Project Description


from 09 april 2015 to 30 august 2015 – Space: NAVATE

HangarBicocca presents “Double Bind & Around”, the first solo exhibition in Italy dedicated to Juan Muñoz, curated by Vicente Todolí. The artist, who died in 2001, was one of the leading exponents of European sculpture of the last two decades of the 20th century. On the occasion of the exhibition, HangarBicocca is showing his most important work, Double Bind, which was made in 2001 for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London and never exhibited to the public afterwards. The exhibition also includes some of his most significant works, including The Wasteland and Many Times, making this an important opportunity to grasp the work of a great artist who reinterpreted the tradition of classic sculpture on the basis of 20th century avant-gardes. Mainly known for his sculptures in papier maché, resin and bronze, Juan Muñoz often took an interest in writing and in sound art, creating audio pieces and compositions for the radio.
The art of Juan Muñoz (1953-2001) reintroduces human figure at the center of architectonical and sculptural space. Puppets, acrobats, ventriloquists, dwarfs and ballerinas are but some of the characters that inhabit his works, alongside anonymous orient-looking figures, whose presence recalls ambiguous and contradictive scenarios.
Many museums have dedicated great retrospective exhibitions of his works. These include the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington DC (2001), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2002), The Art Institute of Chicago (2002), the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (2003), the Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble (2007), Tate Modern, London (2008) and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2009).

Location: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Artist: Juan Muñoz
Exhibition: “Double Bind&Around”
Allestiment: curated by Vicente Todolí
Engineering: MOSAE srl
Team: Michele Maddalo, Alice Brugnerotto.
Photo: Attilio Maranzano
Courtesy: Fondazione Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano; The Estate of Juan Muñoz, Madrid
Pictures in slideshow: from the exhibition

The Wasteland (1986) – Waste Land (1986)

Both works, installed side-by-side in the HangarBicocca exhibition space, feature a ventriloquist’s dummy and a large floor in a colourful geometric pattern. Transcending the concept of repetition and objecthood that lies at the heart of Minimalism, the modular surface of the floor calls to mind the optical and spectacular illusions characteristic of the Baroque. The dummy in The Wasteland is placed on a metal shelf with feet that seem to hang in the emptiness, whereas in Waste Land the figure is seated on a small wall. Muñoz plays with spatial coordinates and illusory expedients to induce consideration of the exhibition space, the presence of the viewer and the distance between the viewer and the dummy, thereby creating a psychological tension between the two. Whereas on one hand the viewer is attracted by the optical design of the floor, on the other the presence of the figure creates an alienating condition that emphasizes the distance between the viewer and the object. The titles of the two works make explicit reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, written between 1915 and 1922, and closely tied to the sense of estrangement and destruction caused by World War I. The ventriloquist’s dummy was the first anthropomorphic figure to be included in Muñoz’s work. To the artist, the dummy was a “substitute” for the human figure in a state of permanent expectation. He was fascinated by the relationship with speech and narration implicit in this figure: «a ventriloquist is always a storyteller. But a ventriloquist’s dummy without the ventriloquist also becomes a storyteller. He sits there, waiting for you in order to talk. He still doesn’t speak, but its identity endows him with some capacity to tell a story».8 The artist’s fascination with this ambiguous entity may be traced to the Portrait of Henri MichelLévy in His Study (1878) by Edgar Degas, which Juan Muñoz had the chance to see in the Gulbenkian Collection in Lisbon, in which a man is portrayed with a dummy. Originally, these two works were composed using patterned flooring created with paint or coloured ceramic tiles. It was only later that Muñoz used linoleum, taking advantage of the product’s mass production.

