Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Juan Muñoz at Tate Modern

A visit to the late Juan Muñoz’s retrospective at Tate Modern (until 27 April) is not a relaxing thing, and yet singularly memorable. There is the continual feeling that one is an uninvited guest, and that you’ve come in the wrong door and are seeing everything from the wrong angle. Backs are turned towards us, figures group in an excluding way.

In The Prompter, 1988, the back of a dwarf is visible in a prompter’s box at the front of an empty stage – but try as we might we can’t see its face, and there is no prompting, and no sound. A drum is propped against a wall at the back of the stage. It’s hard to know how to react, but by then we have already reacted – by feeling kept at bay and excluded.

In Staring at the Sea, 1997-2000, two standing figures look at their reflections in a mirror, but their faces are covered by cardboard masks. They each look like the other, and there is little to be gained by them looking in the mirror. Whichever way you look at it, it seems like the back.

Many Times, 1999, in Room 10 is filled with 100 figures representing a single Asian man modelled on an art nouveau ceramic bust Muñoz came upon in a hotel. The manically smiling figures gather in groups, conversing and laughing, but they are smaller than lifesize so that visitors meandering among them stand head and shoulders above their heads. We are the ones that are left exposed and unusual rather than them.

This show is a matter of reflections, shadows, light and theatre – and a sense of unease – rather than a sculptural event. They are powerful images, but hard to endure. The spotlight illuminating Shadow and Mouth, 1996, of two figures in a strong beam, has blown out, smashing its glass, according to the attendant. A makeshift replacement spotlight stands alongside it, picking out the few remaining uncollected shards in its beam. Even the lighting finds it hard to take.

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