Written in response to Oscar Muñoz’s exhibition, Imprints for a Fleeting Memorial on view at 1708 Gallery February 18 to March 31, 2012.
The components of Oscar Muñoz’s installation piece Ambulatorio appear simple: an aerial map, divided into 36 sections, covered in cracked safety glass, lying flat on the floor. Once the viewer steps onto the work, however, it transforms. For one thing, stepping on a photograph—a seemingly damaged one at that—feels transgressive. Even with others already walking on it, one hesitates, looking around for approval—is this just a mutual misunderstanding? Will it break more? Once that boundary has been boldly crossed, the viewer’s relationship to the object completely changes. The work simultaneously becomes more and less literal. As with minimalist artist Carl Andre’s floor pieces, stepping on the work allows the viewer to experience the material itself: the pieces shift slightly and the thickness of the glass can be judged by the depth of the cracks. Yet, unlike a minimalist sculpture, the photographs introduce the issue of representation, or more precisely, the inadequacy of representation. The strangeness of looking down at a work of art and feeling it with one’s feet calls attention to the extreme perspective, while the cracked glass obscures vision, just as the random order of the 36 sections frustrates any attempt to trace a continuous path across the city.
These initial responses could apply to aerial photographs of any city installed on the floor of a gallery in any other city; but what does it mean for a viewer in Richmond, Virginia to walk on a broken map of Cali, Colombia? Cali is Oscar Muñoz’s city of residence, yet the aerial view he has chosen suggests a generic distance rather than a personal experience of the city. By offering so little information, Muñoz seems to place the burden on us to decipher our own relationship to Cali, which, at least in my case, forces me to confront my own ignorance.
North American perceptions of South America are typically vague and colored by media accounts of violence and drug wars. Of course, if you have an iPhone with you as you stand on the map of Cali, you can read on Wikipedia that it is the third largest city in Colombia with a population of 2.5 million and somewhat astounding crime rates: there were over 1,700 “intentional homicides” in 2006, or 63 per 100,000 people. In the same year, Richmond’s rate was 38.8 murders per 100,000 people, compared to a US national average of 7. In 1995, Richmond’s murder rate, in fact, came quite close to Cali’s 2006 numbers, averaging 59.1 per 100,000 (although Cali’s mid-1990s numbers were much higher at roughly 100 per 100,000, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). From a strictly numerical perspective, crime rates actually narrow the distance between these two cities. That space gets even smaller if we consider that, according to the US State Department, 95.5% of the cocaine seized in the US originated in Colombia, while the US consumes 40% of the world’s total cocaine supply. If drug and crime rates tend to rise and fall together, how connected in this global economy is the violence in Richmond to the violence in Cali?
Yet, do these crime rate figures provide any more knowledge of either city than a ruptured aerial map? Who compiles these figures and on what criteria? The same could be asked of the aerial photographs themselves: who took them and for what purpose? The cracks in the glass might evoke the effects of violence as much as they challenge our awareness of how we gain knowledge about that violence in the first place. By placing the photographs on the floor, Muñoz pushes us past a passive experience of the image and emphasizes our interpretative position.
Much as you see your own feet as you look down at a square within Ambulatorio, we see a hand extend into the bottom of the video frame of Muñoz’s piece, Cíclope. Repeatedly, this hand dips anonymous portraits culled from obituaries into swirling water. The image slips from the surface of the paper, remaining a mass of pigment for a second or more before it dissolves into the vortex and eventually goes down the drain. As each new face appears and then disappears, the water grows darker.
Photographs, and especially photographs of people, have remained powerful objects since their invention because we imagine that they provide an indexical record of a person – like a thumbprint. Even if we understand the complex chemical process that uses light to record a figure and then fixes the image to a piece of paper, the end result remains something of a mystery: the image holds an inexplicable ability to evoke the presence of an actual person. Muñoz’s video reverses this process: as the viewer watches each piece of paper enter the water, the specificity of an individual almost instantaneously becomes a blob of pigment that then disperses. On the one hand, the cumulative effect of the graying water calls attention to the physical components of the photographs themselves, revealing their inherent vulnerability as a fragile illusion. On the other hand, people literally disappear before our eyes.
The first few vanishing faces provide a jolt, but the shock gradually wears down into expectation as we are lulled into the repetitive rhythm of a never-ending cycle. A recent group exhibition, titled “The Disappeared,” included Muñoz’s work among other artists’ responses to the epidemic of “forced disappearances” in South America: the vast majority of the time the people taken are killed, but their bodies are never returned. Thus, those left behind remain in a state of psychological limbo, unable to mourn as they continue to hope for information about their loved one. As the writer Lawrence Wechsler points out, photographs of the disappeared play an enormous role in the coping process as they represent a tangible connection to the lost.1 The Association for the Families of Detained and Disappeared documented the disappearance of 7,000 people in Colombia alone between 1982 and 2003.2 How long would we need to watch the endless loop of Muñoz’s video before we witnessed the disappearance of 7,000 faces?
Herein lies Munoz’s brilliant use of photography: he harnesses the power of the document while he simultaneously undermines its stability. Only, within the context of Colombia’s turbulent history over the past thirty years, this is not a theoretical exercise about the limits of the medium. Instead it functions as a precise metaphor for vulnerability, mortality, and loss.
1 Lawrence Wechsler, “Prologue,” The Disappeared, North Dakota Museum of Art, 2006: 8-11.
2 Elizabeth Hampsten, “The World Stage,” The Disappeared, 2006: 20.
Sarah L. Eckhardt is Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. She received her B.A. in English and Fine Art from Valparaiso University and she recently completed her PhD in the Art History program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation, “Hedda Sterne and the Abstract Expressionist Context” grew out of the exhibition Eckhardt curated in 2006 for the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, “Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective.” At the VMFA her responsibilities include programming the new photography gallery with rotating exhibitions selected from the museum’s collection of over 1000 photographs.
ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.
IMAGE CREDITS (top to bottom): Oscar Muñoz, Ambulatorio (installation view), 2011, 1708 Gallery, Richmond, VA, photo by Harrison Möenich; Oscar Muñoz, Ambulatorio (detail), 1994-2003, photo by Hans Staartjes