American-Spanish artist couple Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz from New York have been exploring tiny little dramas from our everyday madness and transformed them into short therapeutic scenes: What started as miniature snow globes a couple of years ago, has now evolved in veritable landscape panoramas that depict the elaborate bleakness of an emotional icy desert populated by all sorts of creatures. A world in everlasting winter, how grim! And at the same time, how funny! PingMag talked to Walter.
Written by Verena
I’m calling you in a small town near sunny Valencia where you’ll be for the summer. What are you working on right now?
We are continuing our foul weather line with heavy snow scenes, but working with larger landscapes which we submerge in tanks. It’s more in the same line of things going bad; strange situations you might encounter in a dream more than reality. Although, things somehow relate to our life as individuals.
“Almost Human,” 2004. Man hunt… © Martin-Munoz
… and more sinister scenes as if out of a grim(m’s) fairy tale. “Traveler 204,” 2006. © Martin-Munoz
Is it about fatality?
We are trying to find things that surprise us; that have a critical combination of tragedy and comedy in our world we set the parameters for. The whole body of work was generated from a culture shock that we went through when we moved from New York to the countryside. We are still carrying on a very active social life in the city. When we first moved to the countryside just on the other side of the New Jersey state line, 70 miles west, it was more empty and abandoned. Over the last five years there has been a lot of development and a lot of houses have popped up.
The countryside is not a visual distraction, so you’d get thrown back onto yourselves?
That was the idea in the beginning, but eventually the woods and the countryside weren’t as inviting and pleasant as we’d imagined them. We discovered a lot of things we found disturbing. For example, running for a mile into the woods and unexpectedly encountering a stranger with a weapon; standing on the side of a path with a dead animal and wondering what kind of exchange we might have there. Having heard gunshots in the forest, having seen bears, or almost stepping on a snake in the forest… and the people, there is a an age-old fear of country people by the city people. We’re not local, we’re not gun people, and we’re not really integrated in the country society. The crime rate is very low since there is an understated assumption that everybody has got weapons in their house. And the sense of people having one and feeling empowered by that, is intimidating for us. At the same time, it’s intriguing for us and these strange cross currents that occur between city and country are important for our work.
Sounds almost like a power game… And yet, your islands are all covered in snow, bleak and nearly deserted.
The islands are a combination of our metaphorical sense of being isolated and also a physical phenomenon that occurs in winter. The snow can get quite deep and compact; sort of an ice craft that surrounds the house. You can’t walk or ski, so you’re confined to your house. Elsewise, when we were in Spain last summer, we made some of the sets like the one with the animal people, were formed by the incredible brightness of light here and also the bareness. Where we are in Spain is a mountainous desert that borders the ocean. Since it doesn’t rain ever, whatever vegetation is here is completely artificially supported. The island series is also a distillation of different influences. And we still are very dislocated. I don’t think that Paloma and I feel that we have a home per se…
Very much so, it’s the landscape that is the protagonist in the islands series. Which remind me also of the dramatic landscape paintings of the 18th century where emotions are expressed through the sublime of the snow covered mountains…
We are huge fans of the German romantics. The snow globes were close-ups, sort of narrative snippets involving interactions between people or between people and nature. Whereas with the panoramas, the people are integrated into nature. It has a pantheistic feeling where there is a democratic quality between the forces of nature and people being just part of forces of nature.
“The Well, Traveler 123 at Night,” 2004. Cruel intentions part I… © Martin-Munoz
… and part II: “Traveler 31 at Night,” 2003. © Martin-Munoz
A balance so to speak? Speaking of which — how do you divide the work usually in your collaboration?
We have our own special skills: For Paloma, it’s the photography and she is a computer whiz and I work on the sets. We bounce the ideas around — she works upstairs and I, in the basement — and we meet up for lunch and dinner to talk about what we’re doing. The most important part of the collaboration for me is in the informative stage when we are trying to articulate nebulous ideas and give them some shape.
Alone in the dark, but at least with a home — “Traveler 170 at Night,” 2005. © Martin-Munoz
Wow, that sounds quite efficient! Did you always work like that?
It didn’t start as a collaboration, we were friends and lovers and worked in the same studio for a while. And we found ourselves looking at each other’s work, because we shared the same wall in a small studio for the first several years we were living together. We would move the pieces around on the wall, and I would take something from her side and put it on my side and mix it. And she would get upset and take something from my side and mix it with hers. It can be interesting as combined forces. Things have changed and we could afford to have separate studios, but we continue like that since it seems like such an excellent way of combining skills.
