Towards the Corner is a large figurative sculpture comprising a set of two wooden bleachers on which seven monochrome grey cast resin figures are positioned. The figures, all men, are slightly smaller than life-size. One of them stands at one end of the lower bench; the other six are seated on the two-tier benches of the bleachers. The work was first shown as part of a large-scale site-specific installation entitled Streetwise at Site Santa Fe in 1998. At that venue the sculpture was displayed with the figures facing towards a corner so that the viewer approached them from behind. This placement was determined partly because of the configuration of the room in which the work was shown. Although the artist specified that it is possible to position the work in the middle of a room, it has become common practice to replicate its initial installation in subsequent displays.
This placement encourages the viewer to move around the sculpture to see the figures from the front. The men are all bald with similar oriental features; their faces appear to have been cast from the same man. They are dressed identically in long boxy jackets and trousers. They wear gloves and socks but no shoes. They are all frozen in the midst of uproarious laughter, throwing their heads back or doubled over with hilarity. Their extreme jollity in the absence of any apparent cause provokes a series of reactions in the viewer, from initial amusement or bemusement to a more unsettled and anxious response. In front of the bleachers, the viewer moves from feeling complicit in the figures’ mirth to sensing that he or she is the object of their derision. The eternal laughter of the figures begins to appear almost menacing.
The laughing monochrome Asian figures in Towards the Corner were a recurring motif in Muñoz’s work in the late 1990s. He first used the figures he referred to as ‘Chinese’ in Square (Madrid), 1996 (private collection), a large installation commissioned for the Palacio de Velázquez in Madrid. In European art, the Oriental has traditionally represented exoticism and otherness. The laughing Chinese man, at once familiar and strange, was one of a repertoire of uncanny characters Muñoz created. In earlier works he explored the image of the ventriloquist’s dummy and the dwarf; he also created ballerinas and cloaked figures whose torsos sit atop immobile rounded bases instead of legs. The artist described the effect of his characters, saying, ‘There is something about their appearance that makes them different, and this difference in effect excludes the spectator from the room they are occupying ... The spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view’ (quoted in Paul Schimmel, ‘An Interview with Juan Muñoz’, Juan Muñoz, p.150).
Muñoz was one of the most prominent of a generation of figurative sculptors to emerge in the late 1980s; others included Kiki Smith (born 1954), Robert Gober (born 1954; see Untitled, 1989-92, Tate T06658) and Thomas Schütte (born 1954; see The Strangers, 1992, Tate T07873). Although based in his native Madrid, Muñoz saw himself as an international artist and exhibited extensively throughout Europe and America. His last major installation before his untimely death was Double Bind, a commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2001.
James Lingwood and Juan Muñoz, Juan Muñoz: monologues & dialogues, exhibition catalogue, Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 1996.
Lynne Cooke, Juan Muñoz, exhibition catalogue, Dia Center for the Arts, New York, 1999, reproduced pp.49-53 in colour.
Neal Benezra, Paul Schimmel, Michael Brenson and Olga M. Viso, Juan Muñoz, exhibition catalogue, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. and the Art Institute of Chicago, 2001, reproduced pp.132-3 in colour.