At first glance, the six figures in Untitled (Six Figures) appear to be configured in a set-up conducive to conversation – the group of six is subdivided into pairs to facilitate easy dialogue. They seem engaged in conversation, yet upon closer inspection, the figures barely appear to relate to one another. Their glances just miss each other and they lean forward or backward into space as if interacting with something invisible or imaginary. Enacting a stilted confrontation, the left hand figure of the central pair turns awkwardly into the shoulder of his companion who simultaneously looks in the opposite direction. These individuals appear to crave a connection yet are estranged from one another. Here, Muñoz draws the viewer into an identification of a familiar everyday scene and then immediately frustrates this recognition: what we feel we should understand we are suddenly disconnected from. Indeed, not only are these works ostracised from themselves, they are also ostracised from the viewer. As Muñoz explicates “You’re watching what’s taking place, but you cannot answer back… you cannot collaborate in it” he also adds that the figure’s physiognomies are also what “makes them different, and this difference in effect excludes the spectator from the room they are occupying” (Juan Muñoz quoted in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery (and travelling), Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective, 2008, p. 112).
Disconnection and difference is further emphasised through the uniform grey ‘sculptural’ colouring, their slightly diminutive scale, and perhaps above all, the anonymity of their identical physiognomies (each figure wears an anonymous laughing mask apart from one figure whose mask has lifted to show an incongruous solemn face). Muñoz’s universal use of generic masked features and expressions suggesting laughter heavily plays upon a clichéd Western connotation of otherness. Despite their uniformity, however, Muñoz skilfully manages to facilitate a perpetually changing narrative simply through the ways in which the figures are juxtaposed in an empty gallery space.
Unlike the figurative sculpture of many of Muñoz’s contemporaries such as Thomas Schütte, Katharina Fritsch, Stephan Balkenhol and Charles Ray, all of whose art was chiefly concerned with the physical structuring of the figure’s shape, Muñoz is greatly concerned with conducting a theatrical stage via the interrelation of the sculpted figure and its architectural surroundings. As the artist explains “I'm trying to open sculpture to a larger frame of reference by including optical illusions. It seems necessary to me in order to reject the obsession with the physical object. For example, I know that I can make a sculpture that appears to weigh one tonne out of ten pounds of Polyester resin” (Juan Muñoz in conversation with Paul Schimmel in: Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (and travelling), Juan Muñoz, 2001, n.p.). This complex and rigorous engagement with the concept of theatricality should be seen at the very heart of Muñoz’s practice. As in the case of Untitled (Six Figures) the emotional intensity and self-consciousness with which this theatricality is enacted is truly extraordinary. The unsettling combination of sculptural mastery and innovative theatricality in Untitled (Six Figures) is superlative in Muñoz’s accomplished oeuvre.
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