Hangar Bicocca feels more like an aquarium than an art gallery. Looking up into the black expanses of its cathedral-high warehouse ceilings, I expect a blue whale to be frozen on chains mid-swim. Instead, humanoid acrobats dangle from their ankles, and two squirrel-sized men circle endlessly on a shoebox railcar.
Beneath, a desert of linoleum mosaic spreads out in an optical illusionary geometric pattern. Far in the distance, but closer than it seems, a small child sits on a shelf and gazes across the abyss. On closer inspection, the child is a ventriloquist dummy without its ventriloquist.
This is art that asks to be discovered and re-discovered.
Juan Muñoz’s quasi-retrospective at Milan’s HangarBicocca includes work created during the sculptor’s rise to fame in the mid 1980s through to his death in 2001. Sixteen different pieces are scattered wide within the gaping space, all of which involve mutant human-esque sculptures interacting with each other and their environment. Some have no feet, others have bean-bags instead of legs, and most are only three-quarters the size of adults. It is this eerie almost-humanness that gives the work its delicious mystery.
The power of Muñoz’s art lies in the viewer’s approach, and the gallery provides an atmospheric red carpet unlike any other. These are not sculptures to be stumbled upon in a shoddily lit corner of a labyrinthine museum; these figures must be spied from afar, wondered about, then investigated.
In ‘Conversation Piece’, thirty near-identical humanoids stretch across twenty metres of concrete stage. Some gather to share gossip, others argue or console each other (the facial expressions are ambiguous), while others still drift in towards the throng or turn as if they’ve had enough. You could describe it as an over-populated, alien, Last Supper - but that would suggest there was definitive narrative. Part of the joy of Muñoz’s creations is that the viewer is always kept in the dark.
The centre-piece of the exhibition is ‘Double Bind’, a gigantic, multi-floor installation that was first shown in the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. Here, as there, the audience (it really is more static theatre than sculpture) walk beneath a low ceiling broken up by large skylights that reveal termite-like activity above. By gazing through the apertures we glimpse Muñoz’s ubiquitous figures scurrying like fugitives in what looks like a level from a spy game. By climbing a staircase we can survey this horizontal Bauhaus warren, and pretend - like the ventriloquist’s dummy - that nothing is awry below.
Pulling back a black curtain reveals another drama unfolding, and continues the feeling that this is more immersive promenade theatre than art show. Fifty figures decorate the room. Light streams in from the gallery of high windows soaring four stories above. It’s like I’m in The Matrix and time has been frozen. I’m the soulless computer avatar come to superintend the cattle-like masses, but the joke is on me. I can examine each creature from every angle, but I can never be part of their world.
As an artist fascinated by architecture, Muñoz would surely approve of Hangar Bicocca’s careful curation. Each collection of creatures has ample room to emanate its aura, and each viewer given the space to curiously roam.