At Tate Modern

Paul Myerscough

In 1992 the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz made a series of ten five-minute recordings for radio, A Man in a Room, Gambling, in which he instructs the listener how to cheat at cards. His voice is mellifluous and reassuring; every now and then, as if he were watching over your shoulder, he pauses to offer gentle encouragement, or to admire the tricks that he’s teaching you: ‘Did you see? . . . Amazing . . . It’s amazing.’ In the background, a string quartet plays an intricate score, by turns tense and discordant, delicate, plaintive and suspenseful. It is the soundtrack to a drama that isn’t taking place, at least not here and now. (The recordings were intended for broadcast late at night, so that the listener would stumble across them as he might the shipping forecast, whose blank codifications also tell of dramas unfolding elsewhere.) Perhaps the music anticipates the sort of situation the listener might find himself in were he to try out these sleights of hand for real – a dangerous game. But this is only fantasy: the lessons are too elliptical to be followed properly, and the music distracts from the voice, so that even if you were to take the task seriously, you would find yourself lost in seconds, frozen at a felt table with a deck of cards in your hand. At that point, you would have become very like a figure in one of Muñoz’s sculptures.

There is reason to think that had Muñoz lived longer – he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2001, at the age of 48 – he might have done more work for radio. The medium dramatises the way in which presence and absence can be conjured, the one from the other. That the recording takes place in the absence of the listener, who hears it when the broadcaster is no longer speaking, that a radio might go unlistened to in a room full of people, or be blaring away when no one is there: Muñoz was fascinated by such paradoxes and asymmetries. You see the preoccupation with sound everywhere in his work: in his drawings of isolated mouths, open but silent, or his sculptures of ventriloquists’ dummies, a prompter on a stage without actors, figures listening at gallery walls or whispering in one another’s ear. But the play of presence and absence is there, too, in works that don’t represent the unheard voice: in a miniature elevator, whirring up and down, perpetually without passengers; in ghostly drawings, white on black, of empty rooms; in the repeated use of doorways, windows, shadows and mirrors.

By the entrance to Tate Modern’s retrospective of Muñoz’s work (until 27 April), there are some pieces from early in his short career, wrought-iron balconies set high on blank white walls, and next to them vertical ‘Hotel’ signs in the same wrought iron. There is no hotel, of course, and no way to get to the balconies, no stairs to climb, or doors to open onto them. You couldn’t stand on them in any case: they’re a bit too small. Muñoz uses this scale, the not quite big enough, frequently in his work; the slight shrinking of a part of reality sets it apart for inspection, but also estranges it; in this case, the balconies are made sadder by the diminution, lonelier and still more pointless.

The balconies have the appearance of ready-mades. So do other pieces from the same period, the mid-1980s: fragments of staircases leading nowhere and banister rails attached to the gallery walls. ‘Do Not Touch,’ says a sign beneath one of them, and it isn’t clear that the warning isn’t part of the work: an open switchblade is attached to the rear of the banister, waiting for anyone who disobeys. It’s a Surrealist one-liner, like his Wax Drum of 1988, the ‘skin’ of which is pierced by a pair of scissors. Sheena Wagstaff, the show’s curator, claims in her catalogue essay that the drum ‘evokes a vicious stabbing of the tympanic membrane of the inner ear’ that ‘brings to mind’ the slitting of the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou. The problem is that it does little more than bring it to mind. Wax Drum has none of the power of Buñuel’s image, which remains shocking even once you’ve seen through its artifice. The drum is inert by comparison, its affective power exhausted once you’ve grasped what it’s about.

These objects were dead-ends; but Muñoz was finding his way to something richer. The elements are already there in The Wasteland, an installation from 1987. On one wall, a bronze model of a ventriloquist’s dummy sits on a steel shelf. To get to him you have to cross an ‘optical floor’, a geometric pattern of linoleum tiles in black, grey and beige that simulates a three-dimensional arrangement of blocks whose orientation appears to flip about as you stare at it. The floor is empty, but presents itself as an obstacle to be negotiated; you teeter in the doorway, wondering which way to climb, or descend. There is room on the shelf for you next to the dummy; are you his lost master, or by joining him would you become just another dummy yourself? The space shapes our perceptions so that we share in the dummy’s predicament.

Images of paralysis recur in Muñoz’s work: ballerinas unable to take flight, their legs encased in bronze hemispheres; the blinded figures in Conversation Piece, trussed up in sacks and rooted to the spot. But the notion he carries forward most energetically from The Wasteland is that of creating a mise en scène for his figures that makes the observer acutely, even anxiously aware of his position in relation to them. There are perhaps a hundred figures in Many Times, all of them between four and five feet tall and cast in the same smooth grey resin, the colour of wet clay. They have no feet; or their feet have sunk into the floor. They fill the room in clusters, some of them gathered in small groups as if sharing secrets; others in larger, concentric arrangements; a few standing by, observing the rest. They rock back or lean towards one another, put their hands inside their jackets, offer them for handshakes, show them for inspection or rest them on each other’s shoulders. They have identical Asian physiognomies, creased with identical smiles. The room is full of friendly faces, but not for you: the figures are not laughing at you, or with you, but without you. Their otherness rebounds so that you experience your own otherness among them, your exclusion from their closed circuit of goodwill. They aren’t interested in you at all. To be shut out from their private drama is humbling; you might as well be invisible.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern stands empty at present. Rather than build something in the vast space, Doris Salcedo has dug into its foundations. Shibboleth starts out as a hairline crack by a litter bin at the main entrance, then widens and deepens as it progresses, forking like lightning along the 150-metre length of the concrete floor. That’s one way to avoid the problem posed by the Turbine Hall, which is, crudely, how to fill it; or, how to make a work that will hold its own in the space without sacrificing the coherence of either. Only Muñoz has responded to the challenge by replacing the space with another one entirely. In 2001, just months before he died, he installed a mezzanine across its full expanse. Visitors would descend into the darkness beneath the new floor; you felt as if you were skulking in a car park. The darkness was shot through with shafts of light from rectangular openings on the underside of the mezzanine, and in those openings, you could catch glimpses of the world contained up there. As usual in a Muñoz installation, you weren’t alone. Countless grey figures could be seen on the ledges around the openings, gathered in conspiratorial groups, engaged in routine tasks or receding into the hidden interior. Some of them were twisting round to look back at you. Had you caught them in the act, or had they caught you? There was no way to gain access to this private world: you could only imagine what was going on in it, just as you can only imagine what mysterious industry is hidden behind lighted office windows in the city outside. Double Bind hasn’t been re-created for this exhibition – it was conceived on such a scale that it might never be seen again – but it’s a surprise to find how many of its effects were anticipated in more modest works from earlier in Muñoz’s career. ‘It is very strange to perceive so many years later,’ he said in 2001, remembering those little wrought-iron balconies, high on the wall, ‘that I’m paying so much attention to the act of walking down the street and looking up.’