Published  04/09/2008

Oscar Munoz: the Presence of the Absence

Oscar Muñoz: the Presence of the Absence

Mirror Image
Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), London
13 June-27 July 2008

Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz's first solo exhibition in the UK, 'Mirror Image', is a revelation of the artist's powerful examination of some of the most critical issues of the times and some of the most eternal. As the artist says in his introduction to the exhibit, 'My work today arises from an interest in comprehending the mechanism developed by a society that has accepted war as part of the routine of living. Or rather, a dark and corrupted succession of wars for more than 50 years ... '

Held at the new space occupied by the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) in London's Rivington Place, 'Mirror Image' ran for a mere six weeks this summer from 13 June to 27 July. Nevertheless, visitors to the show witnessed Muñoz full scale. 'Mirror Image' was curated by Iniva director Sebastian Lopez and curator and consultant Melanie Keen, who brought together works from the past decade of Muñoz's career. When entering the building, people were directed to enter a dark room. There, they saw portraits appear and disappear, reflecting the artist's view that each image has an inner time. And as the images took shape and dissolved, they evoked the intangible reality of human existence.
Born in 1951 in Popayán, Columbia, near the border of Equador, Muñoz now lives and works in Cali - the largest city in the country's southwestern region - where he studied at the Cali School of Visual Arts. Since he began exhibiting internationally in 1997, recognition of Muñoz's work has increased to the point that, today, he stands as a key figure in the vibrant Colombian art scene. His works are included in many prestigious institutions, including the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. While his practice continues to evolve, certain themes persist: the very personal and yet profoundly universal experience of memory and loss and how so much of life can appear to be a fleeting dream, close enough to touch one moment and then just out of reach.

Opening 'Mirror Image', 'Narciso'(2001-02) is a three-minute video showing a self-portrait of Muñoz, drawn by the artist on water inside a white washbasin. His figure is duplicated as a shadow of the drawing appears against the bright ceramic bowl. This silhouette fills up the contours of the first drawing while the water slowly drains away. While the two 'self-portraits' merge, both gradually fade until they vanish completely down the plughole. Ink residue is all that remains in the sink. Similarly, the next work - the video 'Line of Destiny' (2006) - captures a male face projected on water cupped in a palm; the image drains off the hand's fingers until it, too, is gone. These videos challenge perceptions of reality by questioning the ephemeral nature of being through the dissolution of human traces. Here, also, Muñoz plays with the concept of memory, the lingering effects of the line marks in the palm (which, according to palmistry, tells someone's fate) and the marks of the drawings that are washed away and, yet, still appear in ghosted form after the water is gone.

Muñoz also deals with water's inconsistency in 'Project for a Memorial' (2005), a video installation with five screen projections. But here, water does not function as the basis of the artist's images; it is the 'ink' that he uses to draw portraits on a hot pavement. Thus, with rapid motion, the audience could observe the process of creating facial lines. Each projection in the video presents one portrait, and while Muñoz completes one drawing the others are evaporating. Incessantly, when one screen shows a completely dried surface, he begins to draw another anonymous face. The strength of this video derives from economy of means and the personal stories behind the images. Who are these people that vanish under the sunlight? The artist reproduces images of dead people that he took from newspaper obituaries. Knowing the origin of the portraits elicits reflections on loss and what remains after death. In Muñoz's homeland, of course, newspapers report daily on victims of violence throughout the country. The complex nature of memory and loss that touches all is an ever-present reality there, never far from the surface of events.

Shown in the same room with 'Project for a Memorial', the installation 'Eclipse' (2000) comprises seven concave mirrors in sequence (20 cm each). At Iniva, 'Eclipse' was placed on a wall facing the street. Muñoz made small holes in this wall which, as a result, functioned as a camera obscura and allowed visitors to see what was transpiring outside the dark gallery, albeit upside down, and created an illusionary dimension of the space by bringing outside reality indoors.

Muñoz's concern with capturing what might be 'real' was clearly perceived in the final display at Iniva: 'Aliento' or 'Breath of Life', (1996-2000) and 'Paistiempo'(2007). 'Aliento' is composed of seven steel disks placed on a wall. As in a mirror, one's own reflection can be seen in each disk surface. Even a soft breath upon the surface produces the image of someone else (a man, a woman or a child) and then, this new image, too, quickly disappears. As in 'Project for a Memorial', Muñoz found the portraits in newspaper obituaries. 'Paistiempo' is a collection of printed versions of the two major national newspapers in Colombia, Pais and Tiempo. Using a nail, Muñoz carefully burned the written texts by hand. At Iniva, the burned pages were displayed on long tables, like those used in a reading room. 'Aliento' and 'Paistiempo' directly approach, articulate and sustain the political contents of Muñoz's aesthetics. They forcefully convey his experience, shared with many Colombians '... of being confronted each day with news of the ongoing war (never described as such) through newspapers and televison', Iniva director Lopez explains. Rejecting the ingrained imaginary and distanced editorial coverage, Muñoz provides a fading illustration of human loss. His artworks promote news with a humanitarian scope by erasing the language of loss and transforming the images of war victims into self-reflections.

The entire exhibit can be considered as a single installation, each work a facet in his world view. Visitors to the exhibit became part of a rich dialogue between the works, which connected and complemented each other. Muñoz's overt refusal of clichéd representations of reality generated an intense political discourse and immersed viewers in the tangible reality of their own lives. During the past decade, Muñoz has developed a process that allows him tear down in order to build up, dismantle human traces to recharge them with the consciousness of our unconscious vulnerabilities.

More information about Iniva and its exhibitions is available at:

Caroline Menezes

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