If there’s a joke, it’s on us: Juan Muñoz’s playful optical illusions
Source:art and design Author:Adrian Searle Date: 2015-04-15 Size:
Fourteen years after the Spanish artist’s death, a retrospective of his dramatic installations, full of strange grey figures, shows he’s still toying with us...

  Little grey men … Juan Muñoz’s retrospective Double Bind & Around at HangarBicocca, Milan. Photograph: Attilio Maranzano

Figures turn above my head like acrobats. They dangle from ropes clenched in their jaws. One has fallen and laughs, eyes bulging, like a beetle on its back. Another hangs by his foot. More figures stand around in front of a curtain, as if they’re waiting for something to happen. It looks as if someone else is about to emerge, but they don’t. The fall and light and shadow of the curtain is painted, an illusion. No one moves.

Walking between these figures feels like an interruption; being a spectator is itself a performance. They seem to know more than we do, about the status of being an artwork and the place of the viewer. The joke, if there is one, is on us.

Acrobatic art … part of Double Bind & Around.

  Acrobatic art … part of Double Bind & Around. Photograph: Attilio Maranzano

I climb the scaffolding stairs to a vantage point in the huge space of the HangarBicocca, a former industrial complex owned by Pirelli in Milan. From here I can look back towards the dangling acrobats and the groups of figures beneath me. In front of me, a vast empty floor sweeps into the distance, punctuated by shafts cut through it that disappear into darkness. Some are real, while others are further trompe l’oeil illusions. In the distance, two empty lifts rise and fall, out of time with each other, as they make their way towards the roof, then begin a slow descent, disappearing into the shafts and continuing down to the ground floor. They don’t stop at this level. No one gets on or off.

On the day Juan Muñoz died in August 2001, the elevators were halted in mid-air in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, where they formed part of Double Bind, the Spanish artist’s Unilever commission, the second in the series. Now, 14 years later, the illuminated cabins are running again here, where Double Bind has been reconstructed, over an area of 1,500 square metres. I never thought I would see it again. I feel the loss of my friend, who died suddenly at 47, very much. It was a career interrupted. In a way, all his works accentuate a feeling of suspended time, a perpetual moment between one breath and another.

Beneath this raised floor, the lower level of Double Bind is in semi-darkness, shot through with patches of light falling through the shafts. It’s like being in an underground car park, one of those liminal spaces where you feel slightly threatened and on your guard.

Ventriloquist Looking at a Double Interior, 1988-2000, Juan Muñoz.

  Ventriloquist Looking at a Double Interior, 1988-2000, Juan Muñoz. Photograph: Attilio Maranzano

Looking up into the shafts, we see another world, fragmentary views of light wells and corners, doorways and shuttered windows, air-conditioning units and alleys. They’re all caught between floors. A figure looks back down at me, though his eyes are closed. Another couple turn a corner into the gloom. They could be cruising, doing a drug deal or casing the joint. In one of the shafts, a group seems to be playing a game, and another is carrying bundles of yellow cloth. It’s the kind of stuff you glimpse on a walk in a foreign city. We are interlopers. We have no place here. If Muñoz dramatised anything, it was our role as spectators. His art was full of tricks and illusions, real and imagined confrontations.

The Nature of Visual Illusion (detail), 1994-1997, Juan Muñoz.

  The Nature of Visual Illusion (detail), 1994-1997, Juan Muñoz. Photograph: Attilio Maranzano

Unlike the American mid-career survey Muñoz was still working on while Double Bind was at Tate Modern (and which opened in Washington two weeks after 9/11), or the touring retrospective that came to London in 2008, the HangarBicocca show Double Bind & Around presents an ensemble of works, completed between 1986 and the artist’s death, which accentuate this theatrical dynamic. In any case, full-blown retrospectives, with their duty to tell the story of an artist’s development, often rush through a career and end up using works as illustrations, not giving them room to breathe or exist in the spirit of the artist’s intentions. Having curated a couple of Muñoz shows myself, in New York and London, I know how hard it is to get it right. This show takes a slice through an enormously varied career, with Double Bind at its core.

Muñoz rarely installed works the same way twice. Double Bind itself changed even as he planned it. He was a great and often playful improviser. For him, placement was integral to the work, and much more than a matter of display. At HangarBicocca, Double Bind has been recreated without having to disguise intrusive elements of the building’s architecture or signage, or find ways of getting around tedious health and safety regulations. It works better here. But what it really needs is a permanent home. It is a place as much as an installation.

The Wasteland (detail), 1986, Juan Muñoz.

  The Wasteland (detail), 1986, Juan Muñoz. Photograph: Attilio Maranzano

Beyond Double Bind is another huge space, an echoing concrete void with a terrific 1930s spiral staircase in one corner, rising to roof height. Fifty figures mill about on the floor. It is like stepping into a busy city square (among other places, Muñoz took his inspiration from the bustling Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech). This work, called Many Times, has never come alive as well as it does here. It was installed horribly at Tate Modern in 2008. Here in Milan, among this teeming crowd, it is as if they don’t need our presence. They have a dynamic all their own, a life apart.

Back at the beginning of the show, across a floor whose size is accentuated by a geometric pattern of yellow, grey and black shapes that optically flip perspective as you look at them, a ventriloquist’s dummy sits on a shelf, dangling his legs in the air. I want to trudge over there and see if he has anything to say. He just sits there, with a look of mad glee on his face. I have seen this figure on the shelf before: on a winter’s afternoon in Madrid in 1986; on an autumn day in Antwerp in 1993. I have seen him on that same floor, in London and Bilbao and other places I don’t remember now. It is as if he’s always waiting for me as my life unfolds, and has been for almost 30 years. The dummy never has anything to say. He just sits there, peering across an emptiness which is like a vast desert or the sea.

[Editor] 万兰