Is it possible to learn about ourselves from looking at a fiberglass sculpture? Should it be enough for us to see the physicality of ourselves in order to define our humanity? "Can a monster story teach us something about our own morality? [And] can a tale be a parable holding up a funhouse mirror to the beast lurking in our own hearts?" (Lamoureux, 107). Art is the looking glass of human emotions; it is a reflective instrument that holds neither flawlessness nor scar or threadbare imperfection away from human being. Art is, in other words, what forces us to look at ourselves, identify, confront and define our humanity. Mary Wollstencraft Shelley's Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus and Ron Mueck's A Girl are two profound artworks that are expressive examples of this idea.
Ron Mueck is an Australian hyperrealist sculptor, whose attention to detail allows him to create some of the most beautiful works of sculptured art-ranging from a 21-foot tableau of a bedridden woman, to a 3-foot-tall, spooning couple. But, perhaps, one of the most unique sculptures in his collection is that of the 16-foot-long, fiberglass structure of a newborn baby girl-a structure otherwise known as: A Girl (2000). Though it is a significant aspect of the work, what makes this sculpture so unique is not merely Mueck's remarkable attention to detail; perhaps what sets this sculpture a part from the rest is that A Girl is an infant separated from the adults of Mueck's collection; the sculpture captures a moment in time where a child is no longer connected to a mother's womb. It is, to put it shortly, a single, vulnerable infant in and of herself. A Girl is not nearly as simple as an apple-cheeked toddler-prepped, puppied and powdered for the outside world. Particular aspects of the sculpture stand out, creating a figure of further complexity. But before proceeding any further, it is important to note the differences between Realist and Hyperrealist art to better understand Mueck's particular genre of artistry.
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Hyperrealism, which didn't come about until the 1970's, streamed from an earlier and somewhat different type of art: Realism. Realism was, more or less, the footprint in the sand; that is, realist art was a modernizing step that helped paved the way for many hyperrealist artists today. As Gloria K. Fiero so eloquently put it, "New Realism (also called neorealism, hyperrealism and photorealism) differs from previous realist styles in its disavowal of narrative content and its indifference to moral, social, and political issues" (Fiero, 146-147). In other words, just as a reflection in the mirror, hyperrealism just is. The realist art of Greek statuary, for example, "reflects increasing refinements toâ€¦idealism: All imperfections (wrinkles, warts, blemishes) have been purged in favor of a radiant flawlessness. The classical nude is neither very old nor very young, neither very thin nor very fat. He or she is eternally youthful, healthy, serene, dignified, and liberated from all accidents of nature" (Fiero, 51). This is not to disparage Classical Grecian realist art. This is quite the contrary. It is simply a way of showing how realist art is a different representation from that of hyperrealist art. With that said, unlike that of Greek sculpture, Mueck's works are not made in the likeness of the divine-they do not aspire to be any particular resemblance to a specific person; nor does Mueck's works try to impose momentous issues surrounding human life (like that of social realism and pop art). Like the genre itself, Mueck's works are just simply, humans being. And it is what we as human beings draw from that sculpture that makes it so much more.
To continue with an earlier note, Ron Mueck's A Girl sculpture is an appearance both unpolished and un-pampered. The pug-like furrowing brows of the child; the disheveled, matted waves of the child's head of hair; the unclothed and seemingly uncomfortable, fixed posture the infant embodies; the addition of specks and stains of blood as well as an exposed umbilical cord adds to the authenticity of it all. Though Mueck's A Girl molds humanness down to tooth and nail, he adds something else: Mueck aggrandizes the height and length of the infant. Although the infant lies in its vulnerable state, we also get to see her at large. It is important to note that, in his works, Mueck: "presents the body in all its visceral vulnerability, but transformed by scale to either magnify or diminish the form and in the process managing to magnify or diminish the viewer" (Smith, Radio National). In A Girl, Mueck's is, as Smith puts it, "diminishing the viewer" in his magnifying the sculpture. The huge scale in which the sculpture exists changes the way in which the audience views themselves. It's almost as if to say that the nature in which this moment in time-this mirrored image happens, does not operate on a small scale; that this is not simply portraying a particular person, rather, it is representing all persons. A Girl is the depiction of human life after birth-it is a stage that had, have and will happen for all human beings. As mentioned before, hyperrealism is representational and yet impersonal. By helping viewers revisit this stage of human life, in addition to the magnificence of the sculpture, viewers are able to shrink down to a height they haven't been able to be in a very long time.
