A man doffs his head. For half a second it looks like a gesture of welcome, the body leaning forward as if about to bow. One could almost take the head for a hat. But the eyes are tight shut, wincing, enduring, concentrating hard on whatever is happening within while out of his mouth issues a string of tiny wire figures, miniature men exactly like him except that they are somehow keeping their heads.
Stand close to this marvelous figure by the Spanish artist Juan Munoz, currently on show at the Frith Street Gallery, London, and you become part of a peculiar identity crisis. Who or what is he? Slightly smaller than life, and matte gray from his empty collar to the scuffed toes of his shoes, he cannot be anything but inanimate. He even seems to be made out of something like laminated mackintosh.
And that string of figures on their twisted wire, standing in for garbled words; that uniform gray; that idea of losing one’s head, getting out of one’s mind — he is in himself a figure of speech. But this man stands in our world, in our space, stirring feelings of empathy and unease that don’t quite go with being merely artificial. He could almost be one of us, or a member of some counterpart race. He inspires true fellow feeling.
The gray men outlive their maker, who died very suddenly in 2001 at the age of 48. Munoz had Tate Modern’s Unilever commission at that time and had transformed the Turbine Hall as no other artist before him or since. The infrastructure he created between two floors, with its secret service of gray suits performing their enigmatic drama in a network of balconies, lift-shafts and corridors, was bewildering, mysterious, enthralling — somewhere between a parallel city and the embodiment of purgatory.
The figures at the Frith Street Gallery are like odd men out, the ones that got away. Most of their colleagues were made to be seen high up on those balconies and walkways. These men are down on the ground, intimate with the viewer. You could, I suppose, reach out and touch them if that didn’t feel like an intrusion. That is part of their semi-human power: like actors they partake of the real as well as the illusory.
One man tries to forge ahead, bowed down against the wind and the rain and the burdens of life. Another seems to be carrying his own shroud like an attribute. A third bears a burning fluorescent tube, eyes closed against its blinding light, perhaps listening to its faint crackle. He is caught between the outward danger and the inner struggle, trying to come to terms with one, the other, perhaps both. His face is alarmingly ambiguous.
But the light allows you to see, more closely than before, one source of the power that characterizes these figures. From a certain angle the expression may appear to be blind stoicism or pain; from another there is the dawning of something more like enlightenment. And in between there are many other nuances.
So that sets them apart from most statues (although curiously closer to those living statues on our city streets, fleetingly letting their guard down beneath the greasepaint) just as their racial connection sets them apart from most sculpture. For no matter how isolated in the gallery, or how solitary their cares, they are all part of the same cast of quasi-human characters, and we seem to be more than just their audience. It is as if we coexist with them.