“Warning: perception requires involvement” is the resonant slogan that New York-based Catalonian artist Antoni Muntadas has featured, in 14 languages cumulatively, on signage and bumper stickers for 25 exhibitions since 1999. The sentiment also applies to his current retrospective, “Entre/Between.”
Conceptual in his approach, Muntadas (b. 1942) is best considered alongside contemporaries such as Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Juan Downey and Gordon Matta-Clark—artists who share his interests in archi- val research, site specificity, and the deconstruction of both media and architecture. In the show’s catalogue, curator Daina Augaitis, associate director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, describes Muntadas’s overarching project as a response to the question emblazoned in English on the billboard Media Eyes (1981): “What are we looking at?” At the same time, he is engaged, like radical 19th-century philosopher-historians such as John Ruskin and Karl Marx, with another fundamental concern: “How does society operate?” Instead of offering grand schemes or ideology, Muntadas shows us how citizens and systems interact at the individual level.
The subject may sound dry, but Muntadas often employs appeal- ing absurdity. On Translation: The Bank (1997) reveals how long it takes $1,000 to disappear in commissions incurred while changing currencies. The File Room (1994), an interactive online archive, documents hundreds of cases of censorship, including an African dictator’s wife who capriciously banned Paul Simon’s song “Cecilia.”
Augaitis has organized some 70 works, most of them previously exhibited, into nine thematic constellations. But the meaning of “previously exhibited” is not as straightforward as it might seem. Stadium XV (2011), for instance, recapitulates its 14 predecessors through video montages projected into each of the gallery’s four corners. The images establish connections between varied treatments of the stadium theme: as an ancient setting for circuses, as a stage for despots’ ceremonies and atrocities, as a site for transforming audiences into consumers.
The show’s thematic sections are permeable, cutting across the series in which Muntadas often works. The “On Translation” series, for instance, is an investigation, ongoing for more than two decades, into the conventions governing—and sometimes undermining— cross-cultural communication. It comprises numerous installations that mix video and/or photographic imagery with texts. On Trans- lation: Fear/Miedo (2005), for example, examines border-related anxiety on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican divide. Other works from “On Translation” appear in six of the show’s nine constellations, while another can be seen in a 10th space, the sala de video.
“Entre/Between” can be exhausting, but it is also frequently exhilarating, with many poetic moments. The show’s first image is a startlingly large close-up photograph of a candle, a dangling lightbulb and the blank space that lies “between” these tech-nologically diverse modes of illumination. Two works from the “Systems of Art” constellation provide an emotionally nuanced finale. Exhibition (1987), a large and eerily effective installation composed of empty picture frames and snowy video monitors, stands in stark contrast to the show’s conceptually rich final work, Situación Espacio (1975). Created the year of Franco’s death, this manifesto-on-a-placard advocates, in a few lines of Spanish text, the then revolutionary idea of art as a free exchange of ideas.
Indeed, Muntadas’s work is steadfastly concerned with the world outside the museum. Monumento Genérico (1988), a 13-foot-high Plexiglas obelisk imprinted with photographic imagery of electrical towers, echoes the uppermost parts of the museum’s industrial- looking exterior glass elevators. When installed roughly two decades ago, the elevators marked the completion of the first phase of the restoration/transformation of the 18th-century Hospital of San Carlos into a modern art museum. In 2005, Jean Nouvel completed his vast addition to the museum, which sets contemporary glass and steel against the granite surfaces of the original structure.
It is in the awkward intersections between the new and old buildings that Muntadas located Situación 2011, a site-specific video installation. The piece features four different video interviews about the museum expansion, on monitors placed in four dead- end spaces. Many voices chime in: those of the Reina Sofía’s staff and consulting architects, as well the four directors (three of them political appointees) who shepherded the Nouvel building from concept to reality. Given the speakers’ conflicting agendas, what emerges is a far-from-pretty picture of bureaucratic infighting. The work is also a reminder that, when you train your gaze entre or between, you are likely to notice seemingly invisible cracks and to hear voices that have remained, until now, silent.
Photos (left) Antoni Muntadas: On Translation: El Aplauso, 1999, three-channel video projection. (right) Monumento Genérico, 1988, Plexiglas, photographs and mixed mediums, approx.13 feet tall.
Both at the Reina Sofía.
“Entre/Between” travels to the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, May 31-Sept. 2; the Jeu de Paume, Paris, Oct. 15, 2012- Jan. 27, 2013; and the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, B.C., spring 2013.