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Quite similar to Mueck and his work, there exists another artist that pushes their audience-compelling them to think of a much simpler time in life: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Though there are many prominent figures in English literature, some say Mary Shelley is the first to present the science fiction genre to literature; and though Shelley has produced a number of works, the most worthy of mention is perhaps Shelley's infamous first novel: Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein, written in 1816 when Shelley was just 19 years of age, is quite conceivably Shelley's most famous work. Shelley's novel is a daring tale of a man's creation, the abandonment of his invention, and his eventual disposing of his own humanity. The protagonist is haunted by the past, but is most at fault for the troubles that beseeched him. The novel brings about a number of questions surrounding humanity and what it may actually mean to be humane. Truly a classic, Shelley's novel forces one to think and question the right and wrong as well as help define one's self through one's actions and not plainly on self image.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein is a classically Gothic tale set in mid-1800's Germany. The novel's protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, grows up in an exceptionally normal environment. His childhood was one of nostalgic happiness as he describes, and even more so when he explains the tenderness of his parents: "Much as they were attached to each other, they seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love to bestow them upon me. My mother's tender caresses and my father's smile of benevolent pleasure while regarding me are my first recollections" (50). Generous and full of affection as they were, Frankenstein's parents even adopted and loved an orphan child that was not their own: Elizabeth Lavenza. It must be said that Frankenstein's parents exemplifies the idea that it is human nature to nurture and that it remains within human beings to have compassion; that is exactly the kind of human emotion that Frankenstein receives and learns to give others. But the demonstration of his parent's humanitarian tenderness is swiftly swept aside when Frankenstein later suffers the loss of his mother; he begins to obsess over a way to create life from inanimate objects. This obsession is the first step in his "flight from humanity" (Lamoureux, 115).
Frankenstein isolates himself from the rest of the world-so much so that he has not seen his friends and family or the better part of nature; Frankenstein, in other words, separates himself from man and begins to draw himself away from the nurturing nature of human compassion. Stemming from this obsession, Frankenstein becomes successful in his quest to animate-but he abandons his monstrous creation at first glimpse: "I beheld the wretch-the horrible monster whom I have createdâ€¦I escaped and rushed downstairs" (101). When he escapes, Frankenstein seeks comfort in familiarity and returns to human society. In doing so, Frankenstein neglects to give to his monster the very care and nurture that he had received while growing up.
When the monster is deserted by Frankenstein, it is not long before he and his creator reunite. Perhaps the most important role is played by the monster in his confrontation with Frankenstein; he brings to light Frankenstein's inhumane lack of empathy when he is abandoned by his creator. The monster, self educated and natured by his surroundings, makes his troubles known to Frankenstein so that his creator may awaken from the slumber of his cruelty: "My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine" (270). The monster gives a detailed monologue that expresses his failed nurtured upbringing. And how his being outcast amongst humans has caused a sense of malice within him, when he knew he could be capable of-if given a chance-much greater, humane emotions. But alas, the monster resorts to the inhumane and kills a number of people-matching his labeled physique with his horrible actions: a monster.
