PRINT May 1989


IN TODAY’S SPECULAR PLAY between society and art, artists generating works based on the logic of redundancy bet on the re-presentation of the object as a demonstration of the inauthenticity of the real. This logic, however, operates by a short circuit: the artist’s denial of individual authority is presumed to deny, simultaneously, any possible new meanings for the objects that carry the artist’s signature. Yet when one speaks of new meanings for the object, one need not be committed to rehabilitating the Modernist myth of originality or of pure invention. For objects do not only refer to their makers. All objects also refer to all other objects. Therefore, by removing an object from its original or previous context, and placing it elsewhere, an artist might cross through the boundaries of both form and significance without canceling out either.

Such displacements open up another territory for art, a territory in which the art object—precisely through its capacities to preserve its own ambiguity and strangeness—becomes more than itself. This is the object produced by the logic of transcendence, a logic imbued with the values of mystery and metaphor.

Of course, there are two kinds of metaphors. In the first, one offers a different way of saying something in order to invest the conventional or familiar way of saying the same thing with greater vivacity, visuality, beauty, or energy. This we might call the paraphrasable metaphor. But there is another kind of metaphor—the one that says something that cannot be said any other way, that cannot be paraphrased, and this is the kind of metaphor we find in great poetry. If we transpose these concepts from the discourse of literary production to the contemplation of the art object, we come to the work of the Spanish artist Juan Muñoz. Here, continuous metaphoric transformations take place in the conjunctions of connotative images, producing a radical heterology. The objects we are contemplating generate a continuous chain of associations and meanings that can never be reduced to a codified transcription, can never be concretely translated, in the same way that a great poem can never be adequately translated into prose.

The parallel between poem and art object takes place on many levels. In a poem, for example, the simplest and most familiar words can, within a particular context, produce limitless and unexpected effects. The same might certainly be said of Muñoz’s use of simple objects and items from our daily life; with his “Pasamanos” (Handrails, 1987–88), for example, again and again, Muñoz presents us with this functional and familiar object; fragmented and isolated in the gallery, however, it takes on the aspect of pure form; then, slowly, just as a handrail assists us when we’re walking, Muñoz’s pasamanos lead us down a path of allusions, memories, and images. The handrail that we needed and reached up to as children, that we sometimes dismiss when we’re adults, but that we’ll reach for again as we grow older becomes, then, a measuring rod of our own bodies in time and space. Sometimes we will face one of these simple Muñoz handrails, finding in its smooth wooden surface an evocation of comfort and safety, only to discover that within it, the artist has placed an open knife: an object of security suddenly becomes a site of danger. And what are we to make of those manipulations Muñoz works on an object that is conventionally fashioned to guide us, so that it makes our journey, instead, treacherous or anarchic? In one pasamanos, the handrail curves in so close to the wall that our hand would be painfully trapped there were we to follow its lead; in others, the guiderail/bannister swerves out from the wall, curving into the gallery space, and around corners impossible to negotiate. These are handrails that simultaneously play their hand, take us by the hand, and let things get out of hand.

Another parallel between the poem and the art object takes place around the issues of rhythm, structure, and cadence. A poem moves us through both the experience it captures and the experience it is through techniques of meter, dissonance, and assonance. A Muñoz work, too, is based on both subtle and complex strategies of syncopation. While we might begin by “reading” the sensitive modeling of his visual surfaces, other elements insinuate themselves, playing strategic counterpoint. The artist cannot, Muñoz seems to know, give us the wasteland of our contemporary experience by either description or analysis, by offering us either a real or represented landscape. But perhaps the artist can capture the affect of wasteland in concrete material form. Perhaps the floor itself, then, as in Muñoz’s 1987 Wasteland, becomes the best choice: in order for our gaze to reach the shrunken figure perched on a far wall, it must travel across a patterned floor that asks for but at the same time methodically organizes our gaze. By orchestrating our visual trajectory across a rhythmic expanse of negative and positive space, simultaneously enchanting and anesthetizing repetition, Muñoz both parallels and elicits our emotional participation in a social landscape of hypnotic sameness and difference.

“I build metaphors in the guise of sculptures because I don’t know any other way to explain to myself what it is that troubles me,” states Juan Muñoz.1 With the work as evidence, what seems to make Muñoz wonder, what troubles him, is the status of the individual in our complex contemporary condition. Indeed, the crisis of the individual has become one of the most mutually-agreed-upon problematics of recent commentary. “Throughout Modernism,” Muñoz writes,

the cube, the square, sketched out, merely jotted down on paper, constituted the degree zero of meaning. I believe that in the human figure there must exist a similar possibility of the degree zero of meaning. I don’t mean as regards the human being’s physical or corporeal actuality, but as regards its image.2

Muñoz addresses the problematic of the human image/presence in the contemporary social order by translating the problem into physical/material form. Persistently, almost obsessively, he marks out the stature of the human figure in terms of its positioning and framing. The human being is wrested from its role as subject to be subjected to the effects of spatial manipulation. The ideological formulation of viewpoints, then, is substituted by the investigation of places from which one sees: towers, balconies, windows, minarets, verandas. Trajectories dissolve in territories; Muñoz’s installations become maps and grounds that are invitations to go adrift, to explore a cartography of survival. Where should/can we place our feet? Where to rest our eyes? (A floor that creates the optical illusion of platforms and depressions; a series of steps that lead into a wall.) How to establish a point of view? (A balcony, offering no access, hinged tightly to the wall above our heads.) Allegories of vision and listening. Listening as a problem of position in space. The distance of steps, the distance of the eye’s glance, the distance of sounds. (A minaret teetering at the far edge of a carpet.) Where do sight and hearing converge? The acoustics of silence. (A drum with a pair of scissors stabbed into it, so that the same gesture that makes sound is also the one that destroys sound, and with an implement that we might ordinarily associate with aggression to the eyes; a bell trapped to the wall behind grillework, so that it cannot be rung.) The individual authority of the voice giving way in the circumscription of the body. (Ventriloquist’s dummies, truncated limbs, a prompter’s box.) A new stature for the human body sought at the place of its deviation. (Dwarfs, metal silhouettes, shadow figures.)

At each step along the way, we find elements that function as keys or doors, yet through which nothing opens and nothing closes forever. The network of questions grows ever richer and tenser, but the solutions, the definitive answers, are always deferred. This is neither the enigma-loving commentary of the mystic, however, nor an essentialist’s game of hide-and-seek. Instead, Muñoz’s objects, sculptures, and installations are the embodiment of a cruel discipline that persistently affirms the energy of the will. Positing both the dramatic power and the potential of rigor itself, these works take it upon themselves to pass the test of the work of construction as well as that of the intelligence of the imagination that seeks to meet them.

Alexandre Melo is an art critic who teaches at the University of Lisbon.

Translated from the Portuguese by Amy Antin.



1. From an interview with Jean Marc Poinsot, “A Conversation,” in Juan Muñoz, exhibition catalogue, Bordeaux: C.A.C.P., 1987, p. 15.

2. Ibid., p. 14.