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Juan Muñoz’s figurative sculpture, often interlaced with sound and architectural elements, rendered him one of Spain’s most internationally renowned artists until his sudden death in 2001 aged 48. His work, included in many Biennales including Sydney’s, became a signpost of the return to figuration in contemporary sculpture. This retrospective, conceived by London’s Tate Modern in cooperation with Bilbao’s Guggenheim, brings together several of Muñoz’s signature large-scale installations (collectively known as ‘conversation pieces’), as well as earlier wall pieces and works on paper. The spatial idiosyncrasies of Frank Gehry’s building—odd angles, irregular recesses, unexpected long-range vistas—complement Muñoz’s oeuvre perfectly, given the artist’s interest in springing surprise and creating optical illusions of scale and perspective. (Particularly striking is the installation of Hanging Figure (1997), whose arched body suddenly looms above, suspended from the highest reaches of the ceiling through several floors.) Gehry’s ‘soft’ organic architecture, with its many references to natural cycles of change also helps accent the humanism, the deep concern for the human subject grappling with the nature of existence, that underpins Muñoz’s practice.
Beginning with small architectural interventions—like the scale-defying balconies perched on the gallery wall (such as Hotel Declercq, 1986) or a banister set at arm’s height concealing a knife that would slice any hand that used it as support (First Banister, 1987)—Muñoz eventually developed his most distinctive motif, a slightly smaller than adult-sized figure, clothed in a crumpled suit and rendered with rough textures in a single neutral shade. Either alone or in a group, on the floor or on the wall, this figure became the cipher for the artist’s exploration of the relationship between self and other, representation and reality, and the viewer and the artwork. Face to face with Muñoz’s installations, in particular the later ‘conversation pieces’ that feature this figure en masse, the power of figurative sculpture to engage us at an immediate, affective level is undeniable (in spite of the form’s sustained lack of critical cachet in recent decades). Yet, unlike the hyperrealist sculpture of artists such as Ron Mueck or Duane Hanson, Munoz’s bodies are to some extent abstracted, not only in colour and size and anatomical accuracy (their feet are often missing), but also in their less than perfect rendering that betrays the process of their making. The abstraction of the undifferentiated figures—each is in fact identical except in pose and gesture—enhances both their otherness and the space for interpretation.
In this tension between the familiar and the enigmatic arises precisely the generative space the artist sought to create, what he called the ‘non-place’ or ‘space of slippage’ between reality and illusion. A great admirer of sleight of hand and magic tricks, Muñoz was also inspired both by vaudeville actors and carneys (ordinary yet extraordinary people) and the renowned dwarfs of the Spanish court (immortalised in the paintings of Velazquez and Goya), whose physical peculiarities granted them licence to speak the truth, however unpalatable. In his arrangements of human-like but insistently rough-hewn objects, amongst which the viewer is invited to wander, the artist thus sets up a scenario that allows for the conception of ‘another reality’.
Take his ‘conversation piece’ Many Times (1999) that from afar looks like a convivial gathering between petite men. All the figures are smiling, many share a friendly gesture, their diminutive size neutralising whatever threat may be implicit in their numbers. We smile with them, feel tenderness towards their creased, ill-fitting clothes, the same way the lumpy sock-clad feet of figures in other installations elicit feelings of affection. And yet, before long, a distinct unease sets in. The figures that at first appeared like individuals in a crowd, now are without doubt the same figure in different stances, and the facial features that at first appeared universal are now distinctly racialised as Asiatic. The conviviality mutates into indifference and, ultimately, the exclusion of you, the viewer, the smiling affirmations into derision and contempt. And in that unease arises a fertile state of self-consciousness, where our assumptions about belonging and human interaction are foregrounded (if ever so briefly).
This generative state of unease where we are confronted by our own prejudices and judgemental attitudes, where what seemed familiar bowls us over with its strangeness, permeates this well-crafted exhibition, as does the tenderness the artist expresses, through his rendering and materials, about the vulnerability of the human subject. Works such as Shadow and Mouth (1996), for example, where a lone figure leans into a wall whispering an undecipherable monologue while another sits unmoved behind a desk, capture the often unfulfilled human need for connection with simplicity and poignancy. This exhibition succeeds in providing a strong sense of the artist’s abiding humanist project, while affording many opportunities for aesthetic delight and wonder in the interplay between Muñoz architecturally-informed work and the form of the building itself.