The Processes of (De) Composition
by Fernando R. Castro
The Ends of Process
March 2-20, 2002
In 1998 when Oscar Munoz's work Aliento was part of the group exhibit Amnesia at the Bronx Museum of Art, it was translated as Encouragement. This translation was not altogether wrong, only partially: it took a secondary meaning as primary. The literal translation of "aliento" is "breath" as in "mal aliento" meaning "bad breath" ("bad encouragement" is close to being an oxymoron). To translate it as "encouragement" is tantamount to translating 'aire" as "haughtiness" first and not just "air." Munoz, who thrives on ambiguity, probably meant to name his work both "breath" and "encouragement'; to have chosen the more abstract sense of the word is to misunderstand Munoz's modus operandi and hence his work.
Aliento (1998) is a series of works made of circular polished steel mirrors. The perfectly reflective surface of each mirror hides the image of a different victim of political violence or kidnapping. The concealment of the photographic image of the victim is due to the transparent greasy medium Munoz used to print it on the mirror. As the viewer approaches the mirror, he/she sees his or her own specular image. In cases of political "disappearances," nobody is ever sure whether the vanished person has escaped, gone underground in order to avoid capture, been kidnapped or been killed. The victimizers often deny that the vanished person even existed. Whether victims reappear or not, at some point they become as invisible as the mug shots in Munoz's Aliento mirrors. That is how Munoz operates: he uses an unusual technique to produce a perceptual effect that leads to an abstract idea.
Aliento also deals with an issue that has concerned Munoz for years, the narcissistic contemplation of self versus concern for others. When the face of the victim is not visible on the mirror, the viewer can contemplate himself or herself without impediment. But as the viewer gets close to the mirror, his or her breath fogs its surface. For as long as the fogging continues, the other's face is visible. As soon as the viewer ceases to give his/her 'breath" to the image (and here "encouragement' is germane), the face of the victim vanishes and the viewer's face reappears. Once the viewer distances himself or herself from the image of the other, the other becomes invisible again. It would not be a digression from the main political message to point out that there is also some reflection here about how photographic images keep alive the memories of their subjects. In other words, their memory subsists not so much because there is an image of them but because somebody thinks about them. A mug shot of an unidentified person is nobody's memory. The title of Pedro Meyer's CD-ROM, / Photograph to Remember, about his parents' life, agony and demise makes precisely that point: photographs are not memories themselves, only mnemonic aides.
Neither of Munoz's self-portraits are meant to be autobiographical in the sense of depicting episodes from his life. His depictions of himself and others are usually no more than mug shots providing a minimal connection between image and referent. His self-portraits are usually explorations about narcissism and its implications for self and others. The original Greek myth of Narcissus — that we owe mainly to the Roman poet Ovid — is about a youth whose beauty induced many maidens to fall desperately in love with him. One of these maidens was the nymph Echo, who had been punished by the goddess Hera to never speak except to repeat what was said by others.
Echo was able to follow Narcissus around but could not speak to him. However, once when Narcissus was in the woods he called for his friends thus-ly: "Is there anyone here?" Echo thought an opportunity had finally arrived to talk to him. 'Here, here," she echoed. "Come" he called her. "Come, she repeated coming out of her hiding place to meet him with her arms outstretched. Narcissus shunned her in disgust saying, "I will die before I give you power over me." "I give you power over me," she repeated meekly but he was already gone. Shamed by this rejection, the beautiful Echo sought
solace in a cave and hid. Narcissus's cruelty was punished by Nemesis, goddess of righteous anger, who determined that "he who does not love others will love only himself." One day, as Narcissus bent over a pool to drink, he saw his own reflection and fell in love with it. "Now I know the pain others have felt loving me, for I burn with love for myself," he cried. "But how can I possess the beauty reflected in the water? I cannot part with it. Only death can free me from thisoverpowering love." To no avail the nymphs who had loved him looked for his body to give him a proper burial, for he had turned into the lovely flower which has born his name ever since. Munoz's series Narcissi deliberately revisits this myth and so does Aliento; but while in the latter the reflective pool of water is a mirror, in the former it is the process of decomposition of the image he concocted.
Munoz's Narcissi are a series of distorted self-portraits drawn on shallow Plexiglas trays. The original image of the self-portrait is photographic, but Munoz, always attentive to alternative deliveries of photography, transfers it to the mesh of the silkscreen process.
However, he does not continue onto the next step of silkscreen production but instead places the screen over the shallow tray holding water about an inch deep. Once the screen is as close to the liquid surface as possible, Munoz sprinkles fine charcoal dust over the mesh so that it goes through it only where it is not blocked by the image on the screen. Thus the charcoal dust "draws" the self-portrait on the surface of the water. The drawing floats on the water and as time, motion, and air movement ravage it, it becomes increasingly distorted. The image continues to change until the water slowly evaporates and the charcoal dust settles on the bottom of the tray where the image is fixed. Munoz's process of image-making alludes to the biblical myth of creation found in Genesis 3:19-20, "for dust thou art, and unto dust shall thou return."
Although all Narcissi are made from the same silkscreen, no Narcissus is similar to another. In fact, some Narcissi resemble faces other than Munoz's more than they resemble him. The series points not only to the ephemeral nature of the object of narcissistic adulation but — as time makes us all alike — also to the futility of obsessive love for oneself. The beauty that once shone in the mirror fades and all that remains are its traces: "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5).
In Lacrimarios (tear containers), Munoz uses some of the same technical strategies as in the Narcissi; i.e., he uses a silkscreen mesh to draw an image in water, although in Lacrimarios the water is inside a glass cube filled almost to the top. The glass cube is sealed so that as time passes water condenses on the inside of the top glass forming tear-like droplets. The idea of water condensing inside a glass cube is not new. Hans Haacke built a similar cube circa 1964 for a work titledCondensation Cube. Haacke's cube, however, was larger and had very little water in it. The condensing water formed droplets that slowly dripped on each of the four inside faces of the cube 'drawing" lines and other patterns on the glass. The droplets in Munoz's Lacrimarios denote tears that stand between the viewer and the floating photographic charcoal image — as if the victim inside the cube were looking at the world outside through a curtain of tears, or as if the viewer outside were looking at the image inside through tears. A beam of light that shines from below the cube reflects the image on several of its faces and on the wall where the cube hangs. Lacrimarios is a series in memoriam of a specific victim: an art student who was killed by one of the many-armed groups in the Pacific coast of Colombia. It is a region with one of the highest indices of humidity and precipitation in the world. Thus the droplets also allude to the environment where this particular act of violence was committed.
Many of Munoz's works are characterized by an extreme fragility and vulnerability. The viewers who fog the mirrors of Aliento with their breaths often end up spitting on them. The mirror cannot be simply wiped clean without affecting the image. Narcissi and Lacrimarios are fragile because with enough movement the floating image can be totally destroyed. But even this fragility of the works — so troubling for the collector — has a correlate in the interpretation of the work, for it denotes the tenuous relationships between viewers and victims, or between our image and us, between appearance and reality, or between art and reality. Munoz programs his works to disintegrate, but curiously through that process of decomposition the work fulfills itself and becomes a more conceptual entity.
Fernando R. Castro is an independent photography curator and writer living in Houston, Texas.