The new solo show by this collaborative duo of multidisciplinary artists revolves around a group of twelve photographs from the ongoing series Blind House, which was first exhibited at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities. “These windowless houses seem to lack souls; they are not just blind, as the title suggests, but eyeless” [Sharp, S. R. (2019, April) Strangely Unsettling Photographs of Windowless Houses. Hyperallergic.com. https://Hyperallergic.com]. Alongside them are two new sculptures, a small-format one, Splitting (2022), in reference to the work of the same title created by Gordon Matta-Clark in 1974, and a spectacular augmented reality work, The Bird House (2022), that provides an inmersive experience. Small objects, whose appearance we will not reveal, and which will surprise us, observing us long before we notice them -feeling a slight shiver-, and a video, Tree Huggers (2022), made especially for this purpose, provide a playful and affective touch. And finally, the interactive installation Utopia Work Station (1998-2022). The works in the exhibition take up the theme of quarantine isolation: the loneliness that comes with “cabin fever” and the unexpected new relationships made in the absence of human contact.
Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz began their collaboration in 1993. Regarding the moment and some of the most defining characteristics of their work, such as playfulness and black humour, Tina Teufel writes that it was just at the time when the Gothic was experiencing renewed attention, not only in entertainment culture but also in the field of art, due to the perception of an increasingly dehumanised and at risk world that tests our faith in human goodness, although, on the other hand, according to Jerry Saltz: The Gothic has never left us; one hell has been replaced by another [Teufel, T. (2020) Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz. American Gothic. A Mind of Winter. Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz. Museum der Moderne. Salzburg, pp. 14, 15, 22]. Their work arouses the contradictory feelings of attraction/repulsion, in the Freudian sense of the unheimlich – uncanny-. There are theories about the Gothic (Crowl, C.L., cit. Teufel, T. ibid. p. 15 and 22) in relation to the cathartic response it provokes in the reader-viewer, when is shown in this key that part of history which officialdom has chosen to conceal, and whose understanding may be most important for us, whereas it is a process in which the fears and wounds inflicted on individuals and societies by trauma, change and authoritarianism are confronted.
The interactive installation Utopia Work Station (1998-2022), is also an ongoing project, whose previous iteracy was at the Museum der Moderne Rupertinum in Salzburg, where remained inspiring new utopias until 13 March 2020, when the museum had to close its doors due to the pandemic. Sitting inside a glass box, visitors have to follow the instructions placed on top of the desk:
First, read the previous participant’s utopia, which is still in the typewriter. Then, in order to write your own, remove it, crumple it into a ball and throw it into the waste paper can. Finally take a clean piece of paper from under the desk, insert it into the typewriter and type out your own utopia leaving it there for the next person to read and discard
This exercise emphasises in that one utopia can rarely coexist with another, and that if everyone has their own utopia and, morover, everyone’s could be different according to circumstances, utopia is not possible for nobody; it is just only something that will never become a reality, among other reasons, because if it did, it would immediately lose its utopian essence. The reading of all the texts belonging to one iteracy and the comparison with each other and between them with those produced in different circumstances reveals very significant differences.
“Cabin Fever” is a term of uncertain origin that began to be mentioned in the early 20th century in the United States to describe a type of mental state caused by months of isolation, loneliness and boredom, due to the long and freeze winters that plagued the extreme latitudes. Settlers in the vast, desolate territories of the USA and Canada experienced similar sensations, which they described as “prairie madness” or “mountain madness”. Some professions -notably astronauts- can also lead to such a state. Precisely, it is in a territory with very low temperatures most of the year -Pennsylvania- where the artists settled, which is reproduced in many of their projects. These kinds of territories are also identified with areas of encounter with the unknown due to have been frontier territories during the conquest of North America (Crow, C.L., quoted by Teufel, T., ibid. pp. 17 and 23). Extreme landscapes and environments as a projection of extreme situations through which to explore limits, taboos and depths of the psyche (Teufel, T., ibid. p.14).
The glass box that houses this work in the gallery is an existing infrastructure that made logical its use, and therefore the staging in this format, while in the Museum der Moderne, and in other spaces lacking a similar element, it was carried out in the form originally conceived, within a circular plastic structure that lead our mind directly to think in the emblematic snow globes of Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz. For that exhibition, in fact, in other “turn of the screw”, they created one of them in limited edition, Utopia Work Station (2019), containing a miniature of the installation.
