We are grateful to the Juan Muñoz Estate for their assistance
'Rather than declaring power by seeking to control the space around them, they withdraw into themselvesPowerless and mute, they embody no universal values, no common truths, they propose no programmes for the future or the past. Friezes or freeze frames of arrested moments or movements, perhaps they are allegories of communication and its failures, of the impasse of language'
(J. Lingwood, 'Monolgues and Dialogues', J. Lingwood (ed.), Juan Muñoz: Monologues & Dialogues, exh. cat., Palazio de Velquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid 1996-1997, p.16).
Juan Muñoz's Esquina Positiva is a timeless masterpiece created at the height of the artist's tragically short career. An early and exceptional example of the artist's celebrated Conversation Pieces, it was unveiled to great acclaim at the landmark Documenta IV in Kassel in 1992. This pivotal exhibition launched the artist to international prominence, showcasing his magical, sculptural vernacular to a broad global audience. In Esquina Positiva, Muñoz eschewed the prevailing tendencies of Neo-Expressionism, creating instead an incisive conceptual framework, imbued with a uniquely poetic form. Created at a time of profound change, including the tectonic shifts in European society following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Muñoz was seeking to comment upon the grand issues of existence. He, like his British contemporary Damien Hirst, became part of a new generation of conceptual artists, employing sculpture in a radical way to explore the emotions and sensations of contemporary life, whilst toying with the traditions of minimalist sculpture. In Hirst's Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purposes of Understanding (1991), his fish appear frozen in time and place, impelled forward but forever static within their cubic grid. In Esquina Positiva, Muñoz's four androgynous bronze figures, appear equally suspended, assembled in an ordered procession around a 'positive corner', yet inhibited by their bulbous undercarriages impeding their every movement. As Jan Hoet, curator of Documenta IX once opined, the sculptures 'can't walk and yet they walk. It's a double meaning' (Jan Hoet interview with Francis Outred, 20th May 2011).
Muñoz incarnated these sculptures with the greatest of devotion, carefully attending to each detail of their expression, wave of their hair and ruffle of their draped gabardines. Their hands are revealed from under their long sleeves, gently resting at their sides without tension or anxiety. In Esquina Positiva, Muñoz furnished his figures with webbed eyes forever renouncing any intimate contact with the spectator, and invoking The Parable of the Blind depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1568. Painted in the same year as the insurrection of the Netherlands against the Spanish king, Philip II, Brueghel was attempting to capture the spirit of the times, whilst chronicling the conditions of the people and places around him. In Esquina Positiva, Muñoz adopted this same approach using his sculptures and their symbolic positioning to comment upon the contemporary zeitgeist. The artist invites us to look at the congregated party of sculptures, but like the spectator in the theatre, we are unable to engage them in their choreographed landscape. Instead the figures guard their inner sanctum, allowing only each other to audit their private whispers. In this respect, Muñoz was speaking perceptively of the sense of alienation and disorientation that accompanied Europe's tumultuous integration at the end of the Cold War. It also conveys a sense of the 'blind leading the blind' into an uncertain geopolitical future.
In Esquina Positiva, Muñoz's elusive characters have an enigmatic aura, relating to one another in a mysterious exchange that piques the viewer's attention. As intimated by the title of the work, they are positively determined to process around the corner of the building, off to share perhaps a guilty secret or undertake some sombre deed. However, any speculation we might make is fruitless for Muñoz's figures will never interact with the spectator. They are entirely absorbed with one another, observing a studied silence amongst them. As James Lingwood once discussed with the artist, 'I think your works condense the absence of noise so as to render the silence palpable. They seem to slow things down, so that you become intensely aware of the condition of the sculpture and the condition of yourself looking at it. And that condition is being alone' (James Lingwood, 'A Conversation, January 1995', J. Lingwood (ed.), Juan Muñoz: Monologues & Dialogues, exh. cat. Palazio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid 1996-1997, p. 128). This meditation upon the failures of communication and human solitude reveals the latent existentialism within the artist's sculpture.
