Oscar Muñoz conjures up a mysterious figure in his masterful video installation, El Coleccionista (The Collector). On view at Sicardi Gallery, it is the first U.S. presentation of the 2016 work. In the downstairs exhibition space, videos projected over an entire wall give viewers the feeling they are leaving the gallery and entering the private room of an unknown collector of photos. Using elements that deceptively seem simple but are technically challenging, Muñoz combines three-dimensional objects with projected images. The artist gives us a wall-length shelf that appears to hold dozens of stacks of photographs of people. Periodically, a figure with dark hair appears and walks in front of them, changing one image for another, reorganizing, rearranging, adding and subtracting.
We only see the figure from behind. Clad in a shapeless black sweater and pants, it could be male or female; we don’t know for sure. The only sound is the crisp rustling of paper being rearranged. Muñoz has blended real-world objects with video projections to great effect in the past, and it works amazingly well here. The shallow, almost 40-foot-long shelf runs the length of the back wall of the gallery, and holds variously sized pieces of heavy white paper (2” x 3” to around 5” x 7”), leaned against the wall in stacks. The piece is realized with five separate projections that line up to create the illusion that the collector is actually walking back and forth, handling the photographs. Each projection of a photo is perfectly aligned with a similarly sized paper to create the illusion that the photo exists in the real world of the gallery space. There are even tiny bits of photos peeking out from beneath other photos.
The images are varied, but they are all portraits of one kind or another. All the images are black and white, which visually unifies them. Some faces you recognize, some faces you think you should recognize, and some faces make you ask questions, e.g., the one that appears to be a man’s fleshy severed head resting on a table.
There are images from art history: Caravaggio’s head of Medusa, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, Diane Arbus’s photo of spooky twins (also the inspiration for the ghostly sisters in The Shining) and Luc Tuymans’s equally creepy painting of Condoleezza Rice.
There are stills from films: Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange with his eyelids pried open, Yul Brynner as Ramses II in The Ten Commandments, and a woman who might be Vivian Leigh.
There are snapshots that look as if they are from the files of the disappeared: Is there a mother in Argentina still wondering what happened to that son or daughter?
There are photos of people who look like war criminals: Is that guy Pol Pot? Is that man a spy disguised with a fake beard?
There are indistinct photos of children: Who were they, why are they here? Did they live to grow up?
And there are photos of the dead. How and why did they die? Murder? Execution? Accident?
You try to get close enough to the photos to really scrutinize them, but when you get too close, you see the faint registration grid that underlies the images, and those images blur, becoming less clear than from a few feet away. It’s intriguing and frustrating at the same time. (There are also a couple of closely cropped images of faces near what look like fleshy shapes; you can’t tell if it’s some porn outtake, or a photographic equivalent of a Rorschach test and the full image is completely innocuous.)
I can’t quite figure out if the blur is intentional, a consequence of the technology or a glitch caused by focusing issues. There is a decent amount of light coming in from the two doorways into the gallery. I had a momentary urge to hang up a curtain to see if it made things more clear. The important thing is, however, that Muñoz is a master at drawing us into his world and making us want to know more.
A particularly interesting and unnerving aspect of the installation is that when you walk up to view the row of photos, you often find yourself looking over the shoulder of “the collector.” The shadow of your head is next to his, making you not just a viewer but also a participant. Sometimes he just walks past, startling you.
Beyond trying to identify the images, there is the urge to discern some system of organization. What is the rationale for placing these images next to each other? One category of photographs could be “people with their heads in their hands,” among them Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde and the woman in Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother.
In other groupings, you wonder, are these people victims? Are they perpetrators? Are they heroes? Are they villains? Out of all the images in the world, why did Muñoz select these and show them together — or is it purposely random?
El Coleccionista is 52 minutes long, and the more time you sit on the bench in the darkened gallery, listening to the scratchy sounds of the paper, the more you are drawn into Muñoz’s world. Is the collector a lone survivor in a postapocalyptic world, playing with and organizing images of people long dead and artworks long gone? Is he conducting a forensic analysis of what went wrong, or remembering what was lost? It reminds me of the incredible loneliness of the old man in the pristine Louis XVI bedroom at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, someone absolutely and eternally alone.
Or is “the collector” some omniscient and godlike figure, arranging, rearranging, and charting human history — this person appears at this time, disappears at this time? But if so, there is nothing cold and clinical about the collector. A feeling of empathy permeates all the work I have seen from Muñoz. El Coleccionista is filled with poignancy and compassion for what it is to be human.
I have seen too much art in recent years that runs to the sterile, purposely obscure and hermetic — expecting the viewer to work to divine something but without giving anything in return. What makes Muñoz such a powerful artist is that he makes visually generous art and yet leaves viewers to their own devices. Muñoz gives us a rich, well-crafted, evocative work and leaves us to it.