‘Rather than declaring power by seeking to control the space around them, they withdraw into themselves. Powerless 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, Juan Muñoz: Monologues & Dialogues, exh. cat., Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1996-1997, p.16).
‘Some of the best figurative sculptures seem to be aware of the impossibility of looking alive and aware of the boundaries they can occupy. The most successful ones are the ones that state those limits, the space between being just a sculpture and the man walking on the street. Not for a split second can you confuse one with the other’ (J. Muñoz, quoted in N. Benezra, ‘Sculpture and Paradox’, Juan Muñoz, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2001, p. 42).
‘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’ (J. Muñoz interview with I. Blazwick, J. Lingwood and A. Schliecker, Possible Worlds: Sculpture from Europe, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1990-1991, p. 61).
Among the most important Juan Muñoz sculptures, Conversation Piece was created in 2001, just before his untimely death the same year. Scaled down slightly from human size, the work is composed of four figures that collectively produce a dramatic narrative. The curated distance between sculptural components immediately places the figures in conversation with one another. The three central figures appear rapt in conversation, articulated through their broad gestures and craning necks, while the outer figure displays the telltale signs of separation, through his distant gaze and restrained posture. Upon closer reflection however, their webbed eyes and bulbous forms ultimately lock each figure in place. The animated figures produce a wavering sense of vicarious participation and estrangement from the scene. Carefully spaced, the spectator is able to physically move amongst Muñoz’s figures, acknowledging our own bodily presence in relation to their diminutive scale, rich bronze patinas and spheroid forms, ‘forever moving and forever going nowhere’ (J. Muñoz in an interview with Paul Schimmel in Juan Muñoz, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D. C., 2001, p. 147).
Entitled Conversation Piece I, the evaluation of these works can be charted through the series, from the tightly knit group conversing in Conversation Piece, (shown in 2002-2003 at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza) to the isolation and physical detachment of the Last Conversation Piece, 1994–1995 in the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Across the Conversation Piece series, it is the dynamism that Muñoz imbues into his humanized figures which reflects the artist’s thoughtful perception and human understanding. Standing before Juan Muñoz’s Conversation Piece I, the viewer is immediately drawn into the exquisite detail of the four figures; their delicate facial expressions, outstretched hands, and the crumpled pleats of their draped gabardines crafted with the greatest of devotion. Instantly recognizable, the figures bare the distinctive features of Muñoz’s figurative works: veiled eyes and muted mouths form tender yet frozen expressions, their nuanced gestures baring traces of human nature. Wavering between gestural expression and contemplative reflection, Conversation Piece I subtly and inaudibly transforms the atmosphere in which it is placed. The pregnant silence between these figures elicits a sense of self-awareness in the viewer. In this respect, Muñoz engages us in theatrical conventions, placing the spectator in relation to a set performance As Muñoz once elaborated, ‘you’re watching what’s taking place, but you cannot answer back. You cannot collaborate in it’ (J. 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 Conversation Piece I, Muñoz’s elusive characters have an enigmatic aura, relating to one another in a mysterious exchange that piques the viewer’s attention. As James Lingwood once offered in discussion 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’ (J. 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. ‘It is the work’s absolute obliviousness to anything outside of itself which paradoxically creates the condition for the spectator’s absorption into the world of the work […] physical proximity does not bring a greater closeness; it creates a greater distance. Being amidst the work creates a powerful sense of apartness’ (J. Lingwood, Juan Muñoz: Monologues & Dialogues, Madrid 1996, p. 16).
Part of a vanguard of artists who espoused the return to figurative form, Muñoz came to prominence in the mid-1980s with his own unique meditation upon the human condition. Muñoz would extend this metaphor to create a reflection on Minimalist sculpture. In Conversation Piece I, Muñoz eschewed the prevailing tendencies of Neo-Expressionism, creating instead an incisive framework imbued with a uniquely poetic form. Like his British contemporary Damien Hirst, Muñoz 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 Conversation Piece I, Muñoz’s four androgynous bronze figures appear equally suspended. Assembled in a social alliance yet inhibited by the bulbous undercarriages impeding their every movement, their immobility adds to the pathos of the scenario. Using his new sculptural form of the body, repeated yet varied in each unit, Muñoz adapted the purity and perfection of Minimalism to present a socially charged commentary on alienation and isolation in society.
Muñoz’s immortal figures guard their silence with studied stoicism, which commands a power that defines space. They are in fact ‘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 where he saw the work 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).