Designed to occupy a full corner of gallery space, the principal feature of The Prompter is a raised platform resembling a stage. At the stage’s edge, a miniature prompter’s box is occupied by the sculpted figure of a dwarf. Although the dwarf’s upper body and head are hidden within the box we assume the figure looks out onto the stage, which is empty except for an abandoned drum. Positioned towards the back of the stage, the drum is within the prompter’s fictive gaze. Linoleum flooring of a bold geometric design covers the stage, accentuating the optical effect of spatial recession.
Juan Muñoz showed The Prompter at P.S.1, Long Island City, New York, in 1989, in response to an invitation from curator Rüdiger Schöttle to participate in an exhibition entitled Theatergarden Bestiarium. The exhibition’s project was to examine meanings attached to the spectacle of the museum environment and probe historical relationships between gardens, museums and themes of the theatrical, in relation to contemporary art.
Muñoz’s works are often linked to an idea of a ‘baroque’ aesthetic, particularly in relation to their theatricality. He acknowledged a fascination with the work of Francesco Borromini (1599–1667), an architect known for his complex, unorthodox and dramatic spatial effects. Muñoz connected the inspiration for The Prompter specifically with a visit he made to the gardens of the Baroque Palace of Nymphenburg, in Bavaria, which sparked an interest in its architect, François de Cuvilliés (1695–1768). Muñoz explained:
Rüdiger Schöttle wanted me to make something around an architectural ruin for his Bestiarium project. So I went to this very Baroque park in Munich and picked up a leaflet about the Rococo artist who designed it and discovered that he had been very small in size, practically a dwarf. And then I knew what I was going to make: the image of a dwarf inside the Prompter box, the Prompter is, in a way, the House of Memory and therefore the ruin Rüdiger asked me to do. (Quoted in Possible Worlds, p.60.)
The ‘theatrical’ effects of The Prompter are problematised by the artist, not least because the stage is empty. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Muñoz offers the spectator an ambiguous relationship with the scene he creates, in that the event represented is one from which the audience seems to be excluded. He commented in 1995: ‘maybe what’s interesting in theatre is that you cannot answer back. And then the curtains close and you leave. A piece should have that capacity, that you cannot answer back to it.’ (Quoted in Juan Muñoz: Monólogos y Diálogos, p.126.)
Whilst many of Muñoz’s figures appear to be talking or listening, here the diminutive figure of the prompter, who faces away from the spectator towards a stage without actors to prompt, emphasises a lack of communication. The abandoned drum, sometimes pierced, is a recurring symbol in Muñoz’s work; it seems to refer to an interest in sound and hearing, and its contrary aspect, the absence of sound and muteness. Even in those installations which use figural groups, Muñoz’s silently conversing or laughing figures (see, for example, Towards the Corner 1998, Tate T07872) are situated so they feel distanced from the spectator, as if suspended in time and space.
James Lingwood, ed, Juan Muñoz: Monólogos y Diálogos, exhibition catalogue, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1996, reproduced pp.48-9 in colour.
Possible Worlds: Sculpture from Europe, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and Serpentine Gallery, London, 1990.
Sheena Wagstaff, ed., Juan Muñoz: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Tate, London, 2008, reproduced pp.26-7 in colour.