A Juan Muñoz Retrospective At Tate Modern

By Narelle Doe | 24 January 2008
a photograph of a gallery with sculptures of men with spheres at the bottom of their bodies

Juan Muñoz, Conversation Piece (detail) 1996 the artist's estate © the artist. Photo: Luis Asin Image

Review - Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective at Tate Modern until April 27, 2008.

It's an unnerving experience to walk into a room in Tate Modern and be surrounded by a crowd of figurative sculptures by Juan Muñoz (1953 - 2001). Many Times (1999) by Muñoz, widely regarded as one of the foremost sculpture and installation artists, comprises 100 grey figures, identically dressed with similar features and gathered in small groups, busily engaged in conversation.

This is precisely the reaction Muñoz wanted from audiences. Interested in illusion, space and parallel worlds, he draws the visitor into his installations but ultimately excludes them. Walking round the dwarf figures, all of which eerily have no feet, you get an unsettling sense of yourself being the outsider, of being alone and isolated in the crowd. The figures in this parallel world whisper and chatter and you cannot hear them.

Juan Muñoz (1953 – 2001) came to international prominence in the mid-1980s with sculptural installations that place the figure in architectural environments. Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective at Tate Modern is the first major solo retrospective of Muñoz’s work in the UK.

a photograph of a group of sculptures of men having conversations with each other

Juan Muñoz, Many Times (detail) 1999. Private collection © The Estate of Juan Muñoz

Muñoz considered himself a storyteller and a wordsmith. Born in Madrid in 1953, he worked as a curator in Spain before beginning to exhibit his own work. Although principally a sculptor, he was also a talented draughtsman and writer and collaborated on performance pieces, some of which can be heard and viewed in the café outside the exhibition.

His sculptures are unsettling and deliberately ambiguous for the visitor to understand, playing with concepts of scale, form, and tension between reality and magical illusions. His work demands space.

The Wasteland (1987) was Muñoz’s first large-scale installation, entitled after T S Eliot’s poem. The room is empty except for a small bronze ventriloquist’s dummy perched upon a shelf. But stepping into the room is like stepping onto a stage; the floor is an optical illusion, designed with patterns that draw the visitor towards the dummy and force them to become part of the installation.

The intriguing pattern, revealing Muñoz’s background in graphic design, gives the feeling of instability, not allowing the unwitting audience to work out where exactly they stand, or indeed where they are being led.

a photo of a gallery with a staue of a man facing the wall illuminated by a single light

Juan Muñoz, Towards the Shadow 1998. Private collection © The estate of Juan Muñoz

Themes of hearing and sound are prominent in his work; a re-occurring symbol is the drum, sometimes savagely punctured with a knife, sometimes pondered over by a group of mute musicians. Many of his figures are portrayed as listening, Muñoz considered hearing to be the first sense, in order to speak you have to first be able to hear yourself speak.

The Prompter (1988) features a raised but empty stage with an abandoned drum and the figure of a dwarf enclosed in the prompter’s box. This installation looks at the potential of words not spoken – Muñoz wanted to represent “a house of memory, the mind you never see but is always there, like a stage set with no representation, no play, only one man trying to remember, trying not to forget.”

This theme continues in Shadow and Mouth (1996), a slightly sinister installation reminiscent of a film noir scenario. Although the meaning is typically ambiguous, the impression is of interrogation or imprisonment.

One figure sits with authority at a desk watching another crouched down and whispering secrets into the wall. A strong light puts this whispering figure in the spotlight and it is only after a few moments of watching his shadow that you realise his mouth is actually moving.

a photo of a corner of a gallery with a small stage inserted into it and a prompt box with the legs of a small man showing within it

Juan Muñoz, The Prompter 1988. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © The estate of Juan Muñoz

Staring at the Sea I (1997 – 2000) is a similarly uneasy viewing experience. Two figures stare into a mirror but both wear masks obscuring their identity, ironically undermining the association between mirrors and self-knowledge.

Muñoz said: “My characters sometimes behave as a mirror that cannot reflect. They are there to tell you something about your looking, but they cannot, because they don’t let you see yourself.”

Violence is another theme that lies beneath the surface of much of Muñoz’s work. Hanging Figures (1997) reflects a painting by Degas, Mlle La La at the Circus Fernando (1879), which shows a circus acrobat hanging by her teeth. Muñoz’s interpretation of this has a strong sense of vulnerability or torture as the figures spin slowly like hung men from the ceiling. It has the effect of reducing chattering visitors to silence in seconds.

This exhibition follows Muñoz’s vision of creating different realities by spilling out of the actual allocated gallery into the café outside and onto the floor below. Here is an artist who played with words to evoke images, sculpting with words themselves.

A visit may reduce you to silence but you will be talking about it for days afterwards.

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