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Sleight of Hand

Oscar Muñoz is a Colombian artist whose work has been recognized internationally. Represented in the U.S. by Sicardi Gallery, Houston, director Maria Ines Sicardi, and associate Ximena Gama, who currently resides in Bogota, Colombia, recently talked with artist Oscar Muñoz concerning his recent installation Editor Solitario in order to uncover some of the influences behind his work. During his forty year career, Muñoz has developed the most subtle, delicate and cohesive oeuvre of Colombian artists. Using various media, he has created a deep reflection on the subjectivity of individual and collective memory. The following interview was transcribed from collaborative discussions and phone calls.

Maria Ines Sicardi/Ximena Gama: To get us started, can you tell us what Editor Solitario is about?
Oscar Muñoz: Editor Solitario is a video installation where the viewer is situated in the same position as the protagonist. We see an arm playing with photographic images as if playing a card game. This game has subjective and arbitrary “rules,” building and deconstructing the relationships between them. Some images stay longer than others and the idea revolves around assembling and dismantling a system or constellation of images related to my own personal world, local and not, along with other images that we share and are part of history.

MIS/XG: The vanishing and reappearance of the image is a recurrent topic in your work. However, in this installation, there is a new element: changing the position of the photographs. Are you thinking about the nature of images and how they are used to narrate the story? Is that what the title refers to?
OM: The title references the card game “Solitario” (Solitaire). Someone who is playing cards, but in this case, they are replaced by photographic images. I am also alluding to the ways in which the past can be thought and reconfigured, as in Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, which explores the idea of our innate memory through art history, or on a more personal level, the structure of family photo albums. In both cases, the order is not chronological, but particular and subjective.

MIS/XG: We also see there is a strong relationship with the analog image – in this case, images that are part of a physical file of developed photographs and the digital image that is projected. How do you conceive the relationship between analog and digital?
OM: There is that desire to build a constellation of images – but also it has to do with Jose Luis Brea’s book Las Tres Eras de la Imagen, which examines how the various technical ways lead to differential models of production, distribution and reception of images. The photographic image manifests on paper and it is fixed there. With the transition from analog to digital, the initial characteristics of the image change, such as the support and ubiquity. For example, digital images float on the surface. In this case, the installation Editor Solitario emphasizes the projection that hovers on the paper but does not settle in. It is simply an illusion that is opposed to the physical presence of the paper, which is the initial support of the photograph.

MIS/XG: A lot of your works use images from the archive of photographs that you have collected. Puente utilizes a series of photographs by the “fotocineros,” street photographers in Cali, Colombia, popular in the 1950s through the 1970s. In Biografias, a collection of newspaper obituary images and Pais Tiempo, a reproduction of the local and national daily newspaper, the information vanishes as you turn the pages. We see in those pieces, as in Editor Solitario, a tension between a desire to save and collect and the opposite action of showing the weakness of the images; their disappearance and the new meaning they acquire with the passage of time.
OM: The archivist is a person that selects images using a strategy of meaning and order to preserve. However, that act of selecting also leads to a practice that discards information – unconsciously erasing all that has not been selected. It can lead to an invisibility, a forgetfulness of what has not been chosen. Derrida, in Archive Fever, talks about how in that drive to collect and preserve documents, there are parallel or simultaneous forces that oppose the initial intention of the archivist. As Derrida has noted, “There is no power without control of the archive, or without memory.” Whoever selects also takes a stand to “rescue” the images and give them new meaning. In Editor Solitario, the same character builds that selection, but in Sedimentaciones the character faces himself; one character that is actually two and who perform opposite tasks. He recovers images and also undoes them.

MIS/XG: It is impossible not to think about Editor Solitario as a work with a political edge, especially in a country like Colombia. Even though some images are part of the collective memory, in certain cases, some of them have even become historical icons. The gesture of the hand that decides to remove an image is very evident. Is it possible that this piece is a reference to the violent act of a disappearance? The decision of an individual to “erase” another? Have you ever thought about it this way?
OM: Thinking about the hand which has the power to decide what will exist and what will not – in that sense, it is similar to the archivist. Nonetheless, it can also be seen from another angle that allows us to reflect on how the structures and management of power are designed. The character does not have a specific identity and he makes the decision to bring certain images up and remove others. There are several images of people who have disappeared in Colombia, including one of those who vanished in relation to the violent takeover of the Palacio de Justicia (Courthouse). Even though that image is proof that he left the courthouse alive, it is not sufficient evidence that it happened because the document is frail, blurry, without many details. This image illustrates the debate between the opposing forces of the archivist’s job. It is a trace, unlikely evidence that this has been.

Editor's Note
Oscar Muñoz (born 1951, Popayan, Colombia) graduated in 1971 from the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Cali. His works are in major public and private collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado, Boulder; The Daros Collection, Zurich and Tate Modern, London. Throughout the past decade, Muñoz has shown individually and collectively in museums and institutions such as O.K. Offenes Kulturhaus, Linz, Austira; Pori Art Museum, Pori, Finland; The Korea Foundation, Seoul, South Korea; Museo Extremeno e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporaneo (MEIAC), Badajoz, Spain; Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, Toronto, Canada; Institute of International Visual Arts (INIVA), London; Museo Tamayo de Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hirochima, Japan; Mori Art Museum, Todyo, Japan and the PICA Museum, Perth, Australia. In 2007, Muñoz was invited to participate in the 52nd La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Robert Storr. Most recently, a forty year survey of his work: Oscar Muñoz: Protografias, was exhibited at Malba-Fundacion Costantini, traveling to Museo de Arte Lima (MALI). The artist currently lives and works in Cali, Colombia.