In this occasion they have created the snowball Splitting (2022), a nod to Matta Clark’s piece of the same name, resulting of an action, captured on video and somewhat reckless, considered to be the founding act of a new concept of sculpture. The artist, an architect who died very prematurely at the age of 35, is a reference in contemporary art, thanks, among other, to this action of splitting in two a house owned by the art dealer Holly Solomon, in Englewood, New Jersey, precisely in one of the areas chosen by the duo Martin & Muñoz to search out their Blind Houses. In both cases, actually, as manifestations of everyday life and reflections of the dominant social structures. Matta Clark and Solomon wanted to show their commitment to the need for art to be transformed in a socio-political context. But this work was severely criticised by the media.Most of them declared that Matta-Clark had intentionally violated “the sanctity” and dignity of these buildings. To such an extent were they considered icons of a way of life that they were given the status of sacred. The action of blinding, or rather depriving these houses of “organs” to view, with an obvious critical sense, seems not to have elicited the same counter-reactions, even though have been decisively affected their structure and typology by such an intervention.
The Bird House, takes up the theme of the tree house, a motif dealt with in different projects –Traveler 314 (2016), and Traveler CCCIIL (2019) or The Orchard at Night (2005)- driving it to augmented reality. This technology makes possible the expansion to a virtual three-dimensionality or its escape from the snowball -travelers-, providing an immersive experience, undoing the mystery it encloses, since on this occasion its interior can be visited, while at the same time we can experience, if we face it with a proper sensibility, its inhabitants feelings. This interaction facilitates catharsis and what Ignatius of Loyola called “composition of place”. The house and the tree of bare branches are two of the most recurring elements in the work of these artists, so being the object of the first work in this format of the duo is proof of its validity in the imaginary of the authors, for whom the titles get remarkable importance and reveal the great lyricism that they pour into all their works.
On the theme of new relationships nurtured in the absence of human contact, the artists say: “The trees behind our Pennsylvania house became a renewed source of fascination. For us, the trees had always been more like beautiful scenery or mile markers defining the perimeters of our daily walks. But with isolation, we became increasingly aware of their sensitivity and found ourselves “anthropomorphising” their attributes. During the winter of 2021, we imagined them as furry and warm-blooded and embraced them. We also imagined them looking at us and our home with their new and curious eyes.” Some examples of this “strange phenomenon” “hiding in plain sight”, just behind the artists’ house, can be seen in the Amster Yard at the Instituto Cervantes in New York, which exhibits the artists’ work simultaneously, and in the video Woke Woods, shown in the gallery. In addition, the artists have adapted the piece for an interior space: the walls have eyes …, they just must be found once the viewer feels observed. These small pieces take up the same theme of another from 2001: They Can Not Speak, while the series Blind House also delves in the same matter to which You Can Not Tell the Keepers from the Kept approached in 1998: it is often impossible to tell the spy from the spied or the keeper from the kept.
Originally, the photographic project responded to concerns of a different etiology. The Blind House series began in 2013 and was conceived as a metaphor for the radical opacity necessary to survive in the age of spyware; identity theft; the mind-jamming of post-truth and fake news; and corporate or state digital surveillance that turns us into inhabitants of glass houses, not in an architectural typology sense but in the widest range of possible meanings for this concept. Tina Teufel, (ibid. p. 20, quoting Jones J. “A House Is Not a Home”, in The Gothic, pp. 208-209), argues something similar to what happens in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), about how are closely, almost symbiotically interconnected, humans and buildings, and it seems likely that the fate of both depends more on the actions of their inhabitants than on any external influence. Teufel ends her text (ibid. pp. 20-21) with some disturbing reflections, in line with the artists’ proposal: But are our eyes always ready to see, even if there are windows and other openings? Are there things that remain invisible to our rather biologically limited visual sense? What use are our eyes if we become blind or if we do not trust our own eyes? Do we really want to be ready to see everything?
This was at the end of 2019, now, however, with more than two years of pandemic behind our backs, these photographs read less like a metaphor and more like a series of real options in a catalogue of pandemic bunkers.