MIAMI — There is a dizzying effect in Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s short film “Otro usos (Other Uses).” Currently on view in A Universe of Fragile Mirrors, Muñoz’s solo exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, it is projected high onto a wall, casting a strange light onto a table of angular, jewel-like structures below. A pinky-red sunset is reflected through a prism and a nameless man casts a fishing line below; the grounds of Roosevelt Roads, the former US Naval Station in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, stretch and float, like a gray ghost, into the sea. Sometimes the image appears upside-down or reversed, or in refracted multiples, the ocean turned on its side. “Otro Usos” was shot through malascopios, or reflective sculptures made of aluminum and glass, constructed and titled by Santiago Muñoz herself. Placed over a lens, a malascopio effectively turns the camera into a kaleidoscope; the root words, malo (bad) and copiar (reproduction), reference this transformational process and distortion of vision.
As a result of the push against the military presence in Puerto Rico (namely Vieques), Roosevelt Roads became Naval Activity Puerto Rico (NAPR) before it was eventually inoperative. Now, the José Aponte de la Torre Airport is located on the same grounds. Throughout its life span, Roosevelt Roads took on many roles beyond its intended purpose. Viewing the space through a prism, examining its other uses, implicates these layers and bestows upon it new narratives: military economy as intertwined with natural ecology, for one (the sun might swallow the entire naval base), and the strange, mystical mythology inherent in that idea, for another.
Santiago Muñoz, who works primarily with film and video, projects these storylines throughout her oeuvre; they begin to function, it seems, as theories. The San Juan-based artist and educator has been making films for the past 13 years, casting non-professional actors and creating works that are both fictional and true. As she examines the intrinsically multifaceted nature of a place — particularly politically contentious spaces — its history, especially its spiritual history, becomes profoundly entwined with its present. The mirrors of Fragile Mirrors are not so literal: they’re found in Muñoz’s ability to let contemporary culture and ancient mystical thought reflect each other.
In another film on view, “La cueva negra (The Black Cave),” Muñoz explores El Paso del Indio, an indigenous burial site in Puerto Rico. Its existence was not publicly known until the construction of a nearby freeway. Santiago Muñoz’s camera tenderly, humorously, follows the steps of two local boys, who discuss their exploration, their horses, the trees — “I’m crazy about almonds.” She traces the movement of their skin as they climb, swim, and sit amongst debris and overgrowth. When “La cueva negra”’s narrator recites a creation myth, it feels like a direct response to El Paso del Indo’s present: “Before humans, bridges, and birds, there was a cave … The first one to leave the cave turned into a rock. The next one turned into a motorcycle. Then a few others left and they turned into bats. They fished at night.” Moments prior, the two boys had been discussing fishing; they rode a dirt bike up a hill, almost to the freeway, before one nearly fell off.
In her research of the site, Santiago Muñoz interviewed archaeologists, who revealed that the indigenous myths specific to Puerto Rico were malleable, adapting to the particular location and its inhabitants. She frequently works on the ground, examining the physicality, history, and even belief systems of every site she ends up filming. It’s worth addressing that in addition to her malascopios, Santiago Muñoz displays Ceiba/Faslane, a vinyl record of field recordings taken from Roosevelt Roads and Faslane, a British Naval base near Glasgow.
The embedding of mythologies into a sociopolitical climate is examined in “La cabeza mató a todos (The Head Killed Everyone).” A woman smokes a cigarette on a hammock and brainstorms, with a black cat, “how to build a spell” to end a war: “If the magic desired is the total and absolute destruction of the machinery of war … then the spell requires the consumption of a substantial amount of energies. Like the tiger consumes the day.” She dances to the sound of coquís and thunderstorms.
Here, Caribbean magic sets its gaze on the landscape’s militarization and industrialization. It’s a useful tool for understanding both the dilemmas of these social changes and the island’s fabled mythology, but Santiago Muñoz goes further: perhaps the best way to truly undermine the presence of the military industrial complex is to know that it too utilizes — and can thus be overcome with — magical thinking. Hyperallergic spoke with the artist over e-mail; when asked about these ideas, she explained:
Politics is full of mystical thought … And mystical thought, aesthetic practices — whether through art or religious ritual — have material and physical consequences. Military discipline is not just a matter of war tactics. There is symbolic power in order, uniform … All this operates on a symbolic, quasi-mystical plane. As we think about what sorts of practices powerless people might have to stand against a very powerful military machine … it is important to remember the work of the symbolic.
Around the corner, a small theater screens four different films back-to-back, one of which is “Nocturne.” Santiago Muñoz filmed “Nocturne” in Haiti where, she said, “the example of the military that I use is very clear.” Haiti’s history, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake especially, “has required a lot of poetic work on their part. This is tied to the dream world and mystical thought in Haiti.” It is towards the film’s end that the dream world is addressed: artist Etze Pierre narrates a series of dreams, describing his movement away from skepticism of Vodou to embracing it.
Each film unfolds slowly, half-documentary and half-fantasy. There is plenty in A Universe of Fragile Mirrors with which to reflect on war on a global scale. If the stories, dreams, and spells relayed to us through her films are flexible enough to confront real-life demons, then their most important use is to have them make sense of — or confront — threatening, pervasive forces. Magic is part of the algorithm of real life and its terrors, another prism or lens through which to examine and understand it.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: A Universe of Fragile Mirrors continues at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami) through November 13.