Born in Barcelona in 1942, Muntadas has made the United States his base for the past 30 years. This year he represents Spain at the 51st Venice Biennale, June 12-Nov. 6, 2005. A conceptual artist of early vintage, Muntadas has tackled a variety of controversial social and political issues, including censorship, urban renewal, political advertising and television programming. Displayed in public and private settings, his work is multi-media and collaborative in nature.
In terms of his age, his origin in a country once under a dictatorship, his pursuit of a career in nontraditional media outside of his birthplace, and -- most importantly in terms of his keen interest in the functioning of social and political structures, Muntadas has much in common with other European artists such as Hans Haacke, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Christo and Jeanne-Claude (although the latter pair's work has had far more flamboyant visual resonance in public space.)
Muntadas' most recent show at Kent Gallery, New York featured two early slide projections, Emisio/recepcio (1974/2002) and La televisión (1980). It was on view Mar. 24-May 10, 2005. We spoke in New York, several weeks before the opening of the biennale.
Michele Cone: In the 30 years of your career as a conceptual artist, you have shown twice at Documenta, you have received a Guggenheim Fellowship, you have taught in prestigious institutions including, most recently, MIT. You have been included in numerous international events, you have shown in galleries all over the world and, this year, you're representing Spain at the Venice Biennale. Yet, your name is hardly a staple in the New York art world.
Muntadas: It is important for me to keep a low profile. If I can develop ideas, and the possibility to show and produce work, that's fine. It's important that people know your work. But maximum visibility means to be hot one day and to get cold the next. The important thing is to be present in and part of the discussion of the production of contemporary cultural issues.
Yes, I was in Documenta, twice officially -- first in 1977 and then again in 1997. Which, I think, shows that the work has evolved and -- in certain ways -- remains relevant, if these kinds of shows still have meaning as concepts and new ideas. And, yes, I do have a long exhibition history.
I received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985 to work on the project Between the Frames, a long project, an analysis of the art system, and of the intermediaries -- I call them "filters" or "translators" -- between the art and the artist, figures and institutions like dealers, critics, collectors, museums, etc. It was a critical view of the accumulation of power in the 1980s in different roles and individuals.
MC: Could you be more specific about that project?
M: At the Wexner Center for the Arts, where it was shown in 1994, the installation occupied seven rooms in a circular space, one for each "chapter." Chapter 6 was about "the critics." In my files, I have hours and hours of taped interviews with people like Pierre Restany, Lucy Lippard, Benjamin Buchloh and many others, tapes that I then edited and from which I kept short fragments that concerned the structure of the work. In the room on the critics, you could hear portions of those tapes interrelated with open visuals in video and photo form. It would take hours to describe You need to see the tapes.
MC: Can you "translate" for our readers what you mean by On Translation, which I gather is the title of your piece for the Venice Biennale?
M: Since 1995, I have been working in different countries and projects on the idea of translation. I am not talking about translation in a literal sense, but in a cultural sense -- how the world we live in is a totally translated world, everything is always filtered by some social, political, cultural and economic factor by the media, of course, by context and by history. Issues of perception, of the visible vs. invisible aspects of the social -- that's what interests me.
Muntadas at this point takes me to his studio, which looks more like an architect's studio than that of an artist. There, he opens a book about his work released by Barcelona's museum of contemporary art, MACBA and titled Muntadas: On Translation. The book serves as a memory bank for the projects he has realized over the last ten years.
On Translation: El aplauso (1999), first shown in Colombia at the exhibition space of a public library in Santa Fe de Bogot, is one of those projects. According to the artist, the basic idea was not so much to show the kind of violence too often visible on television, but to translate the less visible aspect of violence -- the numbing effect that results from watching violence on TV -- into a visual experience. The project took the form of a video installation on three adjacent screens. While a set of violent and gory black-and-white images silently filed by in rhythm on the center screen, color videos of larger-than-life clapping hands directed toward these images could he seen on both sides, accompanied by the sound of applause.
On Translation: Comemorações urbanas (1998-2002) is another important piece for understanding Muntadas' work, this one executed in So Paulo, Brazil. There, the artist and his collaborator, architect Paula Santoro, investigated the disastrous effects of urban renewal with its discontinuous master plan. Muntadas translated this research into a series of pseudo-celebratory wall plaques -- replicas of the local commemorative ones and installed them in their relevant public locations. Muntadas' plaques gave the names and facts about the mayors and governors in charge of the projects, dating back 40 years. Images of the plaques along with the spaces they marked were then translated into postcard form, each with a brief blurb detailing the disastrous consequences of the decision that they commemorated.
