The bilingual title of Antoni Muntadas’s retrospective, ‘Entre/Between’, is apt. The Barcelona-born, New York-based artist has spent most of his 45-year career hopping between continents, languages and media, as well as exploring the social space that emerges between the production of information and its interpretation.
The exhibition organized Muntadas’s vast oeuvre around nine thematic ‘constellations’; it kicked off with written documentation and videos of his 1971 Fluxus-esque performances, which employed the physical body as a metaphor for the body politic that could not be discussed during General Franco’s dictatorship. In the same year, Muntadas relocated to New York, where freedom of speech allowed him to express his ideas about the burgeoning ‘information age’ that Marshall McLuhan theorized in his 1964 essay ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’.
Perception remains a key concern of Muntadas’s practice and some of the best installations in the show emphasized the shift in collective subjectivity aroused by what the artist termed the new ‘media landscape’. A particularly effective piece, Mirar Ver Percibir (To Look, To See, To Perceive, 2009), comprises three small, cheap table lamps, each illuminating a verb written on the wall. Nearby was his 1980 commission for The Kitchen in New York, Public/Private, an installation that requires the visitor to sit on a chair in front of a clock and a calendar that registers their arrival time; and two monitors, one of which screens a mix of soap operas and various other TV entertainments while the other shows an image of the viewer, captured by a hidden video camera. While reminiscent of seminal early works by Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, there is something unique about Muntadas’s take on the closed-circuit installation that stems from his relentless investigation of mass media and the distorted mirror-image it casts on society. Years before the explosion of reality TV and ‘prosumer’ culture, Muntadas heralded the breakdown between the once distinct public and private spheres.
Other themes in ‘Entre/Between’ focus on the construction of social power, and of fear as its most useful tool. The ominous installation The Board Room (1987), the video Portrait (1994) and the screenprint series ‘Portraits’ (1995) all feature images of public figures and how the media transforms them into religious-like icons. Muntadas is, however, a clever enough artist to introduce elements that signal de-mystification or banalization. For example, the triptych On Translation: El Aplauso (The Applause, 1999) illustrates the passive way in which information can come to be trivialized and consumed: two videos of clapping hands flank streamed images of violent events – drug cartels, torture, police repression – in Colombia.
Muntadas’s critique of mass media is mostly constructed from a sociological point of view. It is both an informed research on and a challenge to the established roles of the (institutional/corporate) broadcaster and the (mass) receiver. This is why the several calls for action that crop up throughout exhibition are so powerful. Towards the end of the journey is the room that hosts On Translation: La mesa de negociación (On Translation: The Negotiation Table, 2005), which was presented in the Spanish Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale. It consists of a large round table, covered with piles of books about power, telecommunications struggles and maps of the global distribution of wealth. The walls of the room were filled with panels in which red bright signs declare: ‘Warning: Perception requires involvement’. At this point, the weight of individual responsibility returned like a slap in the face. What to do about it is another question.