When we think of snow globes we tend to think of that kitschy souvenir from childhood that took its pride of place on top of the TV, which we occasionally picked up, shook and marvelled at in wonder as the snowflakes swirled round and round before eventually falling onto a cozy miniature world: a scene from a fairytale, Jesus in a manger or the Statue of Liberty. Yet Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz’s appropriation of the snow globe in their art is less about the sentimentality of tacky memorabilia than the effects of toying with the implicit innocence of these familiar objects by creating strange scenarios within them.
At first glance, Martin and Muñoz’s snow globes recall the pleasant feeling we have when it snows. An atmosphere in which silence prevails, a time when people are generally in their homes, the animals are resting and even nature itself seems asleep. However, upon closer inspection, it quickly becomes apparent that the winter fantasy has been somewhat skewed. Not everything is as it seems: small acts of cruelty, violence and even dark humour come forth to captivate our imagination. Trapped in these snow globes are men and women seen alone or at the mercy of others, lost in a bleak, largely nocturnal landscape straight out of the dead of winter. These are memento mori, weirdly reminiscent of the morbid scenes from the Coen Brothers modern masterpiece, Fargo. Travellers is at the same end of the spectrum as the film: an offbeat, pseudo-moralist parable that forgoes the boundaries between horror and humour, and that is set in a whitewashed, winter wilderness wherein people are gripped by the cold storm of life as various atrocities unfold around them.
In this photographic series, we come across thoroughly malevolent deeds such as a burly man dangling a child over a well or a man pushing a naked woman up to the edge of a glacier. Elsewhere however, images which show a large-headed boy banging his forehead against a tree or a couple slow-dancing in a cemetery are simply absurd. And while several photographs are particularly horrifying, such as the one of the man in a suit who has hung himself from a tree as the horse that carried him there moseys away, others are hilarious: the figure tipping his hat to another figure tipping his whole head being just one example. Some, on the other hand, are downright scary, as is the case with the photograph of a giant spider hunting a helpless man or the one that depicts a procession of villagers wielding torches and heads on stakes. They are like crime scenes that should perhaps have remained hidden but instead are put on full view before the mantle of snow covers up any trace of the wicked deeds which have taken place.
Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz explore the human condition through an unsettling slippage of reality and fantasy. Paradoxes abound and so the works leave ample space for interpretation in our minds to complete them. Travellers has a rich texture of ideas, references, memories and dreams, but ultimately it is the suspension of disbelief that is the key to their reception and meaning — the odd experience of an everyday household object revealing itself as something more surreal totally stumps our expectations. This wonderful synthesis of the familiar and the strange is the linchpin of their work.
As many as 750 art works have been made by this artist team for Travellers. Their working method is clearly as painstaking as it is prolific, the end photograph being just the tip of the iceberg. After spending hours scouring model-making shops for tiny figurines the artists then take them apart, cut them up, paint them and finally reassemble the various body parts, often with oversized limbs or heads, to create the desired effect for their tableaux. Likewise, all the elements used to create the barren environments require careful precision: spindly branches, trees empty of their leaves and other sparse shrubbery are fashioned out of plumbers’ epoxy (a malleable plastic that can be easily manipulated in order to imitate wooden parts) before being pieced together and covered in water resistant resin. Water mixed with a small measure of alcohol that acts as a preservative are used to fill the orbs so that they are finally ready to be photographed. By using a Mayima camera with a macro lens, bare backgrounds, shallow focus and uncanny illumination to photograph these snowy little worlds the resulting images simultaneously seduce and startle the viewer. Paloma Muñoz compiles hundreds of complementary images in the process which are then enlarged into prints of enormous size.
The artists have been working together since 1994, having met one year previously when Muñoz was accompanying her mother on a trip from Madrid to New York for a painting show in which she was exhibiting. Not long after they were living and working together. According to them, the pivotal moment in their lives and in the development of their work was when they lost their studio in Brooklyn to a developer in 2001. As a consequence of this, they experienced a long period of constantly chopping and changing their work space until they finally settled into a charming farmhouse in the highlands of East Pennsylvania. It has now not only become home but also a great source of inspiration too since their huge studio windows afford a stark vista of snow-covered trees scattered across an otherwise barren landscape much like the ones we see in Travellers. To a certain extent, the origin of Travellers can be traced back to this sublime experience of seeing the heavy mid-winter snow that falls like a blanket on these parts when house-hunting all those years ago. In the words of the artists themselves, their work with snow globes in effect was a sort of organic response to their immediate surroundings.
Having said that, many of the snow globes in the Travellers series contain solitary individuals trudging through the snowstorms, heavily laden with bags of shopping or suitcases on a journey to anywhere. Maybe then it is not the place but rather the placelessness that lies at the core of their project. After all the unstable notion of home is like a seam running through their work: a constant presence which has resurfaced time and time again. Underlining this sense of belonging and personal identity the image most often used to represent the series is that of a couple struggling to drag their prefabricated house across an unforgiving, icy terrain. It could well be considered a personal anecdote and, by extension, symbolic of the artists’ uprooted lives. Cumbersome and immobile, the house appears to be rolling back down the very hill up which they have pushed it. Later, in a different work from the series, we see that their efforts have been entirely futile as the same house is found at the very edge of a cliff on the point of tumbling into the abyss that awaits it below.
Those that have the strongest undertow of gloom, however, are the scenes in which people set out, terribly ill-equipped, through the blinding blizzard that lies ahead, and with no home to go to whatsoever. Such images bring to mind the millions of immigrants in the world that have abandoned a past, a culture and a family in search of a better life abroad for one reason or another, not least because of international conflicts. The protagonists in Travellers walk down an empty road hauling what remains of their belongings with them without even knowing where they are heading. They are eternally frozen in limbo between two indefinite spaces. Their open-ended narrative threads refuse to be neatly tied up and instead speak more to the universal concerns of struggle, loss and lament. Therefore the journey that we are really taken on here is not so much physical as psychological that in the end leads only to the existential doubts and fears we have within us.