They are the smallest works in the show, and they will not be the first things you will notice, but Beatriz Santiago Muñoz's Malascopios (2014) might well be the key works in her solo exhibition A Universe of Fragile Mirrors which is currently at El Museo del Barrio in New York City. Small geometrical sculptures made by attaching mirrors edge to edge, their title is an invented Spanish word that Santiago Muñoz translates as 'how to see wrong', and they are used to distort images recorded by her movie camera. Otros Usos (Other Uses) (2014) is a seven-minute movie (transferred to video) that was filmed with one of the Malascopios held in the camera's field of vision. Scenes of a fishing expedition and the views of the surrounding land and sea are thus fractured into several irregular sections. In a shot of a sunset for example, the sun appears three times. The Malascopios allow Santiago Muñoz a simple, non-digital means of fundamentally altering what we would otherwise see.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz was born in Puerto Rico and attended the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was awarded an MFA in film and video in 1997. Her first United Kingdom one-person exhibition was The Black Cave which was presented at Gasworks in London in association with the Tate Modern in 2013. While she continues to be based in Puerto Rico, her work has recently enjoyed wide exposure in the United States. As well as the current show in New York City, which was previously seen at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, her residency and exhibition Song, Strategy, Sign was at Manhattan's New Museum of Contemporary Art last spring, and Mouther, a new exhibition of her videos, has just opened at the Institute for New Connotative Action in Seattle, Washington (25 February–1 April 2017).
As well as the Malascopios and Otros Usos, A Universe of Fragile Mirrors includes seven other videos. Four of them, Marché Salomon (2015), MATRULLA (2014), Esto es un mensaje explosivo (This is an Explosive Message) (2010), and Nocturne (2014), are projected in rotation on the same projector; one of them, La Cabeza Mató a Todos (The Head Killed Everyone) (2014) is shown on a large flat-screen monitor; and two others, La Cueva negra (The Black Cave) (2014) and Post-Military Cinema (2014), are projected singly. There is also one series of wall-mounted photographs, '10 Years/ Long Exposure' (2014), and an intriguing sound piece, Faslane / Ceiba (2015). As this is all exhibited in three interconnected galleries, it makes for a complicated experience: it is impossible to concentrate entirely on any single piece, as an interplay between the soundtracks of the others provides a continuous accompaniment.
If there is a core principal underlying Santiago Muñoz's wide-ranging works, it is a conviction that our habits of thought keep us at a distance from reality. Such habits are reinforced by our vocabulary and assumptions, and Santiago Muñoz's art is founded upon her attempt to subvert them. Her goal is to expand our awareness so that we might achieve clarity of thought and unfettered experience. There is thus a broad strand of the political that runs through her art, and not merely because she makes it in Puerto Rico, which has been a subjugated colony for its entire recorded history since Christopher Columbus claimed it for the Crown of Castile in 1493.
Repeatedly Santiago Muñoz's work offers the real in place of the assumed. Ceiba/Faslane (2015) features two sound recordings, one on each side of a 12" vinyl record. The first was made in the town of Ceiba in Puerto Rico. This was the location of the former Roosevelt Roads US Naval Base, which until it closed in 2004 was a tactical control centre and flight training base for the United States Navy. The second was made at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde at Faslane in Scotland. This is home to Britain's fleet of nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles. One might expect Ceiba to be the quieter place, as at the time of recording, eleven years had passed since the base closed, and the site has been largely overgrown by tropical vegetation. (The same location is seen in Santiago Muñoz's Post-Military Cinema.) But this is not the case: whereas the Faslane recording features the subdued whirring of distant engines, Ceiba is alive with the raucous sounds of the birds and animals of the jungle.
'My work starts out from recognising that there's something that I don't know', she explains, 'or a process that I don't understand completely, or a place where something is happening that I can't see. What I'm trying to emphasise is that there is a way of thinking that is sensorial. It allows you to start to see differently, to see new events taking place that we don't have names for, that we can't recognise properly, that are not as easy to recognise as a navy base or other easily identified structures.'
Once our habits of thought have been shaken, once reality is glimpsed beyond our assumptions, it is intriguing how often Santiago Muñoz's work strays into realms that many of us might think are not real at all. Not just into the world of dreams, but into voodoo and magic, which she presents as entirely integrated into the day-to-day occurrences of the contemporary world.
In the video Marché Salomon (2015) (which was made in Haiti, a place that Santiago Muñoz has returned to over and again), the camera follows a young butcher as he walks around the Port-au-Prince open-air market of the title. He holds a small radio to his ear and listens to the tinny sounds of a pop music station. We see him at work, hacking a goat carcass to pieces, as flys crawl across the bloody flesh, and we eavesdrop on his conversation with a girlfriend. (They speak in Haitian Kreyol but their words are translated in subtitles.) 'There are men who see zombies walking around the market', he says, and as the couple finger the eye socket of the dead goat, their conversation turns to death, to the 'life force', and to a 'black hole' that might swallow them up.
It is a fascinating and distinctly unsettling world that Beatriz Santiago Muñoz opens up for us, and it is all the more compelling for the simplicity of the methods that she employs. She fastens a few mirrors together to fracture what we see, she projects her videos next to one another so that we cannot entirely concentrate on any particular one of them, she disrupts our expectations, and suddenly we find ourselves paying serious attentionIt is a remarkable kind of art that can do this, though it is precisely the kind of art that Beatriz Santiago Muñoz makes, and which you will find at El Museo del Barrio through 30 April.—[O]