Oscar Munoz’s pensive works awaken our empathy for South America’s disappeared, writes Christopher Allen
OSCAR Munoz’s installation at the Art Gallery of NSW, Biografias ( 2002), consists of five squares of light projected on to the floor of a darkened room. As we draw near, we find each square contains a moving image. In some cases it may seem only an amorphous clump of matter, but others will be more or less recognisable human faces. Then we discover that in the middle of each square is a metal grille, like those of a floor drain in a bathroom.
The images, we soon realise, are the faces of five men. At different moments each will appear briefly in its normal shape, then begin slowly to waver and grow distorted. The features appear to crumple; eyes, noses and mouths collapse and merge into forms that are first monstrous, then unrecognisable. What is left begins to spin in a vortex and finally disappears down the drain. The general acoustic background of white noise is interwoven, at these moments, with watery sounds from tiny speakers beneath the grilles.
Human beings are exquisitely attuned to reading the features of others. Small distinctions in the size of a mouth, nose or eyes, or in the intervals between them, make the difference between beauty and ugliness. Even more minute variations in the set and motion of the face convey personality, character and expression.
Artists have been concerned for centuries with the problem of conveying expression in art, and one of their problems has been how far to allow the face to become distorted with passion; as writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing pointed out in the 18th century, the most extreme alteration of the features caused by sensation or emotion is fleeting and usually unsightly if captured and frozen in a painting or sculpture. It is usually preferable to understate the expression and leave something to the imagination of the viewer.
Munoz, however, does not distort the features of his subjects in an expressive way. The original photographs have a vestigial expression: the suspended look of someone posing for a snapshot or, possibly in some cases, a police mugshot. The change they undergo in Munoz’s work is not in becoming animated but quite the reverse. It is a dissolution, a loss of form, a collapse into entropy.