New York

Antoni Muntadas, On Translation: Celebracions, 2009, still from a color video, 9 minutes 33 seconds.

Antoni Muntadas, On Translation: Celebracions, 2009, still from a color video, 9 minutes 33 seconds.

Antoni Muntadas

The Bronx Musuem of Art

Antoni Muntadas, On Translation: Celebracions, 2009, still from a color video, 9 minutes 33 seconds.

A few years ago, the New Yorker started a weekly cartoon-caption contest. I can be trusted to draw a complete blank about how to caption each week’s illustration, and yet I am consistently impressed with wits in the general public knocking it out of the park with some seriously funny entries. A work by Antoni Muntadas stages a similar exercise, one whose high stakes reveal themselves only gradually. Part of a showing of seven new and old works organized by guest curator José Roca at the Bronx Museum, this iteration of the piece On Subjectivity, 1978, pre­sents a selection of five historic and contemporary photographs of the Bronx and invites viewers to offer commentary, providing a logbook, a pencil, and a desk upon which to compose their exegeses. Every day, selections of viewers’ captions are pinned to the wall above the desk, recording a range of responses: some poignant, some vulgar, and some gravely sidesplitting. For hours I chuckled when remembering the wry “Gorilla Glue” rejoinder to the image of a seated ape joining hands with a young blond child—after all, photographs do have that way of gluing an instant into solidity. “I hate that I recognize these people,” accompanied a close-up of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore at a Yankees game; elsewhere, a black-and-white photo of a bombed-out South Bronx apartment complex elicited these responses: “We are the 99%, bitches!” and “Cheap rent.”

Faced with a blank caption to complete, you too might be adrift. But paired with the dozens of responses pinned to the wall, the images start to make sense through a kaleidoscopic community of perspectives, through a lens of the utterly specific geographic context in which one finds oneself. It suddenly seems much easier to bounce ideas off this pool of sanctioned graffitos, to laugh and invent along with the entries on the wall. Rare is the artwork in which viewer participation allows it to become better than the sum of its parts; with On Subjectivity I felt I was part of an anonymous, powerful force given authorization to rethink the visual culture of the Bronx.

Working since the early 1970s in New York, the Spanish-born Muntadas has pioneered a type of work that explores the way in which media shapes not merely discursive spaces but actual public spaces. Muntadas’s several projects on the architecture and politics of sports stadiums probe the charge of collectivity as opposed to representations of it. Stadia, Furniture, Audience, 1990, a suite of twelve photographs, joins photos of the coliseums, their empty seats, exit signs, and statuary, and the excited crowds that in transitory throngs come together to root for their teams. Fundamen- tally recreational, of course, these contests engender real passions in both audience and players alike, and the images seemed appropriate in the central, recessed gallery of the museum that itself resembles an amphitheater. One of the most powerful works in the exhibition, On Translation: Celebracions, 2009, collages nearly ten minutes of television footage of soccer players rejoicing after goals. The elation of success produces a scarcely veiled homosocial zeal of male bodies physically connecting in victory. It’s euphoric to watch men in a moment of communal ecstasy, leaping into one another’s arms, hugging, kissing, and collapsing into joyful piles of limbs.

In contrast, Muntadas’s single-channel video and installation Alphaville e outros (Alphaville and Others), 2011, takes bodies’ loss of freedom and control as a more sinister possibility of architecture. Specifically, the piece focuses on gated high-rise communities surrounding São Paulo, wallpapering advertisements floor to ceiling in the gallery of housing developments that promise safety and well-being with images of groups of young people striding through clean plazas—yet in practice these spaces are desolate and unoccupied. In the video, clips from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville, in which a villainous mastermind computer melts down, thereby retarding the basic motor functions of the citizens it controlled, are juxtaposed in complex grids with sequences of “secure” walled compounds in Brazil scrubbed of human presence. Public street culture has been jettisoned in favor of a fiction of bodily security. With just a brief selection of works from Muntadas’s production since the early 1970s, Roca adeptly triangulates public, private, and media culture, provoking viewers to reconsider their relationships to one another in the real space of the exhibition.

Eva Díaz