Though "Frankenstein's monster is a homicidal maniacâ€¦Mary Shelley reminds us that he has been made a fiend by the cruelty inflicted on him by his maker and every other human he encountered" (Lamoureux, 109). No matter how wretched and misguided, all the monster wants to be is loved. He wants Frankenstein to see the error of his ways-the cruelty and inhumanity behind the abandonment. The monster even asks his master for a companion, which Frankenstein, so frightened at the existence of two creations, refuses to give him. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is the so-called parent of his creation-someone who refuses to reciprocate any form of love and support. It can be said that, in actuality, Frankenstein is the real fiend within the story. After all, "a monster is not only 'an imaginary creature, usually large and frightening, compounded of incongruous elements,' but also 'an inhumanly cruel or wicked person'" (Lamoureux, 114). With that stated, it must be known that Victor Frankenstein's actions-in fleeing from his own humanity as well as from his own monstrous invention-made monsters of both he and his creation.
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Perhaps one of the most important quotes relayed by Victor Frankenstein is when he describes his own childhood, his parents and the duties of parenthood: "I was their plaything and their idol, and something better-their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct happiness" (50). Here, Frankenstein mentions the very thing a parental figure should bestow upon their child: "happiness," the ability to bring them "up to good" and above all, selflessness. It is in this talk of human nurture that the word "innocent" stands out from this statement. Just like Ron Mueck's A Girl, there is an overwhelming idea surrounding innocence. Both the works of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly and Ron Mueck holds up a looking glass for us, as the audience, to see ourselves as we once were: innocent.
It must be explained that the kind of innocence that is relayed in both works is absorbed from two very different ideas: the frailty and vulnerability in the birth of human being and the very idea of ignorance-a lack of knowledge-a blank slate or tabula rasa. Mueck's A Girl forces us to see a self image of ourselves in a moment in time where this innocence takes place; it portrays human beings as they are, once were, or will be. A Girl is a reminder to ourselves of the state in which occurs for all human beings. That we all were once babies-that this is part of our humanity. It is important to remember that Mueck's work is humans being-it is a representational image of what being human is. We are not perfect, pristine and as mentioned before, we are not divine; the human image possesses flawed characteristics. But this is not the only way to define our humanity as Mary Shelley makes clear. Shelley's Frankenstein shows us two parts in our viewing ourselves. First, there is the likeness in how we identify ourselves as human beings-the identicalness of our human image. And second, there is the tabula rasa, where we as human beings must be guided and nurtured so that we may learn about ourselves, the world and the differences between the humane and inhumane. In short, seeing ourselves is not all there is to being human-it is not the only way to define our humanity. Shelley's Frankenstein helps us question the morals behind defining our humanity-she displays that being human is not simply based on image; that it is about our ability to be humane towards others-no matter how different.
In conclusion, both the works of Ron Mueck and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley show us the great detail of our human being. Ron Mueck's A Girl reflects the physical looking glass of our humanity; it is a self-reflection, that is, a hyperrealist confrontation into the unpolished "what is" and the nature of our being. Shelley's work, on the other hand, is a more meticulous sketch of how we respond to that image. That response, of course, may determine, help us question or redefine what we call humane. Though there is a similar tale of human image, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, allows us to question whether or not we can simply define our humanity based on our own self image. In her portrayal of Victor Frankenstein, we find that appearances can be deceiving. Being humane is not merely a human countenance and being labeled a monster is not simply a title for one's visage. With that said, Shelley's looking glass is an emotional mirror that urges us to look pass physical appearances. And though Ron Mueck does a tremendous job in portraying the fiberglass façade of humanity as a whole, we cannot simply base ourselves wholly on self image; for if we did, it would mean we live in a world of superficiality and one without compassion.
Fiero, Gloria K. Landmarks In Humanities. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006.
"Giant Baby, Dead Dad and Others, Realer Than Real." New York Times. Nov. 10 2006. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/10/arts/design/10muec.html?_r=1>
Janaro, Richard P. The Art of Being Human. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009.
Lamoureux,Â Patricia Ann. Seeking goodness and beauty: the use of the arts in theological ethics. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
"Ron Mueck." ABC Radio National. 2007. <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/artworks/galleries/2010/2807818/>
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. Middlesex: Echo Library, 2006.