Elegy in White

by Carlo McCormik

    Inasmuch as the home, for most of us, exists as a physical fact, it also occupies a psychological space in our imaginations. And by the same emotional construction, we regard all that is not the home as another kind of domain within our minds. If the former dysfunctional family dynamics aside constitutes an idealized site of tranquility, safety, comfort, familiarity, and all the other cherished attributes of the domestic, then the latter is not specific, but is defined in contrasting opposition. Your home is a dot on some map, but when you are not at home, wherever you are is also a place in and of itself. Call it out, or away; the designation doesn 't determine the location. It is the absence of the material and social condition of being at home. To be not home is to occupy an ontological other space.

    It is this other realm that is conjured in the snow globe sculpture photographs of Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz: an exterior manifestation of the internal topographies of adventure, alienation, dread, discovery, and destiny that we, from our proverbial spot on the couch, have come to view as the greater world.

    Images of what lies beyond the window of the home front, contained within that precious, rarefied sphere of the snow globe's kitsch picturesque, Martin and Muñoz's "Travelers" are sly inversions of dimensionality. This is a skewed perception: not the typical aesthetic voyeurism of outside-looking-in; rather, here we are outside-looking-in-at-being-outside-we are outside this outside space that is all about drawing us in. The lure of these snow globes is their pure fantasy, so seductive that they are currently invoking a frenzy among collectors along the lines of a fetish obsession. Illusion and escapism become, in Martin and Muñoz's hands, a picaresque adventure in the world at large one that is nonetheless plainly drawn from an internal reverie. The outdoors that we see here is particular to the indoor and in- one's-head way of imagining.

    Martin and Muñoz recently moved from New York City to the Pennsylvania Highlands, and these isolated, barren winter scapes are certainly like what the artists' gazes might fall upon from their rural vantage in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The icy palette, the gray, leafless trees like jutting pikes, the land obfuscated by the blanket of snow, all might be observed from their studio window while they are making these pieces. But the work is perhaps more subtly informed by the alienation, paranoia, and dread of the artists' former urban environs. The less overt, deeply personal content of the Martin, and Muñoz snow globe project is not the place itself so much as the placelessness. "Travelers" offers a visual metaphor for the journey of two artists uprooted from a stable home life and set upon the road of itinerant exploration. Dividing their time between the United States and Muñoz's native Spain, these artists' home is not a final destination; home for them is a site of interim exile. Rather than a sanctuary, it is a point of social remove, a state of being away, an orbit whose mobility offers no illusion of permanence, only an arc of perpetuated distance. And this disconnect-in-motion -as Martin recently put it: "When people stay in the same place for too long they lose their walking shoes-  has its formal echo in the vaulted arc of the snow globe that is so carefully delineated in these photographs: insubstantial yet absolute, the epiphenomenon of those metaphysical spheres mapped in Copernicus's cosmos and Dante's ascending Paradiso.

    Morbid: the perversely nasty black humor of those hunted, rounded up, or murdered in these lonely woods of terminal escape. Or still more haunting: the enigmatic and cinematic scenes of those seemingly lost people traversing an inhospitably frigid nature in white-out. The open-ended narratives of "Travelers" suggest a more epic story of futile struggle, loss, and consequence, in frozen time. Adding up to a kind of film noir rendered in white, the specifics bleached out, these are fragments that both provoke us to fill in our own plot and function as talismanic snaps: there but for the grace of God go I, an intonation of silent suffering as a meditation on temporal frailty, on mortality. Taken of course from the kitsch of tourist memorabilia (yes, we were there, and we have this cheap three-dimensional rendering of what we witnessed as a plastic experience to prove it), the effect of stillness here is a transformative pleasure in the transitory. These are memento mori.

    Related to the vulgar knickknack of today's snow globes, which were first introduced in the United States on a large scale as novelty items in the 1940s, these works are also descendants of the boules de neige popular in 19th century France. But Martin and Muñoz resist the easy amusements of camp. The artists are not celebrating the saccharine and sentimental language of the snow globe so much as they are using it as a benign sugarcoating for the more bitter and serious content within. This is a different kind of pop, not the promotion of low- brow through a transgressive effacement of fine art but the articulation of the mundane within a poetics of the sublime. It is a re-positing of the quotidian through the consciousness of a disturbed dreamscape.