What materials do you use? I read that, for one snow globe, you built little houses and then burnt them to have the ruins…
I build the trees, all the landscape parts and the houses. I buy the figures but they come in very standard positions so I tend to cut them up, reassemble and articulate them that they fit into an action. In the first year that we were working on the snow globes, we used them as they were given to us, as just the way they came suggested certain possibilities. At a certain point we got exhausted by these possibilities, so we started to cut them up. Now they are Frankenstein versions of their former selves. With time, we also tried to deemphasise the figures and make the landscape more the eminent protagonist.
How long does one take to make?
We may have three sets we are working on simultaneously. It’s important for us that we don’t get stuck on one project or feel compelled to finish it. If we count the real time working on one, it would maybe take a month. In average, we make 10 to 12 pictures a year.
You have one with only bulls fighting called “Experiment with Red,” just as they’d be in some sort of group situation…
We wanted something without any people in it at all, a pure fantasy with a dream-like quality. The reference would be the way that children gang up; the way weakness is perceived.
Also, the trees seem to be a quite violent and recurring force in your works: In one panorama called “The Nursery” from 2007, people seem to be buried under trunks and trees grow out of their bodies. And in one earlier snow globe entitled “Traveler 135 at Night” from 2004 peoples’ heads are stuck in the tree trunks…
“Traveler 135 at Night,” 2004. Stuck.
The snow globe was maybe inspired by Bruegel and the Flemish kind of allegorical etchings of the 15th century. The trees coming out of the people: I’ve seen that exact image in Aztec iconography where trees coming out of people’s chests. It was a culture where blood was seen as fertiliser; something to reinvigorate their world. So their sacrifices would help make a better season of corn. Also, I’ve seen it in a medieval context, where the interpretation of it would be: We don’t burn the dead, we tend to bury them. There is something that comes out of that: We’re putting ourselves back into the soil for the next generations.
Interestingly, you often like to use figures in different scales, opposed to each other. Or humans with animals that are more than life-sized…
We play with that a lot. It’s also a way of shaking up your sense of perspective. A way of emphasising certain characters, fragility and weakness as opposed to overpowering strength….
Can we see the snow globes as psychograms depicting relationships, like the snow globe where a couple is chained together called “Alone Together”…?
Oh, that is sort of a signature; an inside joke of our collaboration together. That was inspired by The Defiant Ones, a late 50’s movie with Tony Curtis and Sidney Potier. Two convicts escape, shackled together at the ankles. It turns into this highly charged racial thing, a very popular subject in the 60’s.
“Alone together,” inspired by a convict drama from the late 50′s… © Martin-Munoz
“Traveler 208 at Night,” encountering people with guns. Peaceful countryside… © Martin-Munoz
Some scenes seem to be taken right out of real life. For example, a very intimidating police control entitled “Traveller 46 at Night” from 2004…
That was during the post 9/11 paranoia where we felt as if we were in a secret police state. We just try to feed our anxiety into our work. The snow globes are like little drawings — they are fun and almost therapeutic because you are able to capture some nebulous anxiety and give it form and shape and relieve yourself of it. Whereas the panoramas are more cinematic, or novelistic, and take more planning…
Your settings are unique as every spectator has some kind of reaction to it, which is kind of universal. One panorama caught my eye. It’s called “A Winter Walk,” where people walk and fly around dressed as ghosts. What’s the story behind that?
The idea is that as you get older and approach the end of life, maybe there is a transition area between life and death. There is a painting I really love by a 15th century Flemish painter, Joachim Patinir. It depicts the River Styx with a little boatman crossing the river in a contemporary Flemish way: The boat is a Flemish boat and the painting has a paradisical look that doesn’t evoke the transition at all. In our panorama, there is this old woman who is oblivious to the things that are flying around her. She is in a transition zone, but she’s not aware of the things since she’s still rooted to the body. We are trying to bring things into our world in the same way right as Patinir took a classical Greek concept and made it contemporary to his world.
After recontextualising the snow globe… what would come next?
We are thinking of a book with a story we have written with images of our own. That’s in an early stage…
Looking forward to it! But also, in October there will be a book out with your panoramas and the stories of author Jonathan Lethem. It’s called Travelers and we’d like to get our hands on that too! Thank you, Walter and Paloma.