Conversation Piece (1996)

Conversation Piece is composed of a group of five figures made from resin and polyester. As for the other works in the series, the lower part of the bodies is formed by spherical shells that, in terms of their bulk and surface, look like bags of sand. Overall, the figures are seen interacting with one another. The silent conversation between the two figures at the centre of the composition is the fulcrum around which the other figures gravitate. A third figure seems to be leaning towards the centre of the action but is visibly held back by a metal cable held by a fourth figure. Lastly, a fifth figure follows the scene slightly apart. The figures in the work relate to one another, creating a complex spatial relationship that excludes any kind of emotional involvement with the viewer. «They don’t coexist in the same place as the viewer. They are smaller than real figures. There is something about their appearance that makes them different, and this difference in effect excludes the viewer from the space they are occupying».

The Nature of Visual Illusion (1994-1997)

The Nature of Visual Illusion is one of Juan Muñoz’s most enigmatic sculptural compositions. The work is composed of a painted background of large monochrome curtains, and four almost identical figures with seemingly Asian features. The figures interact physically and psychologically with one another in a complex set of balances and distances. Apart from the central group, in which three figures seem involved in mysterious conversation, a fourth figure watches the scene with a mocking expression on his face. The space in which the work takes place is rooted in the relationship between reality and illusion. The viewer is deceived by the trompe-l’œil created by the painting of a fictitious threedimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. The device is a clear reference to the Baroque, one of the major references in the work of Juan Muñoz. In addition to playing with the architectural aspects of the exhibition space, the almost theatrical presence of the curtains suggests the existence of a hidden and inaccessible space that increases sense of isolation experienced by the viewer when faced by a recognizable but unintelligible situation.

Hanging Figure:
Hanging Figure (1997)
Two figures one laughing at one hanging (2000)

Besides his investigation into architectural elements, optical effects, and the illusion seen in works like The Wasteland and The Nature of Visual Illusion, Muñoz’s works confronted their viewers with questions related to looking, being looked at and looking at oneself. With Hanging Figure Juan Muñoz introduced a new element into how an artwork should be perceived: verticality. As he said himself, «You can talk about verticality in formal terms but also in symbolic terms. The verticality of hanging figures […] was a way of dealing with the gigantic distortion that happens when you look up».10 Hung from the ceiling of the exhibition space, his hanging figures are bodies in contorted or precarious postures. Suspended in the air on metal cables that issue directly from their mouth, or hung head-down on a cord attached to an ankle, the figures call to mind the bodies executed in the cycle. Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810–1820) by Francisco Goya (1746–1828). The series is formed by solitary figures – as in Con la corda alla bocca (1997) [With a rope in the mouth] or Figure Hanging from One Foot (2001) – but also from pairs of figures that have a more intense relationship with the space and viewers. The bodies in Hanging Figures (1997) turn incessantly, while in Two figures one laughing at one hanging (2000) there are two figures, one on the floor and the other hung from the ceiling. Lastly, the pose of the figures seems to relate to Edgar Degas’s painting Mademoiselle La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879). This painting shows a female acrobat hanging in the air on a cord held between her teeth. The scene is depicted with a bold perspective from below and displays the French artist’s research into representations of the body in movement.

Ventriloquist Looking at a Double Interior (1988-2000)

The work is composed of the cast of a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on a small wooden wall looking at two drawings hung side-by-side in front of it. The drawings are made with white chalk on a black fabric used in the manufacture of raincoats. Both drawings show the almost identical interior of an apartment seen from opposing viewpoints: the drawing on the left shows the front view of the sofa seen in the foreground of both works, while the one on the right shows the rear view. This work marked the start of the Raincoat Drawings, a series of some forty works made using the same technique and materials, in which Muñoz drew ordinary objects and pieces of furniture, like seats, beds and sofas, inside domestic interiors without any human presence. Halfway between reality and dream, these interiors offer a biographical side of the artist, about which he commented, «When I was a kid living at home, I used to come back to the house every day. Occasionally – I don’t know why – my mother changed the furniture around between 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. […] So I grew up with this experience of dislocation. You feel uncomfortable, yet it’s extremely normal. I suppose that this relationship between normal and discomforting is part of the territory of this work». In Ventriloquist Looking at a Double Interior the ventriloquist’s dummy takes on a major role in the dynamics relating to the narration and sound. The mouth of the dummy opens and closes in an almost imperceptible mechanical rhythm without making any sound. This simple movement increases the sense of alienation emanating from the figure which, detached from its surrounding context, continues indefatigably with its interior monologue. The first version of this work was presented at the group show at the Maatschappij Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam in 1988. Muñoz later created two new drawings for the work and added movement to the dummy’s mouth in preparation for his solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in 2001.