    The magic here is very much about the premonitory, a way of tapping into the globe as a kind of fortune-teller's crystal ball. The cryptic misfortunes, the intimations of mortality, the panoramic tableaux of misadventure, bad luck, and wrong decisions, are all ultimately a medium of futurity -not a story in the past tense so much as a parable of mock-moralistic consequences, a fatalism that is not certain, but is, rather, based on the lurking demonology of uncertainty. These pictures, redolent of destiny and memory at once, preserve that precious quotient, both fleeting and eternal, wherein life's journey, knowledge, and the fall from grace must walk together. Here it is impossibly fixed, frozen in time, an arctic wonder that, like the snow-globe slipping from the dying grasp of Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane, suspends one last breath in space before it goes crashing, as all things must do, into oblivion.

"Elegy in White", by Carlo McCormick, was published in Aperture magazine, Winter Issue 173, 2003 www.aperture.org


Imitation of Life

by Dan Cameron

    The slippage between states of dreaming and waking is symbolized in the sculpture of Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz by an ongoing tension between the purely visual qualities of the work and a type of functionality that is enacted without ever being applied. Cradles rock, pendulums swing, books are held by bookends, shoes slide onto feet, dogs chew bones and a faucet does not stop dripping. However, the crib portion of the cradle teeters precariously above the viewer's head, watches dangle hypnotically from disembodied hands near the ceiling, bookends become beasts of burden, feet and shoes are fused into the same object, the dog is revealed as a skeleton made from cartoon bones that resemble its dinner, and the drips are revealed as pieces of fruit squeezed from an unrepairable faucet attached to the trunk of a tree. This surrealist tendency is achieved within the scope of a visual "first glance" that is based on the expectation of finding a certain logical order within the world. Once the more whimsical aspects of the work are revealed, however, its ties to the world's logic become accentuated rather than erased.

    Considered separately, these works can be appreciated less as extensions of the same riddling order, and more as unique investigations into the kinds of paradoxes that each form seems to represent. For example, I Wake to Sleep and Take my Waking Slowly (1994), the cradle work in the first example, points to what the artists describe as "the state of grace of infancy", as well as the distance one has to lower oneself to reach the "common ground of maturity". But the close proximity of danger implied by the imaginary infant's precarious and inaccessible state can also be interpreted as the authors warning that the world's promise of protection needs to be taken skeptically, as well as an assertion that the infant's state of extreme fragility is what in fact enables it to remain "above it all". If such an interpretation of birth seems a shade too pessimistic , it needs to be taken in stride with some of the artists' reflections of death - for example, Eliminating the Unconscious (1994). In this piece, the stage is literally set for the "reader" of a sculptural stack of spurious self-help books to commit suicide, by stringing a noose (provided) over the hook of a large chandelier. The titles of the "books" - Maybe You're just Inferior and The Insanity Racket are two worthy examples - mock the intensity with which recent generations have come to place the advice of self-styled experts over and above their own lives experience.

    In other recent works, the passage between life and death (and sometimes following the later), is noted as a kind of suspended equilibrium between two finite points, the first of which is unknowable, the other inconceivable. Perhaps this explains to some extent the occasional appearance of hypnosis as a theme within their work, as in the piece A Cure for All Remedies (1994), wherein the sculpture's movements represent an actual attempt to create, through kinetic means, a bona fide hypnotic effect on the viewer. Rather than delving directly into the area of psychotherapy, however, the title suggests that the search for a cure has in turn become one of the great problems of our civilization. In other words, we no longer require a cure from the ailments that plague us, but rather from all the misguided attempts to make ourselves feel better. Into this breach steps art, which also asks us to "keep our eye" on something, without ever specifying what that thing might be. We might actually succeed in placing ourselves in a trance, but without an intermediary to direct our mental energies, the danger becomes one of leaving ourselves open to virtually any available influence.

