The videos of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz exhibit a sensibility deeply informed by long and careful looking at the tropical landscape of her native Puerto Rico. Muñoz’s shots of the island’s lush foliage and stretches of uninhabited coastline trace the traumatic aftereffects of US military intervention on a countryside that at times suggests Eden or a natural idyll following the fall of civilization. “Song, Strategy, Sign,” an exhibition of Muñoz’s work at the New Museum, presented a three-channel video loosely based on Monique Wittig’s 1969 novel, Les Guérillères. The video is a work in progress that Muñoz developed during a residency at the museum.
Wittig’s novel takes place in a future female utopia after women have defeated the patriarchy in a bloody guerrilla war; Muñoz restages the story in present-day Puerto Rico with a cast of women artists, filmmakers, and activists whom she has known and worked with for years. The screens simultaneously show disjointed scenes from the war and its aftermath. The women raise animals and tend gardens, deliver addresses over the radio, dance at an outdoor festival, pilot a motorboat through the channels of San Juan Bay. An asynchronous female voiceover weaves together quotes from the novel with occasional bits of narration that do not coincide with the action on-screen.
Like Wittig, who never explains how the war is won, Muñoz seems primarily concerned with how experimental forms can help viewers imagine the new kinds of social relationships among women that might develop in a differently structured society. As in earlier works, Muñoz here returns to images of animals in the wild to suggest a timeless freedom outside of civilization’s impositions. Wild horses, their backs free of saddles, are seen lazily eating grass in a field that smolders with small fires, as the female narrator’s voice reads, “I am already separate. I am already in the land of women.”
A selection of Muñoz’s handmade masks—a few of which briefly appear in the video—and a 16mm film portraying people she has come to know through previous projects rounded out the exhibition. The masks—made from materials like palm bark, fish netting, and mirrors—are fascinating. The film, with its black-and-white footage of mysterious figures on a beach, is at times quite lovely. Yet the props, film scraps, and the unfinished video never quite cohered on their own. The show’s main themes, the meaning of the masks, Muñoz’s real-life connection with the women on-screen, and even the video’s connection to Wittig’s book—all remained opaque unless one read a lengthy interview with the artist in the broadside provided to museum visitors. Muñoz’s skilled camerawork and attention to detail delight at times; in the black-and-white film, a long, grainy, close-up of foamy waves washing over a black sand beach quietly thrills, unexpectedly evoking the expressive hand-painted films of Stan Brakhage. Unlike the powerful survey of Muñoz’s earlier works on view at the Perez Art Museum in Miami through November, however, “Song, Strategy, Sign” ultimately felt unsatisfying: less a fully realized exhibition than a tantalizing sneak preview of what could be a major work to come.