Double Bind (2001)

Reconstructed for the first time after more than fourteen years, the structure of Double Bind, presented in 2001 at Tate Modern in London, has been adapted for the industrial spaces at HangarBicocca, maintaining the elements and proportions of the original project. The work is fully three bays long, two aisles wide and occupies the full height of the exhibition space for an overall area of 1500 square metres. On three levels, that divide the entire area of the exhibition structure vertically, the work features two lifts that link the different floors in perpetual motion without carrying any passenger. A stairway gives viewers access to a balcony from where they can look down on the work, with its vast flat surface painted with optical geometric patterns. Some of the motifs contain shafts that link the lowest section of the structure to the upper one. The illumination of this area emphasizes the visual ambiguity in the work, which features both real and illusory empty spaces. The ground floor resembles the dark and alienating atmosphere of an underground car park, and is imbued with a pervasive sense of control and surveillance. As viewers walk through the space, they discover the existence of another level between the two floors, which they deduce from holes in the surface that looms above the structure. The figures, seemingly absorbed or engrossed, are placed in sinister settings that feature grills and locked windows, which seem not to belong to any time or place. «For me, perhaps it’s this lack of identity that makes them so interesting. But they are still emotionally loaded, even if they are anonymous […] they are spaces of transition, of passage, to be used and then abandoned».

As in earlier works, including The Wasteland and The Nature of Visual Illusion, Double Bind is founded on the relationship between visibility and invisibility, the real and the imaginary, and on the ambiguity of the boundary between architectural and pictorial space. In the artist’s opinion, «I’m not interested in scenography. It is sculpture that includes sculptures, and several viewpoints. This kind of anonymous space, a sort of extended underground like a car park, is very familiar to us all. It is a space of our time […] these kinds of architectural spaces are very recent. They are a condition of our modernity». The title of the work refers to the theory of the “double bind” proposed by anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson and developed by the school of psychology of Palo Alto in the late 1950s. The theory concerns communication contradictions emitted by certain individuals, which bring confusion to the distinction between discourse and real intentions perceived by the receiver of the message. With Double Bind, Juan Muñoz achieved maximum complexity in the representation of spatial ambiguity and expressive ambivalence that, for more than twenty years, was a distinctive feature of all his production.

Many Times (1999)

Composed of many anonymous figures with Asian facial features, Many Times is one of the largest of Muñoz’s sculptural groups. It was conceived by the artist to be exhibited either in groups of fifty or one hundred figures, depending on the exhibition site. None of the figures has feet, they are slightly smaller than life-size and, although they are all different, they have a strong general resemblance. Their heads are derived from a single mould modelled on the features of a 19th-century Art Nouveau ceramic bust. Each seems to challenge the viewer’s gaze directly. Portrayed in a variety of poses and attitudes, the figures form a tight and alienating audience: whereas they seem to interact together, they also appear autonomous and independent of their context. Operating on the viewer’s psychological dynamics, one of the central elements in this work is our confrontation with the Other. Muñoz commented on the work, saying «The spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view». Deep in the crowd, the individual viewer is obliged to confront a personal feeling of solitude and loss faced by what we perceive as strange and “different” from ourselves. Muñoz varied the arrangements of the figures for different exhibitions. For example, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark (2000), they were placed on the raised section of the floor that ran around the edge of the room, looking towards the centre of the space where the viewers stood, while for the show at the Art Institute of Chicago (2001–2002), they were positioned on a ramp so they could be observed on two levels.