    In one of their least elaborated but no less pointed works, Life begins at 40 (1994), Martin & Muñoz seem to question what it is we actually do with the time span that comprises our life. A lone elephant supports a gradually expanding mountain of apparently leather-bound books. The top most (and heaviest) volume bears the work's title, while the next lower (and slightly smaller) is entitled Life begins at 50, and so on, until one gets to the lowest and most modest volume, Life Begins at 84. The artists' implication seems to be that if you wait until forty to begin your life (specially by searching in a self-help book for answers), you are already too late, since the dream that was deferred extends all the way back to infancy.In the context of this argument, the symbolism of the elephant is specially telling, since, as the animal that never forgets,s/he is perpetually in the process of placing the past in context with the present - something we mere mortals generally forget to do.

    Nature is frequently, though not always, used as a point of contrast with man's follies in Martin & Muñoz sculpture. In their notes for Under a Moon Nailed Fixed (1993), the sculpture of a dog-skeleton gnawing a bone, the artists refer to "the innocence of the eater who will be eaten", as if to claim the food chain as another system of poetic justice. With its posture of complete involvement in what is doing (one can almost see the wagging of the tail), the dog is an image of unself-consciousness in regard to its ultimate fate. The position of man in relation to this system seems to be spelled out in the two tree-based works that the artists have produced: Fruits of the Wound (1994) and A Merciless Symmetry (1995). The former presents a barren tree producing fruit through the attachment of a faucet to its trunk, while the latter shows a similarly lifeless tree, its trunk split down the middle with a butchers knife, surrounded by fresh red apples. In both examples it is clear that man's intervention plays a critical role in reanimating the apparently lifeless plant, and yet the act of adaptation seems quite violent, as if it were a kind of visual argument in favor of a manifest destiny. While it may be pointless to reduce Martin and Muñoz's sculpture to a fixed world view - indeed, the humor in the work argues against such rigid interpretation-, it seems clear that the metaphors produced by this collaborative team represent an attempt to explore some of the deeper aspects of their philosophies about life. Not only the works embody a strong distrust towards the place given to rational thought in most accepted notions of western civilization, but the artists unusual ability to distill these meanings into a single visual statement privileges the perceptual over the conceptual to an extent which is quite rare in current art. At the same time that they produce riddle-like parables about modern existence, they do not shirk the artist's obligation to invent a new formulation of tactile and even sensual pleasure. Like the philosophy conveyed by their predilection towards visual paradox. Martin & Muñoz's critical awareness is balanced by the knowledge that no matter how far the human species evolves (or devolves), we will never invent a credible substitute for experience.

Dan Cameron
New York-Moscow / Aug-Sept 1995


Encounters on Emerging Boundary Spaces

by Ari Hirvonen


Borderline Space

    The drawing of the boundary lines between good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy, safe and threatening, familiar and alien, culture and nature, which organizes our way of being in the world and of sharing it with others, has dissolved with the withdrawal of the gods and the waning of the great ideologies. Instead of absolute authorities, stable boundaries, fundamental essences and universal moral truths and definitions, none of which is more valid than any other. We are free for boundless pleasure and self-creation.

    At the same time, reality has become transparent. With the fading of boundaries and boundary-setting norms, the superior individual's categorical imperative becomes: one must reveal. The mysteries of life and death are explicable, the secrets of the body and the unconscious can be brought into the light, vague moral value judgments linked to evil are easy to ignore. The cognitive sciences, gene technology, molecular and neurobiology are marginalizing philosophy, ethics, psychoanalysis and poetry. The enchantment of the strangeness of being is evaporating, but to compensate we have the assurance that everything is comprehensible, controllable and manageable, that lack - where there still is any - is no more than an error that can be rectified. In fact, this is a fantasy, which only conceals both evil, along with the deficiency and anxiety.

    This fantasy, however, sparks the very anxiety from which it seeks to liberate humanity. To alleviate this anxiety, many people decide to seek some sort of guidance and foundation, something supreme, which would redefine the boundaries both between good and evil, end between the exposed and the hidden. Evenly staked-out boundary markers would liberate people from the despotism of transparency and freedom, and they would attest to a unity and consistency amid the chaotic diversity of reality. Manifestations of this longing include both neo-nationalism and religious fanaticism, both racism founded on a fear of difference and terrorism that whips up fear. War, too, in its own destructive way, guarantees borderlines. Meanwhile, mood-controlling drugs alleviate both the terror of freedom and exposure, and the anxiety induced by acts of terror and war.

