Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective

Tate Gallery. Londres. Hasta el 27 de abril de 2008.
[Richard Dorment. Telegraph, 31 de enero de 2008]


Midway through Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz’s retrospective at Tate Modern we enter a gallery in which realistically modelled figures of two men in grey, identically dressed in contemporary clothes, hang by their teeth from a wire near the ceiling, slowly twirling in space.

Visually, Muñoz plays a little perspectival trick on us by scaling the polyester-resin figures to under life-size, so that we perceive them as being further away – and therefore higher up – than they really are. The effect is shocking. Are we witnessing a scene of torture? Grand Guignol theatre? A sado-masochistic game?

Then you notice their arms, which are not bound or struggling, but gracefully extended downward, fingers splayed. In fact, Muñoz has lifted their pose from a famous painting by Edgar Degas of the circus performer Miss Lala hanging by her jaw while suspended from a high wire. Degas, in turn, saw his aerial artiste as a contemporary version of a saint or an angel ascending to heaven in a baroque ceiling painting.

So which is it? Are these political prisoners, circus performers, or levitating saints? The answer is that they are all three – but not all three at once, only one thing at a time. Who they are and what is happening depends on the mindset we bring to bear when looking at them. And that can change each time we see them anew, for what we see (or at least how we interpret it) is a function of the mind as well as of the eye.

Muñoz is the poet of doubt, the Homer of ambiguity. In his work, nothing is as it first seems; everything can be read in two or more ways.

Take The Wasteland, an installation near the beginning of the show. At first sight, it looks incredibly simple – a bronze ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on a shelf in an otherwise empty gallery looking out over a linoleum-covered floor.

The geometric design on the linoleum consists of an endlessly repeated double-L shape in beige, grey and black. Based on a design by the baroque architect Francesco Borromini, who was in turn inspired by an ancient Roman decorative pattern, the volumetric L shape changes orientation as we look at it – appearing to face left, right, up, or down depending on which colour we allow to predominate. The pattern is static, but our mind constantly rearranges the different elements in it because the brain cannot see more than one colour and shape at the same time.

The bronze dummy, a surrogate for the artist himself, looks out over a world in which nothing is fixed or certain. Things change in the blink of an eye. Bewildered by the barrenness and instability of life, he remains on the shelf, a passive, silent and helpless observer.

In a later work, Ventriloquist Looking at a Double Interior, the dummy re-appears, now motorised so that his lips move silently, as if talking to himself. He sits in the middle of the gallery facing the wall, apparently looking at two white chalk drawings on black fabric with a blank space between them. These depict the same sofa in the same room – but one shows it from the front, the other from the back.

When we try to make visual sense of these two irreconcilable views, we find it can’t be done. But, if we crouch down behind the dummy to see what he is seeing, we discover that the two separate views fuse into one rational space. That is because he is placed precisely in the spot where the one-point perspective used in both drawings kicks in.

Muñoz has manipulated us into seeing things from the dummy’s (that is, the work of art’s) point of view. The best part of the joke is that perspective itself is just such a trick, and we all willingly fall for its illusions.

Muñoz treats every work of art as a battle between the artist, who functions as a magician or ventriloquist intent on deception, and the viewer, who is irresistibly drawn to discover the trick and destroy the illusion. And so, an almost life-size standing figure, his body rigid with fear, casts a giant shadow on a gallery wall. At first, we keep our distance, but soon curiosity compels us to step between him and the wall in order to see the expression on his face. And in doing so, we replace his shadow with ours, and so we become the very thing that so terrifies him.

Here, and in several other works, we discover that by intruding into a world that is not our own, we have committed something very like an act of violence. And violence runs like an underground river through this show – not always explicit but always lurking nearby.

For example, you might be tempted to run your hand over a wall sculpture that looks like an ordinary wooden banister. But for goodness sake don’t, because taped to the side that is hidden from view is an open flick knife, left there, presumably, for the assassin to retrieve when the time is right.

The flick knife is a peculiarly Spanish method of doling out death. And Spanish-ness is another theme that runs throughout the show. Born in 1953, Muñoz was 22 when General Franco died, and the world he shows us is not modern Spain but one he grew up in. Five Seated Figures, for example, evokes the tertulia, a circle of professional cronies who would meet every day to argue and gossip and, in Muñoz’s eyes, to bang their own drums.

More viscerally, I remember that when I first visited Spain in the 1960s you saw many more deaf people than anywhere else in Europe. What more appalling or unforgettable way to represent deafness than Muñoz’s wax drum, the “skin” of which is pierced by a vicious pair of scissors?

In many works, Spanish art and history are woven together, as when the dwarfs and courtiers in Velázquez’s paintings become Muñoz’s roly-poly freaks, their heads and torsos attached to bulbous blobs below the belt. Unable to move on their own, they listen through walls and whisper in each other’s ears, grotesque versions of the spies, and interrogators who kept watch over the people under Franco’s regime.

Muñoz is a dark and difficult artist – one for whom I have profound respect but can’t quite warm to. I’ve heard people talk about the humour in his work, but, boy, do I not see it. Muñoz’s art is monochromatic, tense and intended to frustrate, and his is a peculiarly Spanish heaviness.

He died aged 48 in 2001, while his haunting installation Double Bind was still on view in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, so his retrospective here, impeccably curated by Sheena Wagstaff, is a celebration and a memorial – both things at once, depending on how you look at it.