These types of works that tackle social ills in places where the artist has a temporary personal investment led me to raise the following question:
MC: I understand that you have always been very careful and have had long-term relationships in every place where you have been working; sometimes you teach and hold workshops in those places, and your projects in distant countries take three, five, sometimes ten years to develop. So, in your case there is no issue of "last-minute arrivals making comments," to use your expression.
But personally, as a long-term New Yorker with a slight French accent, I feel quite strongly that it is one thing to address the ills of my country of origin, but it's another to critique a country that has given me opportunities and the freedom to express myself. Interestingly, I reflected on this issue when I saw Political Advertisement, your brilliant and funny documentary about American presidential candidates of both parties selling themselves like products to the American people. What do you say to that?
M: But, Michele, after a period of time you are part of that placeI was in Brazil in 1975, it was my first visit and, since then, I have been working and teaching in different projects and participated in the context. Any work I do takes time and is not a fast reaction to an unknown context, as you state -- all the context becomes familiar by living for a particular time, teaching and participating in the cultural life and/or visiting for different periods. And, also, it is an important thing to show the project first in the place it was produced.
MC: You may perceive yourself as part of that place, but are you perceived that way?
M: Anyway, my work is not so much a critique. My work is a contribution to the questioning of contemporary phenomena through a process and production of work. I am basically curious and I use my work to understand and to know more -- to put myself in a process of knowledge. Furthermore, it is by perceiving things afresh that I can expose situations that the locals themselves sometimes do not see.
Muntadas shows me his preparatory notes for the Spanish pavilion in Venice. These include the overall floor plan, plans for an information kiosk in the center and the design for a sticker that states, "WARNING: perception requires involvement," which will appear blown up to enormous size on the façade of the pavilion, as well as on the different elements (furniture, flat screens, etc.) that constitute the new work On Translation: I Giardini at the biennale.
Muntadas then begins to speak about the research he has done on the gardens where the national pavilions are sited in Venice and on the origins of the Venice Biennale. This research includes information about what the first pavilion looked like, what the most recent addition -- the Chinese pavilion -- looks like and how the national pavilions in the Giardini have grown in number and changed façades in the course of the 100 years of the biennale. Each of these details is linked with sociopolitical issues that the artist will "translate."
MC: What a wonderful idea! I have always been curious about early Venice Biennales -- who showed there, where its visitors came from... I associate one prewar Venice Biennale, the 1934 one, with Hitler's visit, during his stay in Venice for meetings with Mussolini.
M: The Italian pavilion was reconstructed to suit the taste of Mussolini. It was rebuilt again after the war. Pavilions are metaphors. The Venice Biennale takes its ideas from international fairs. It connotes the theme park. There was exoticism, invention, the new but by now it is an obsolete structure for the kind of work that people are producing -- specifically the ones interested in social issues. Furthermore, we have another definition and reconsideration of the idea of nationalities.
Imagine: all the activity there for a few months, every two years, followed by emptiness and silence It's strange.
I have been allotted two hours for this interview, and time goes by fast. I try to pry this reticent man about his own life with little success. "All art is autobiographical," he says, referencing his 1995 installation, The Nap. I attempt to find out what led him to create The File Room, an enormous archive of cases of censorship from antiquity onwards that his team put together (it went online in 1994). He cautiously answers that at one point in his career he was asked by Spanish television to present a work for a program about Spanish TV called Metropolis, and that his work was never broadcast. He reacted by starting this archive, which now comprises some 500 cases and includes his own adventure with Spanish TV. Yet he has no rancor against Spain and has shown there periodically, including at the Reina Sofa in Madrid.
I am curious to know what the situation was like for Spanish artists during Franco, and whether there was censorship of contemporary art:
MC: How did censorship affect the artistic production of Catalonia during the Franco years?
M: It was censorship in different ways, periods and cycles... From the cultural aspect, there was very little information about what was going on in the rest of the world during the 60s. To try to catch up, we had to cross the border into France and spend weekends in Perpignan. I would see 15 movies in one weekend, buy tons of books That's why French is the second language of Catalans of a certain generation. Ironically, Perpignan lost its cachet when freedom came back to Spain, for it had been for many of us a center of cultural information.
But all this was so long ago. Frankly I don't want to keep talking about the past. No sentimental memories for me. I just move on.
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).