    In this situation art, too, has to take "sides". On the one hand, art can set up boundaries and reinforce existing identities and distinctions, thus serving this or that ideology, nation or religion. On the other hand, in the ecstasy of the postmodern, it can want to abolish all boundaries, fixed points and underpinnings. Or then, having been liberated from the logic of identity and from the discourse of relativism, it seeks to bring everything into the light.

    But art can also doubly challenge boundaries and identities, expressly by calling into question both their setting up and their preservation, along with their mono chromatically naive overturning and dismantling. Perhaps in this situation art is a demarcation of boundaries that takes place in a boundary space where things turn into their other and where the boundary is an irrevocably open question. In this in-between space the world and being in it are not manageable in their entirety, the diversity cannot be revealed all at one go, as something that is present. Representing and bringing to light always leaves something hidden. But, at the same time,  an artwork may be the kind of occurrence of presence in which the mind of being peeps through, in which what exists is revealed, and in which unconcealedness steps forth out of concealment in a certain historical space-time. In this case, however, art does not so much define and control what it reveals, but rather it hears what it reveals, and responds to it and about it. This may also open up new spaces for our way of being subjects, for our way of being in the world.

    Several of the ARS 06 artworks can be seen as moving around in this kind of terrain. By marking out the boundaries that organize our being and our world, by calling them into question and challenging them, analyzing
their mutual entanglement and inseparability, they reveal something that art that holds on to the boundaries or ignores them is unable to illuminate. This kind of "committed" art speaks to us and hence brings out the point both of the world and of being a human in it. Particularly the works of Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz, Motohiko Odani and Adriana Varejao are places for opening up, clearings, which by making out the boundaries between the homely and the alien (and between other related concept-pairs), challenging them, bring out something
of what it is to be.


The Glacier

    In the winter landscapes inside glass spheres, snow globes, familiar from childhood peace and harmony prevailed. We could watch with admiration as the snowflakes fell peacefully onto fairytale, Christmas or manger scenes, onto Eiffel towers or statues ofDavid. Change and the patina of time, lack and desire, cruelty and evil, were all absent, absent from these worlds of dream, fairy tale, mystery and holidays, worlds, in which the only god counting the time was the snowfall.

    At first glance, the works in Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz's Travelers series evoke an endearingly familiar feeling. The works in the Travelers series each constitute their own planet, where a complete and unique world opens up before us. These worlds are worlds of good and evil , joy or sorrow, all of them having in common a snow-clad winter landscape, in whose bright whiteness events occur that are both everyday and absurd, both exhilarating and shocking, both familiar and strange.

    Now, our gaze begins to falter. It shifts from its place, or rather is divided in two. On the one hand, it wants to see the ever-familiar and safe snowscape with its charming figures or monuments. On the other hand, the strange scenes and situations revealed in the works draw the gaze. Something is not right. In this way the works call into question the expectations, hopes and imaginings that are associated with them at first glance, bringing us under the sway of wonder and amazement.

      In many of the works we encounter peculiar situations, disturbing possibilities, unease and confusion. Some of these worlds can even be frightening and anxiety inducing: a stocky man dangling a child over a well (Traveler 123);  a man goading a naked woman onto a glacier (Traveler 154), a giant spider chasing a man (Traveler 156); a woman undressing in front of a chained man in overalls (Traveler 164). Our gaze arrives to early at the scene of a crime or accident, since the mantle of snow would soon have obscured the evil beneath it. We have unexpectedly been made witnesses to acts of cruelty, to violence and nightmares that would have been better to remain secret. There is something strange about the experience, since a familiar object reveals to us some macabre aspects.