Muñoz extended this metaphor to create a reflection on Minimalist sculpture. Using his new sculptural form of the body, repeated yet varied in each unit and arranged in perfect compositional procession, he was adapting the purity and perfection of Minimalism to a more social commentary. As Adrian Searle, close friend of the artist once recounted: '"they're zero," he told me, "in the same sense that the minimalists, and other modern artists used the square and the cube as a zero reference, and then they could make a longer rectangle, a black rectangle, a shorter rectangle, two rectangles next to each other, and so on." He felt the human figure had an equal potential, and could be dealt with without getting into the expressionistic aspects of the representation. The figure, for Muñoz and for a number of European and American artists of his generation, became a way of opening up sculpture - after Minimalism, after Conceptualism, after Arte Povera' (Adrian Searle, 'Shadows and silence', The Guardian, 22nd January 2008).
In Esquina Positiva, the spectator is able to physically move amongst Muñoz's figures, observing their diminutive scale, rich bronze patinas and spheroid forms, but they remain fundamentally detached, evading any attempts to build common ground. As Muñoz once elaborated, 'you're watching what's taking place, but you cannot answer backYou cannot collaborate in it' (Juan Muñoz quoted in A. Potts, 'Muñoz's Sculptural Theatre', S. Wagstaff (ed.), Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London 2008, p. 112). In this respect, the artist was engaging theatrical conventions, placing the spectator in relation to a set performance unable to 'bridge the separateness of people They can make you feel very tentative about trespassing on their space, not because they are confronting you but because they are so very distant. It makes you feel like a hesitant actor, very worried about your lines' (James Lingwood, 'A Conversation, January 1995', J. Lingwood (ed.), Juan Muñoz: Monologues & Dialogues, exh. cat. Palazio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid 1996-1997, p. 128). In certain respects, the spectators themselves become like props, objects to be looked at by the commune of bronze sculptures.
For Muñoz, there is no attempt to invoke any relational aesthetics, for his figures are not open to humanistic identification, they are 'like statues not sculptures' staged in order to preclude any attempt 'to connect to them on an intimate basis' (Juan Muñoz quoted in A. Potts, 'Muñoz's Sculptural Theatre' S. Wagstaff (ed.), Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective, exh. cat. Tate Modern, London 2008, p. 113). This notion recalls Giorgio de Chirico's frozen statues standing within evacuated, static city squares and Georges-Pierre Seurat's Une Baignade à Asnières (1884). Muñoz became particularly familiar with Seurat's painting, during his early visits to London, seeing it hanging as part of the National Gallery permanent collection. His fascination was with 'the space between all these people looking at a river, there is such a distance between them all. Each one is standing so still. And so mute. And each one seems to be occupying a space of silence. They are placed with perfect equilibrium between them. Looking at it I realised I wasn't interested in the mathematical formulation behind the work. I was interested in the incredible loneliness of the characters I thought: this is the image of the soul looking at the desert (Juan Muñoz interview with Iwona Blazwick, James Lingwood and Andrea Schliecker, Possible Worlds: Sculpture from Europe, exh. cat. Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1990-1991, p. 61).
Installed to great success at Documenta IX, Esquina Positiva first appeared congregated around the projecting bay of the neo-classical, Neue Galerie in Kassel. This strategy, envisaged by the artist himself, recalled Auguste Rodin's cloaked figure of Balzac standing enigmatically amongst the streets of Paris. Situated in the grounds outside of the centre of Documenta, visitors were compelled to look for Muõz's introverted figures, standing in self-imposed isolation at the foot of the museum. The search was rendered more difficult through the sculptures' rich and earthen patina, dusted with a slightly ferrous tint to appear camouflaged against the heavy stone masonry of the powerful building. For Muñoz, his sculptures' interaction with their surrounding architecture is paramount. Indeed Muõz once spent a lot of time investigating the sylph like figures of Alberto Giacometti from the 1940s and 1950s. On one occasion, he paced around the dimensions of a gallery filled with Giacometti's sculptures 'in order to understand the ratio between the Swiss artist's diminutive figures and the architecture which they seemed to perceptually possess and distort' (Adrian Searle, 'Juan Muñoz' The Guardian, 30th August 2001). This power to define space is one that Esquina Positiva powerfully possesses, Muñoz's immortal figures forever carving a path around their particular landmark, guarding their silence with studied stoicism. KA
Jan Hoet In Conversation
with Francis Outred, May 2011
Jan Hoet was the Creative Director of Documenta IX who invited Juan Muñoz to create Esquina Positiva
Francis Outred: Documenta IX was an extraordinary meeting of artistic talent, which has been greatly discussed ever since. What was it do you think that made it so special?
