Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective

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Juan Muñoz, Conversation Piece, 1994

Juan Muñoz, Conversation Piece, 1994. Twenty two figures: resin, sand, cloth, 155 x 80 x 80 cm (each). © The Estate of Juan Muñoz, Bilbao 2008. Photo by Kristien Daem

May 27–October 10, 2008

In 1984 Juan Muñoz’s (b. 1953, Madrid; d. 2001, Ibiza) first solo exhibition, held in his home city of Madrid, featured a small winding staircase topped with a balcony, resting against a wall. Muñoz said that this work was "the first piece I recall with which I had a certain feeling of identity." This architectural motif would recur throughout the artist’s career and now more than two decades later, this sculpture is part of the most important international retrospective of Muñoz’s work, an exhibition of more than 80 works, some never seen before, including sculptures, installations, drawings, radio plays, and writings.

For nearly 20 years, Juan Muñoz has utilized a highly personal art idiom to create an oeuvre possessing an exceptional sense of narrative, filled with references to the history of Western culture. Muñoz claimed that in his work, "what you see is not what it seems to be." Enticing viewers to relate and to become involved with his pieces, he nonetheless induced a sense of isolation and introspection through a carefully woven web of poetic allusions. His empty balconies and banisters leading nowhere harbor sinister dimensions, hanging precariously or concealing violent elements such as knives. His optically illusionistic floors, reminiscent of the Baroque-era masterpieces such as Borromini’s gallery in Rome’s Palazzo Spada, frame and stage the audience as they walk across, turning them into actors in a play. Suspended figures recall Edgar Degas’s trapeze artist, while groups of otherworldly figures look at each other as if part of some theater of masks dreamed up by Luigi Pirandello.

All these mute voices, striving to speak, create a muffled murmur that reverberates through the entire show. For its Bilbao presentation, the exhibition, organized by Tate Modern, London, in cooperation with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, includes major large-scale works such as Conversation Piece (1994), Derailment (2000-01), and Thirteen Laughing at Each Other (2001). Designed specifically to enter into a dialogue with Frank Gehry’s unusual architectural spaces, the installation transforms each gallery into a chapter of a continuous story, featuring self-reflective characters in whom we recognize our own fears and preoccupations.

Organized by Sheena Wagstaff, the Tate Modern, London.