Not for the faint of heart
At the top of the stairs to the second floor of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, a wet and blinking newborn gazes sleepily at its visitors. The 800-pound, 16-foot-long child, complete with attached umbilicus, shares the space with a tiny, dying old woman, lying in an almost forgotten corner of the huge room. Both pieces, with their conflicting scale, are riveting examples of Ron Mueck’s body of work, and the Glenbow Museum’s new exhibit, Real Life.
Tanis Shortt, manager of marketing and communications at the Glenbow, says: “In terms of the scale of it, [Mueck’s work] forces us to look at something that’s greatly magnified in terms of detail. One of the functions of art is to challenge pre-conceptions — by making us look at something in a new way.”
Mueck’s skill and crafts-manship is visually stunning, intimate and disturbingly detailed, right down to remaining bits of amniotic sac on the newborn’s skin. Shortt says she “was just so taken by how realistic they look, by the scale, obviously. That’s what struck me the most,” as well as how the scale of the pieces forces the observer’s perspective. Shortt says the comments she’s had from visitors and callers run the gamut.
“Some people love it and some don’t care for it,” she says. “One woman, a mother who came to the gallery with her own newborn in a child sling, told our program director that she found the displays powerful, significant and evocative.” Others, says Shortt, find the works “freakish.”
The pieces’ dimensions force the viewer to contemplate that which would otherwise be preferable to ignore. In the case of the old woman, the figure’s tiny scale requires the viewer to be very close to a scene they may rather turn away from.
“I’ve been taking a few calls from less-than-pleased community members,” Shortt admits. “Some people don’t think it’s tasteful. Some people think that babies should be portrayed wrapped in a blanket at the three-month point when they’re all gorgeous.”
Mueck is a master where it comes to minute details. The displays are arresting in their size, and the attention to the smallest features of the human body shows. Shortt explains that Mueck really deals with the mystery of life itself: “Mueck’s works really contrast the beginning of life with the end of life.”
Also part of the Glenbow’s Real Life project, Guy Ben-Ner’s work comprises an “absurdist” video invasion of IKEA, where the artist and his family set up residence and staged mock life in the fake room displays. Puzzled shoppers who passed by the displays — and who were caught on camera to become part of the project — look in while Ben-Ner “discusses the origins of private property and theft with his children.” Shortt says that the Real Life exhibitions show the artists’ intrigue with life and the realities around.
The Glenbow is also presenting an unexpectedly complimentary but stand-alone installation by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, whose unique style blends traditional Haida art with Japanese-style Manga.
The Nicoll Yahgulanaas exhibit includes several stunning hung works and an interactive reading room space where “visitors can explore the artist’s ‘zines and graphic novels.” At first glance, the works are immediately recognizable as Manga. A closer view reveals a unique approach to visual history and storytelling, as traditional art blends with the visually stunning, if chaotic, Manga form.
The museum hosts Real Life and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas on the second floor until Jan. 24. Tickets to the museum and the installations are available online at glenbow.org and at the door. The Glenbow Museum is located at 130-9th Ave. SW, across from the Calgary Tower.