Os­car Munoz’s pen­sive works awaken our em­pa­thy for South Amer­ica’s dis­ap­peared, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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.

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