interpretation. Everyone, no matter their age, could come up with their own ideas for how the installation came to be. For children, it could give a sense of wonder, while adults can revel in the details and intricate nature of the installation. Even those who prefer concrete explanation can piece together a story through the construction process documentary.

‘Mass’ is ultimately a well put together and extremely thought-out exhibition. It is clear through its ability to make such large instillations appear to be so delicate. Yet it is not without minor imperfections. One such issue would be the positioning of the documentary portion of the exhibit. It is placed right at the end of the exhibit, as is often the case with these sorts of behind-the-scenes videography components, yet in the case of this gallery space this means it had to be installed in a small walkway. Generally, this would not be an issue except for the fact that this walkway is also the bridge between ‘Mass’ and another exhibition. Consequently, while visiting the exhibit multiple people simply walked past this amazing look into the exhibition design process. It is however important to note that this iteration of ‘Mass’ is a re-imagining of the original installation that appeared in a different NGV space for the 2017 triennial. This may have resulted in the need to place the documentary separately to the skulls installation in order to preserve the emotive value of the skulls.

While the documentary component may have suffered due to the limited space available, it remains an integral component of the exhibition. I implore all those who visit ‘Mass’ to please make the effort to sit down and watch this short documentary as it adds greatly to the experience, and you will look back and notice details that would have otherwise been missed. The exhibit, as a whole, is so curious you can’t help but ponder the effort involved in the construction even once out of the room. ‘Mass’ may be a short two and a half room exhibition with little to no written displays or explanation, but it certainly makes up for it with the wonder it creates and the behind-the-scenes documentary it includes. The exhibition is open until January 15, 2023, and definitely worth a visit, or two, just to stand in awe of this monstrous creation.

Figure 1. Close up of skulls from the mountain room. Photo by Bridget Slattery.

Bridget Slattery is a student of the Graduate Diploma of Museum Studies at Deakin University. 

A New History of the Australian Heritage Movement: In Conversation

Please, join us at the Robyn Boyd Foundation, South Yarra, for the event

A New History of the Australian Heritage Movement: In Conversation, Wed August 24th @6:30 pm – 8:30pm

$5.00 – $10.00

Chaired by Professor Philip Goad (University of Melbourne), join Sharon Veale (GML Heritage), Maddi Miller (University of Melbourne) and Dr James Lesh (Deakin University) for a discussion panel on urban heritage in twentieth- and twenty-first century Australia.

How might heritage pasts shape heritage futures? Our heritage approaches and protections were developed in the latter decades of the twentieth century. The panel will unpack assumptions embedded within heritage – to chart progressive futures for cities and places.

On the evening, Philip Goad will also launch the book of our CHMS colleague, Dr. James Lesh, Values in Cities: Urban Heritage in Twentieth-Century Australia (Routledge, 2022). The book synthesis the history of the Australian heritage movement. It traces how evolving ideas of value and significance shaped cities and places through key organisations, professions and people.

Figure: Advocacy Flyer for the Collins Street Defence Movement, ca. 1977. Courtesy of the State Library Victoria, Accession no: PA 05/70.

The event is supported by GML Heritage, Deakin University, and the Robin Boyd Foundation.

Speakers

Professor Philip Goad is Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor and Chair of Architecture at Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. He is Chair of the Heritage Council of Victoria.

Sharon Veale is an urban planner and historian who has worked in public and private sector heritage planning, management and conservation for over 20 years. She is the CEO of GML Heritage.

Maddi Miller is a Darug woman living and working on unceded Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Wilam Biik. She is a research fellow at The University of Melbourne and was recently appointed as an alternate member of the Heritage Council of Victoria.

Dr James Lesh is an urban historian and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Deakin University in Melbourne. He contributes to academic, industry and public discussions about history and conservation.

On the night
– Wine and beer sold by the glass.
– Books for sale, though Values in Cities may be pre-order only
– Credit card sales only.
– Ticket, and bar receipts directly aid the not-for-profit Robin Boyd Foundation

After the Return: Understanding Re-engagements with Aboriginal Collections

Dr Jason Gibson won DECRA funding for his project ‘After the return: understanding re-engagements with Aboriginal collections’. Investigating the dynamic ways that repatriated cultural collections are re-integrated back into the lives of Aboriginal individuals and communities in Central Australia, this will be the first systematic study of the mid- to long-term consequences of repatriation. Dr Gibson’s project aims to discover how repatriation policies and practices might be better developed, implemented and resourced in accordance with Aboriginal community experiences and aspirations.

Jason Gibson with Anmatyerr elder Ronnie McNamara using archival maps to identify significant cultural sites

The project builds upon critical studies of museum and source community relationships, repatriation as a ‘ritual’ involving communities, museum staff and Institutions, and different methods of ‘archival return’. To date, a great deal of the research in this area has been concerned with processes and procedures of returning cultural materials to Indigenous communities and the positive effects of this work — seeing once-dormant cultural materials being taken up in support of cultural revival/maintenance objectives. Far less research however has been conducted into the complex responses that ‘return’ can produce. The return of collections can induce feelings of fear, apprehension or ambivalence. Socio-cultural sensitivities and internal community divisions can also be exacerbated. The notion that objects can be simply ‘put back’ into their original cultural context is also an over-simplification. ‘Indigenous engagements with these collections today are’, as Yuwaalaraay museum anthropologist Jilda Andrews writes, ‘more than simply a reculturation of this material back into Indigenous culture. They broach new frontiers’ (2017, p.91). This project will therefore engage critically with the discourse of repatriation and develop a collaborative, ethnographic account of these ‘new frontiers.’

Jason Gibson with Kaytetye elder Tommy Thompson discussing Tommy’s home archive of repatriated photos

As an ethnographic study of Indigenous cultural heritage return, the project is designed to provide significant benefits to Indigenous communities and wider Australia through the elevation of Indigenous perspectives and the production of community resources. It will also benefit the museum sector by developing insights into the effects of repatriation and presenting alternative models to collections co-stewardship that are designed by communities.