Narcissus is a complex work made up of several variable parts created using techniques pioneered by the artist. It comprises a series of nine shallow Perspex trays or boxes filled with water, on the surface of which an outline portrait of the artist floats. Muňoz invented a method by which charcoal or black oil pastel may be rubbed through a silkscreen surface over a container of water to print an image on the water’s surface below. During the course of display the water in the trays evaporates, distorting the artist’s portrait until only a fragile trace remains. For the artist this process of evaporation is analogous to memory, which gradually fades over time. He has explained:
The work is really the result of a process that establishes a relationship to the viewer, and that also involves me in a theme with which I have been working and that fascinates me: the difficulty of fixing the image, which is related to memory – the difficulty of retaining an image and making it concrete. These works are made with the kind of screen used in silk-screening, previously processed photographically with my portrait. Once the trays are filled with water almost to the top, I place the screen [over them], and sift the charcoal through the silk and the dust falls in some places but not in others, and this is what creates the image. The image precariously floats on the surface of the water and then the process of evaporation and transformation begins, exposing the image to accidents, circumstances: the climate of the place, the amount of humidity, atmosphere, a series of variables that change whatever the viewer may see from one day to the next. Up to this initial moment I can intervene; beyond this, there is a process that ... I can no longer control, so there’s a sort of metaphor of creation, of life and death in those processes, when the dust touches the water and produces the image, then the process of evaporation, decay and change; and then in the end, when the image rests on the bottom, it remains still without the possibility of moving, of changing, it is preserved on the bottom of the tray. I also work with the idea of the self-portrait, keeping in mind that the person who will see the work is looking at him/herself; it’s a mirror. My image becomes the image of the other, which is theme that has interested me; how we see ourselves and the other, how we recognize ourselves in the other.
(Quoted in Cantos Cuentos Colombianos, pp.238–9.)
Narcissus is one of several works of the same title that Muňoz created between 1995 and 2000 using the same method. Tate’s version of Narcissus is the only one that permits the viewer to witness the process; the other versions are the dry residue remaining at the end (after the process has taken place elsewhere – usually in the artist’s studio). Muňoz has specified that it should be exhibited as a minimum of seven Perspex trays. Further elements may be added to the trays, relating the work to parallel themes in the artist’s oeuvre. These are photocopied maps of Cali, the artist’s home town in Colombia; maps of Colombia photocopied onto gold-coloured tissue paper and torn into irregular pieces; leaves from an old Colombian history book in Spanish scanned and photocopied; photocopies of satellite photographs of the surface of Mars that the artist downloaded from the internet; square pieces of watercolour paper (17.5 x 17.5 cm) on which the texture of a ceramic tile, concrete on a pavement or bricks on a wall has been imprinted by pressing and rubbing with charcoal; and a spiral torn from a sheet of watercolour paper. Each of these paper components may be used in a single tray, where they float in the water under the artist’s charcoal portrait, adding a further layer to the themes of mortality and loss evoked by the process of evaporation. The trays are displayed lying on the floor in a single row with 50 cm gaps between them.
Muňoz is known for his use of artistic processes as metaphors for memory and loss, the core themes of his art. By creating impermanent images – usually portraits – and then recording their transformation and dissolution, Muňoz powerfully evokes mortality and forgetting. Thus Project for a Memorial 2005, a five screen video projection, shows the artist drawing portraits using water and a brush on a hot pavement so that they evaporate as they are completed. In a more recent version of Narcissus 2001–2, a charcoal image floating on the water in a basin distorts as the water leaves via the plughole and it sticks to the sides. Aliento 1996–2002, is a series of mirrored discs fixed to the wall that reveal a transient portrait when breathed on, as though evoking a ghost. Like the work of his Colombian contemporary, Doris Salcedo (born 1958), Muňoz’s art is driven by his concern at the effects of long-term civil war in his country, in particular the way in which people can become so accustomed to living with violence on a daily basis that they no longer question its presence.
Cantos Cuentos Colombianos: Arte Colombiano Contemporáneo, Coontemporary Colombian Art, exhibition catalogue, Daros Exhibitions, Zürich 2004, pp.231–52, reproduced p.238 in colour.