In 1984, George Orwell’s dystopic political science fiction novel, protagonist Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth. He edits photographs and newspaper articles so that they conform to the government’s propagandistic interests, and burns those documents that do not, often eliminating people’s identities as well. In the novel the “memory hole,” an incinerator from which “not even the ash remains,” erases the images and text that Smith censors from the historical record. Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz’s Paístiempo (2007/2012), on view in his solo exhibition at Sicardi Gallery, works similarly. In this installation, Muñoz reduced to ashes the journalistic information from El País and El Tiempo—popular daily newspapers distributed throughout Latin America—by painstakingly burning into the halftone dot pattern of the headlines, front-page photographs and printed text. Visitors may flip through Muñoz’s manipulated papers, displayed on custom-made tables in Sicardi’s expansive ground-floor gallery. Though almost legible—I found myself squinting my eyes, straining to decipher the images and words—the charred print is impossible to read and fades with each turn of the newspaper’s page, just as the daily news fades in our memories with the passing of time.
The artist’s visage recurs throughout the exhibition. He sears his self-portrait into paper in six “pyrographs” that accompany Paístiempo, and in El juego de las probabilidades (2001/2008)—a grid of twelve color photomontages—he cuts up and weaves together his government-issued ID photos. The artist’s portrait appears again in video stills from Re/trato (2008), in which he continuously paints his likeness with water on hot pavement. An exercise in futility, his image evaporates before it is ever complete. Muñoz’s face is omnipresent, yet he only provides access to a partial and ephemeral view.
Like his works on paper, Muñoz’s personally and politically charged videos link themes of erasure and exposure, concealing as much as they reveal. In the installation Editor solitario (2011), a hand laying out a wide assortment of pictures is projected down onto a table. The images include mug shots, autographed photos of celebrities, postmortem portraits and snapshots of one’s family or friends, among others. A self-portrait by Modigliani and a Fayum mummy portrait are recognizable, as is the horrific and infamous photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl burned by napalm. As though playing the card game “Memory,” the editor’s arm rhythmically reaches across the table to remove a photograph, place one picture over another, or cover a person’s image with a blank piece of paper; like Winston Smith, the editor’s hand omits certain stories from the work.
Such erasure becomes explicitly evident in the video Ciclope (2011), in which a hand repeatedly dips pictures—photographs printed with unfixed coal dust—into an eddy of water that immediately washes the image away. Ciclope alludes to 1984 as well, though that’s not necessarily intentional on Muñoz’s part. While Muñoz uses water instead of fire, he still effaces the document and person just as Smith’s memory hole does. Here, however, the ash remains. The hypnotic whirlpool looks like a Cyclopean eye and clumps of coal from the photographs swirl in its watery lens, simultaneously suggesting remembrance and impermanence.
Muñoz’s compelling body of work on view in Sicardi Gallery addresses the unstable, transitory and easily manipulated nature of memory, identity and representation. Although the artist’s imagery is continually being erased, it remains imprinted in one’s mind.