What a great a way to liven up a dreary November – a family road trip in Spain with my wife and daughter. The main goal of the trip was to attend the opening of a major international art exhibition, Muntadas: Entre/Between, curated by Daina Augaitis, Chief Curator/Associate Director, Vancouver Art Gallery (full disclosure: Daina is my sister-in-law).
Being able to hang out with Daina and her friends and to meet the artist and people knowledgeable about him put me in a privileged position to learn about and experience his work first hand.
The caution noted above posed by artist Antoni Muntadas (born in 1942 in Barcelona – currently living in New York and Barcelona) is about as good a way as any for me to introduce this major survey of his work currently showing at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (closing March 26, 2012). The exhibition will travel to Lisbon, Paris and Vancouver.
The survey, which features work spanning more than 40 years, chronicles the artist’s contribution to critical thinking about issues related to the visible and invisible sources of power, the role of mass media, the theatre and influence of the spectacle and the pervasiveness of technology.
In another of his text pieces he tips his hand as to the key questions that frame his work on the issues important to him – Who? What? Why? How? Where? For Who? How Much?
Muntadas has been a pioneer on any number of fronts. He was one of the first artists in the 1970s to use the emerging video recording technology as a medium of expression. Unique elements of Muntadas’ oeuvre are that his projects are open-ended, developing over several years (never really ending, just getting updated), and that they involve the collaboration of others. His work often takes on the characteristics of a case study for a social science experiment and an undercurrent of political activism is a common component.
Through his work he focuses our attention on the invisible forces that support the control and manipulation of information and individuals. He warns that media is not neutral and that control is often the result not of armament, but sound bytes and images. In one work, using the metaphor of a concentrated bright light as an interrogation tool, he urges us to “LOOK, SEE, PERCEIVE”.
After witnessing General Franco’s political, physical and legal oppression of the Catalan people during his youth and early adult life, it is not surprising that his creative expression focuses on issues of power, fear, repression and control.
You are wasting your time if you remain passive in the presence of his work. You need to become engaged, to reflect, to react. Muntadas poses questions, but he doesn’t provide answers.
For me one of Muntadas’ most powerful pieces, part of his On Translation series begun in the late 90s, is entitled El aplauso, 1999 (The Applause).
This installation consists of three wall-sized video screens arranged as a triptych, the center screen projection changes every few seconds, first showing a frontal view of people in a theatre applauding then showing still photos of horrific scenes of public violence. The screens on either side repeat images of a side view of an audience clapping. The catalogue note reminds us that – “Applause, understood as a social convention that denotes consensus and complacency, was approached in this work as a metaphor of the immaterial identity of the audience, of its alienation, indifference and passiveness”. Watching the installation you become uncomfortable with the notion that those applauding and by default we as spectators are condoning the violence depicted. The installation is a reminder of the violence and injustice in the world and the fact that we are becoming desensitized to its depiction in the news.
Another installation that demonstrates for me the power and relevance of Muntadas’ art is his 1987 creation The Boardroom.
You enter a dimly lit room configured as a typical looking boardroom – thirteen chairs arranged around a long table (the Last Supper?) lit by a red light from underneath (the table seems to be floating in the space). The walls are hung with large corporate-style, lit, framed portraits of thirteen prominent and influential leaders (all male) in the fields of religion and politics. A small video monitor replaces the mouths in the pictures and audio and visual excerpts of speeches made by the individual are projected.
The installation evokes the sense of mystery and power associated with the rarified realm of boardrooms, where decisions are made out of sight of those whom the decisions will most affect, and the role that media plays in promoting the message of these leaders. In this installation most of the leaders are promoting a self-serving and personal wealth-generating religious cause. Change the faces to today’s world leaders in politics and finance and we are into 2011.
To add to the excitement of being in Madrid to see the exhibition was being invited to a reception in honour of the artist and hosted by the Queen of Spain, Reina Sofia. The queen was given a tour of the exhibition by the artist and the curator and those of us at the reception were allowed to tag along.
There are a number of noteworthy elements associated with this exhibition. First of all, this is the first major survey of Muntadas’ 40 plus year career. Secondly, this unique show, at Spain’s most prestigious contemporary art museum, has a non-Spanish speaking curator – an indication of the international reach of the artist and his work and the stature of the Canadian curator entrusted with the challenge of bringing it all together. Attending the opening were artists, critics and curators from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America, including prominent Canadian artists Gordon Smith and Ian Wallace.
A third significant element is that the link between Muntadas and Canada comes full circle. It was in 1979, very early in his career, when he first connected with the Vancouver art scene (initiated by the VancouverArtGallery) and with artist-run centres across Canada. It is also interesting to note that in 1989, Daina Augaitis, at the time Director of the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff, commissioned Stadium, a project that continues to evolve and is featured in the show [Stadium XV(1989-2011)].
If you are not familiar with Muntadas’ work I encourage you to check it out. He is an artist of exceptional skill and imagination. The catalogue for the exhibition contains a number of well-written articles and will serve as a valuable historical reference of Muntadas’ work to date. It was exciting to meet the artist and to have him sign the catalogue.
OK, it was also exciting to meet and talk to the queen.
This Madrid experience supports my thesis that “Contemporary art isn’t that scary”. Taking time to read about and explore a range of Muntadas’ eclectic projects has certainly expanded my horizons. I took his warning to heart and got involved –reflecting upon the importance of decoding the daily bombardment of messages we receive from any number of political and corporate sources and the role artists play in prodding us to think for ourselves.
For those of you who are familiar with the artist’s work, which of his projects are important to you and when did you first encounter his art? Are there any pieces that you would suggest I check out?
Added Bonus to visiting the Museo Reina Sofia was to see the original Pablo Picasso, 1937 masterpiece, Guernica. The museum has the largest collection of Picassos in the world.