Sea of Hull and Ron Mueck – a review

Coming out of the baby change, tucked away in the back of Ferens Art Gallery last week, I noticed the nearest gallery door was blacked out and featured a warning of nudity. Having come to see Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull exhibition, I assumed I was in the right place and pushed it open.

What I did next was a mixture of a scream/gasp/stumble, then froze for a second. My legs needed a bit of convincing to keep walking forwards. I hadn’t found Sea of Hull, but ‘Wild Man’, a sculpture by Australian artist, Ron Mueck.

I’m not going to include any photos of his work, and I recommend you don’t Google them either. What I found was a complete surprise, and I don’t think it should be seen any other way. I didn’t actually know about his work being on display – I thought the photo I had seen of one of his sculptures had been a painting in print and hadn’t given it much thought, I’d been going entirely to see Tunick.

‘Wild Man’ is definitely the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen in a gallery, and maybe the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen, period. The ‘man’ is a hyper realistic sculpture, sat naked on a chair with an intensely troubled look on his face. The other thing you should know is that this man, if stood up, would be about 20’ tall. Even sat on a chair, this sculpture towers over you, and as you edge around it the detail takes over your first impression and damn good art becomes what you are looking at.

I’d been apprehensive about walking through the gallery and letting Maddie see what we were in front of, it was just so disturbing, but she took it in her stride as always. I guess when you’re 13 months old and still seeing new things every day, suddenly coming across a naked giant might just be another thing to add to the list of stuff you didn’t know existed before, like pineapples or snails.

One thing I found as I walked around the collection of sculptures was how their effect progressed. I started off being entirely freaked out, but the longer I spent looking at them, the more I liked them. Now, a couple of days on, I can’t wait to go back and see them again. I think they’re utterly brilliant, and not just because of the incomprehensible detail making them seem like they must be made from real flesh.

Modern art is my favourite, but it is so hit and miss. I’m fed up of seeing a single brush stroke, or an entirely blank canvas, painted all one colour, achieve a place in the Tate, or going for hundreds of thousands at auction. Those pieces will always have their place in the art world while there are people to appreciate them, and that’s fine, but they’ll never give off an air of sophistication like a piece which clearly took hundreds of hours and decades of talent to produce.

Speaking of which, photography. It’s the marmite of art, but personally I love it. I appreciate that it’s the idea behind the camera that makes it come to life, not always the click of a shutter.

With Sea of Hull, the problem lies in the talent. Spencer Tunick’s vision and ideas are brilliant, and that’s what the art is, but taking the photos of what he directs is no different to a photo journalist taking the photo sometimes, and unfortunately that’s exactly what had happened. Sea of Hull gained so much media attention during its production that I felt like I’d seen all the pictures before I got there. It was great to see them blown up to greater proportions, and stand and observe the effect the participants had as a group, but the photos could have been so much more powerful if they hadn’t covered the Internet since last year.

What I did find though, was how the images made you consider the human aesthetic. Hundreds of people lined up naked to take part in the photoshoot, and my first thought was, ‘did he purposely only involve white people, to create an unbroken scene, or is Hull’s population simply not diverse enough to see (ha, Sea, geddit?) a variety in skin tones? But that’s the clever bit. There were different races. On a closer inspection, it was possible to see black and Asian participants in the scenes (not the photos where everyone was painted blue, I might add), but when grouped together, everyone simply blended in. Similarly, there was every type of body shape, age and hair style present too, but somehow everybody looked the same. It was really remarkable. As a society, we’re obsessed with nudity, and sexualising the human body. Take the sexual element away, and we become simply people, not that interesting to look at on an individual basis. I knew quite a few people participating in the shoot, but seeing the photos didn’t evoke an ‘omg’ reaction, the way it might if your friend suddenly appeared naked in front of you. It just seemed entirely normal, which is, again, something I feel added to the artistic integrity.

I think the real art of Sea of Hull wasn’t present at all at Ferens though. My suspicion is that Tunick is well aware of the effect being a participant of his has on people, and providing that experience to people is the art in his intention. The exhibition is just the aftershow party. Still, go and see it. Together, Tunick and Mueck in ‘Skin’ is one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Maybe even the best, I’m not sure. I’ll be going several more times to find out.

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