    The weirdness of the works is not just a matter of coming face to face with something totally unknown or alien, but of a dialogue between the familiar and the strange. This feature of the works can be illuminated by the German term unheimlich, meaning unhomely or uncanny. According to Freud, unheimlich, is unquestionably the opposite of the German word heimlich, meaning homely, intimate, and of heimisch, meaning familiar, native. Hence, it is not far to the conclusion that the uncanny is the same as the non-homely. But heimlich means not only pleasantly homely, but also hidden, secret, kept from sight, specifically that to which the wordunheimlich refers. And so, according to Freud, heimlich ultimately becomes one with its opposite with the word unheimlich. Thus, the unheimlich brings out the way the homely , the familiar, the intimate, that which produces pleasure and security, is always linked with something concealed, hidden, uncommunicative; the way that something concealed and uncanny resides within the familiar. The uncanny is something that is repressed (un-) familiar and homely, which surprisingly appears from beneath a repression.  According to Schelling, the unheimlich is something that has come into light even though it should have stayed hidden.

    In the works the cozy miniature world that we expect is opened up and shown to be violent and steeped in evil. The reassuringly familiar is turned into the peculiar, the homely into the strange, the good into evil, the safe into insecurity. At the same time as the drama of this miniature world may horrify us, the kitschy innocence and superficial beauty of the glass domes remain unchanged, their mode of being as objects - or as shapes and as matter - is preserved as a kind of homeliness, on which the eye can linger. What makes this a baffling experience is specifically the inseparability of the manifestation of the event and the object, so that we encounter the strange and the familiar, the frightening and the safe, simultaneously. In fact the status of the glass-globes as artworks is about the strangeness revealed from beneath the expectations set up by ingrained memories and aesthetic beauty, or about bringing the concealed into uncolcealment. We no longer so much look at works as experience them (as oppressive), which opens us up to the unexpected elements revealed in the world of the works.

    When we move on from the viewing into the world of the works, we also notice that the uncanniness does not remain solely on the level of cruel and nightmarish occurrences, since the world of the works reveals something "more fundamental" about our human way of being in the world. There is thus something about the entire Travelers series that makes our flesh creep, the reason for which we can only suspect. Even the jubilant Traveler 155, in which a boy does push-ups into the air supported by a girl's hands, triggers gloomy emotions.

    The time in the worlds of the works has become frozen in its own momentariness, in the tension between the past and future. These worlds of eternal snows, into which the people are enclosed, are bleakly desolate despite their beauty. Culture comes across as having been no more than people's outer garments. The human, homely, familiar world of civilization, technology and laws has withdrawn into its hiding places, leaving people in the midst of raw, unprotected and strange nature. On this glacier of the real the symbolic order is no longer a guarantee of fixed points, a horizon, or identity. Everything is slightly out of kilter. Where the world as we encounter it in all its everydayness is filled with rules, order and shape, these works bring to light something about the unruliness that could at any moment overturn the order that we take for granted. This groundlessness of being is in fact the fundamental order that makes it at all possible to distinguish between order and disorder.

    On a more general level, the worlds that are unfolded in these works and the unprecedentedly strange events taking place in them reveal something strange. The origin and goal of being are unknown and inaccessible to human knowledge. Being a human is haphazard, fraught with uncertainty, and ephemeral. The perishableness of humanity is accentuated by the menacing trunks of dead trees that have petrified into timelessness. The only certainty is death, which is both possible at every instant and inevitable for everyone. The human figures in the works testify to this certainty with their own fragile existence. Nobody can die their death for them . This death has to be died alone. The works thus reveal the finiteness and mortality that are intrinsic part of being-in-the-world of the human figures contained in them. Thus, what they do reveal is Heidegger's Sein Zum Tode, being-toward-death.

    We can gloomily intimate that soon the snow will have covered over all the traces of humanity, even though a man in a suit is still helping another across a river (or to the bottom of the sea) (Traveler 157). But it is specifically through mortal human beings that the world gets its point, it being expressly in the finite human being that the struggle goes on between good and evil. People are thrown into the world of the works, without themselves having been able to make a choice in the matter or about the foundations of this world. Since they cannot control their existence down to its foundation s, they simply have to stand in the world with their own gravity . This all emerges all the more clearly thanks to the inability of the human figures in the desolation of the snowfields to flee or withdraw into the everyday meanings and norms endorsed by culture, morality and law. Hence, the works put on view humanity's being in the world without masks, without definite norms and fixed points, with no certainty other than our finitude.
   
