Juan Munoz

at the Art Institute, through January 5

Melodramas pivot around key discoveries: the hero learns the identity of his true father; the heroine realizes that her former lover doesn’t recognize her when they meet again. For the viewer who’s identified with the protagonist, such shifts unsettle one’s own identity, perhaps even bringing tears.

The sparse tableaux of Juan Munoz’s sculptures and installations, now on view along with his drawings at the Art Institute, call up feelings of dread, recalling melodramatic climaxes or the moments leading up to them but never providing much information about what’s happening or how the viewer is to think or feel. The world seems to be on the brink of changing–but into what? Munoz gives the modernist idea that a work of art needs a spectator to complete it an unusual originality and eloquence, provoking questions or even emotions but leaving so many parameters unfixed as to give the viewer an active role.

According to curator Neal Benezra’s essay in the excellent catalog, the 1984 Spiral Staircase was the first sculpture Munoz felt was “really his own.” A wall-mounted miniature in dark iron, it has curvy, ornate, almost witchy lines. The staircase leads to a balcony with a railing, which immediately suggests a somewhat disturbing human presence: for reasons unknown, some tiny person will climb the staircase to look down on us. While a clean, glossy, straight-edged minimalist version of this piece would be about the purity of ideal architectural forms, the small irregularities in Munoz’s suggest particular if unknowable stories.

A similar effect is produced by the four balconies of Hotel Declerq I-IV (1986), mounted high on the wall. The ornate lines of the balconies and the accompanying “hotel” sign suggest that a figure will emerge–Munoz’s pieces seem suspended in time just before some decisive action. But the clues are so sparse that the same viewer might complete the story in different ways on different viewings. The balconies might evoke nostalgia, especially in Americans who admire the older architecture of Europe. On the other hand, the drawing Untitled (Balcony With Fire) (1984), which shows one side of a balcony consumed by flames, is consistent with the vague dread these hovering forms evoke.

Born in Madrid in 1953, Munoz fled Franco’s fascist regime for study abroad in 1970, returning only in 1982, six years after the generalissimo’s death. Before making art himself, he studied art history and wrote critical essays; he continued writing almost until his sudden death in 2001 of a stomach hemorrhage. His essays, examples of which are included in the catalog, sometimes mix fact and fiction and are full of Borges-like paradoxes. They suggest that art, invented out of nothing, refers to its origins in the void. Writing about Rome’s baroque church of Saint Agnese in Agone, Munoz declares, “Attention is not led toward spiritual absorption, veneration, or the sacred. Instead, it seems the spectacle was a metaphor for itself….Borromini’s church owes its being in the world to existing in the very space its theatricality invents…[with] no face beneath the mask.”

Analyses such as these illuminate Munoz’s intentions for his own work. While he said in a 1996 interview that the more realistic sculptures are meant to be, “the less interior life they have,” the absence of specifics in his work is also a way of acknowledging the void faced by many who have abandoned religion: the knowledge that the meanings we make, the worlds we construct, are utterly arbitrary. The wooden Banister (1991), though installed at a usable height against a wall, has no real function–most of us can walk on a level floor without support, and since this is a work of art, you’re not supposed to touch it anyway. As if to put the finishing touch on its absurdity, Munoz has it curve improbably upward at one end. This banister piece and others in the show both evoke and deny the human presence; they also connect with the room’s architecture and contradict it. One Month Before (1986), in which two legs emerge from the back of an otherwise empty bookcase, recalls a similar work by Robert Gober, but Munoz’s much cleaner design–there’s no hair on the legs, for example–avoids the psychological associations Gober suggests. Instead the legs present an unanswerable mystery: no association one might have really opens up the work, which remains perched on a kind of precipice not unlike that implied by the balconies and banisters, looking into the void where, in older art, meaning used to be.

Many of Munoz’s sculptures, such as the balcony and banister pieces, suggest but don’t identify specific places, leaving the viewer vaguely disoriented. This disorientation may have roots in his childhood: “When I was a kid living at home,” he told an interviewer in 1995, “occasionally–I don’t know why–my mother changed the furniture around between the rooms. So you came in and opened the door of your room and found that your room was no longer your room–it was your brother’s. And a different room somewhere up the hall was now your room, with all your stuff in it, your posters on the wall. Then you grew used to it–until the rooms were changed again.” A young installation artist today responding to such a childhood might place a video reconstructing the moves alongside a tape of his “mother” explaining the reasons for them or denying that they happened at all and add drawings to illustrate his feelings about the matter. But Munoz generalizes the dislocation he experienced, making it into something for us all–a statement about existence.

The viewer is invited to participate even more explicitly in the large installation Many Times (2000). Fifty short figures with vaguely Chinese features are installed on the second floor above the Art Institute’s grand stairway, some on each of the balcony’s four sides and a few on a landing. Benezra notes that Munoz, recognizing “that Western eyes are often unaccustomed to distinguishing specific Asian facial characteristics…exploited this inability…in his ongoing effort to ‘depersonalize’ his sculptures.” And to Western viewers, these figures do feel very homogeneous and “other,” almost a joke on the cliche of oriental inscrutability. Each stands and gestures differently, however. Caught in midact, the figures are too lifelike to seem frozen forever; perhaps they’re from a universe in which one of our seconds lasts a day or a week. Mingling with museum visitors in this high-traffic location, they seem visitors from some other world–but look at the figures long enough and real viewers, with their different ways of dressing, sometimes purposeless movements, and idle chatter, are the ones who start to seem “other.” (This may be Munoz’s little joke on the pointless, random way most of us, at one time or another, have wandered around a museum.) The figures at least seem to know what they’re about even if we don’t.

The only unsuccessful sculpture in the exhibit, Stuttering Piece (1993), illuminates the value of Munoz’s usual enigmatic approach. A tape loop provides the “sound track” for two tiny seated figures, repeating a few phrases (“you never say anything”) over and over. The problem is that the dialogue fills up too much of the viewer’s perceptual space, telegraphing the message about noncommunication explicitly.

The large Five Seated Figures (1996), which only implies a conversation, shows Munoz at peak form. Five life-size men are sitting in separate chairs arranged in a typical bourgeois conversation-pit rectangle. While some of the men look at each other, one man twists around in his seat; here the viewer provides the noncommunication “script.” A large mirror at the rear of the group, angled down, reflects the figures as well as the viewer and any other visitors, suggesting an ideal position from which to see the piece–the whole group plus its reflection in the mirror. But despite the visual coherence of Five Seated Figures, once again we cannot know the story behind the image.

Mirrors have a divided function in the great 1950s Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, often underlining pivotal moments. Mirrors can be revealing, reflecting back to the characters some awful self they want to escape, but they can also mock the idea of revelation by multiplying the entrapments of the material world. Munoz’s mirror functions similarly: it magnifies the scene, both by doubling it visually and by giving it added import, while telling us almost nothing new. It reminds us that images alone cannot reveal truth; truth is something the viewer has to uncover–or invent.