Sunday 1 March 2009

On Oscar Muñoz: Biografias

 The art of Oscar Muñoz is one of transformation and erasure, where the mutation of images asks questions about identity and perception.  Set in a lower floor gallery of Sydney's AGNSW the installation takes up a high ceilinged square room, maybe thirty feet by thirty.  Across the floor are five square panels barely rising from the marble.  Onto each is projected a portrait that, literally washes away down the drain set into the panel.  This happens again and again, the cumulative effect is melancholy and immersive.

Perhaps the most striking fact thing about the experience is that one is not transfixed by technique.  For the record this isn't a piece of CGI wizardry, rather it's an adaptation of a traditional technique.  Muñoz effectively screenprints charcoal dust onto a the surface of water.  For a while each portrait sits there, and as faces melt around us we're almost anxiously transfixed.  In his studio Muñoz has drained the water and filmed it, in slow motion, as it first twists the face out of shape and then slowly in upon itself.  What's left is a suspended smear of an image that sinks inevitably down the grille of the plughole.  The charcoal granularity of the portraits lends their floating presence a naturalism and familiarity that is at warm and non-judgemental.  Muñoz's skill is to use that familiar low tech medium to connect us with the nameless faces.

Muñoz's work is not overtly political, and whilst it is tempting to project a further layer of the tragedy of Colombian politics onto the work it adds little.  The power of the piece rests on the universal rather than the specific and even its title, translated simply as biographies, is only faintly suggestive.  The power comes, not from any titular posturing but from the dissolution of another's image.  Just as the flammable stock of a photograph distorts as it burns and leaves us the water does not allow the image the dignity of an exit as itself, it degrades first.  What it leaves behind is an overwhelming sense of loss, and the repetition of this event in squares across the floor, and again on the one you stand to watch, gives us a sense of the ineluctable fate of the image and perhaps those who it represents.

Biografias is far from nihilistic.  Even as we ponder the inevitable we fight against our inexperience and hope that these people will stabilise and stay with us, a profoundly human response to the transience of life.

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