Jan Hoet: I think it was because of the physicality, the materiality of the show. It was not a theoretical exhibition but more of an emotional exhibition responding to a moment of dramatic geopolitical change with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reconfiguration of the former Soviet space.
Francis Outred: Yes, it is true. It was a moment of great upheaval.
Jan Hoet: And there was also a crisis in the arts, dealing with a world that had become somehow disillusioned. At Documenta IX, I hoped to restore people's faith in art. I recognised this ability and source of inspiration in the works of David Hammons, Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman and Juan Muñoz for example. Juan Muñoz, in particular was inspired by the art historical memory of classical art, by Velázquez, by Goya, by Brueghel, which he combined in his new idea of sculpture. A sculpture in which, the 'context' is part of the sculpture.
Francis Outred: When did you first come across the work of Juan Muñoz?
Jan Hoet: I first saw his work in 1985, in Madrid. I subsequently invited him to participate in the Chambres d'Amis exhibition at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Ghent, in 1986.
Francis Outred: What works did he create for that show?
Jan Hoet: There he created a balcony piece, a balcony in a cellar room commenting on the lives of servants in a bourgeois household. All the servants have to be in the cellar, from where they cook later to serve upstairs. He put the balcony there as a source of aspiration for the poor people. When I invited him to take part in Documenta he was totally involved in the Conversation Pieces. I went and visited Muñoz to discuss the contemporary context of society and to collaborate with him in the realization of Documenta. At that time I remember he said to me, you are a man of Brueghel.
Francis Outred: Because you come from his heartland? Out of interest, was Brueghel of particular interest to you?
Jan Hoet: Yes, absolutely. Because he was one of the first great artists of the Renaissance for whom local references are of the utmost importance. He depicted the marriage between the cultural landscape and he retraced its history. He projected the history of his time.
Francis Outred: Esquina Positiva has this incredible sense of procession, these figures that can't walk.
Jan Hoet: They can't walk and yet they walk. It's a double meaning.
Francis Outred: There's a non-movement and a movement at the same time.
Jan Hoet: Yes, exactly, non-movement and direction.
Francis Outred: And they are figures, which are completely devoid of expression.
Jan Hoet: They are helpless and at the same time they have decision. They are very determined.
Francis Outred: There was a very interesting sculpture made just the year before by Damien Hirst called The Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding, I find the relationship to that sculpture quite striking.
Jan Hoet: Yes, I didn't think of that, but that's true.
Francis Outred: I like the fact that they are so purposeful, they're so strong in their characterization and creation, and yet, the situation at the foot of the Neue Galerie was so isolated, so lonely
Jan Hoet: The sculpture was situated there because the museum is a repository of collective memory. The Neue Gallerie in Kassel holds many historical works from the 18th and 19th century.
Francis Outred: So these figures are kind of locked outside of the museum of great history, but they're also referencing history?
Jan Hoet: Yes.
Francis Outred: They're also lonely and lost, for the visitor to find the sculptures they had to really seek them out
Jan Hoet: Yes, because the museum was situated in the periphery of both Documenta and indeed the country. Certainly it was at that time, because Kassel was on the border between West and East Germany.
Francis Outred: What do you think about the meaning of the title 'Positive corner', 'Esquina positiva'?
Jan Hoet: Muñoz chose the title to reflect the decisive direction of the assembled people who walk behind each other with purpose. In the sculptures you have got the sense of movement and their non-movement. The patina of the works relates to the building like a commando in camouflage, they are dressed so that you can't see them.