    Thus, in the familiar glass globe and in the beautiful snowscape a strange truth opens up, a truth for which, for our own peace of mind, it would be better to remain hidden.The viewing experience is not, however, marked by any fear of death, departure or the dissolution of the foundations of our being, which would be a kind of momentary mental weakness. It is more of an anxiety in the face of our most basic possession and of what cannot be ignored - in fact, an anxiety in the face of our being-in-the-world. The most uncanny thing is thus not the strangeness of this truth, but specifically the fact that it is a person's most basic, closest and most familiar thing there is.
[...]

  

Ari Hirvonen
LL.D. , Adjunt Professor of Philosophy of Law, University of Helsinki, Finland.

"Encounters on Emerging Boundary Spaces", by Ari Hirvonen, was published in ARS 06, Kiasma's cataloge, 2006.

 


Winter  Journey

by Santiago B. Olmo

    Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, in their recent work entitled Travelers, reconstruct the journey as transition, adventure or mishap and they monumentalize it by means of a snow globe, a symbol of souvenir and memory, which since the 19th Century, has aimed to capture the beauty of the snow-scape and the silhouette of cities in a winter fantasy.

    The snow globe seems to encapsulate ina fictional mock-up that quaint, kitsch tale of the sublime experience as a formulation to popularize the intensity of the romantic journey.

    Each of these snow globes has been constructed and designed to contain a snowy tale that is later on photographed. Inside the sphere, life becomes a transition to nowhere, characters appear lost in a hostile environment and vainly try to find a pathwhich has ceased to exist: they are a metaphor for the modern world, constructed as a continuous landscape of spaces of transit and paths, lines of communication or waiting areas.

    In the 90’s scale models favoureda fertilereflection on relativity and theimprecision of the idea of truth; and allowed the validity and value of models to be tackled in a critical way.

    The work of Martin and Muñoz certainly connects with these proposals of a constructed reality to the extent to which it acts as a mock-up, but on the other hand distances itself from them by tackling a world of fantasy, inscribed on the imaginary and without contact with the credible, putting to one side any bleeding between reality and fiction. Their winter no-lands are spaces which take in the imaginary occurrence of small individual disasters, extolled as monuments of daily desolation.

    Schubert’s Winterreise isn’t a journey through a landscape, but an itinerary of feelings and passions which lead to an interior which is both shredded and wished for, a decisive journey which leads to one’s own rescue. In this way, the snowglobes in Travelers construct a journeyto the interior of fear. The snowglobe is only apparently innocent: it contains black humor, it’s an impossible tale of modern terrors. Travelers who haul their suitcases through the snow, a couple meet and embrace, blessed out, on the tip of an impossible iceberg, a couple who drag a prefabricated cottage through an inhospitable winter or some drivers detained by a soldier amidst a snowfall.

    These wintery scenarios refer to an atmosphere that hovers between humor and horror as recreated in the Coen brother’s film, Fargo. Pushing this perspective, the latest works by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz have emerged from the snowglobe to fold out as a gigantic panorama. The travelers are scattered in a desolate, snowbound and seemingly nocturnal landscape, laden with their suitcases, trying to find a path that may not even be there.

    These images are also reminiscent of those emigrants heading for rich Europe in the 50’s and 60’s, traveling to hostile and troubled destinations from the Iberian peninsula, the south of Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Turkey…weighed down by suitcases held together by rope. The wars in Bosnia and Kosovo have once again provided this journey to nowhere, but redoubledand multiplied in their tragedy, as a familiar and current image on television screens the world over. Even more so, the images of the new immigration provide us now with a traveler stripped of his dignity, a traveler without luggage, burdened only with the illusions and hope of a better life.

    The journey in Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz’ssnowglobes adds to the blurry sensation that now almost everything has become a “nowhere”. To remember this, with certain humour, is to slightly reconcile ourselves with desolation. Winter is also within us.

"Sense of the Real", ARS 06, Museum of Contemporary Art KIASMA, catalogue, Helsinki.