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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz


There are few things more innocent than a snow globe. These small, self-contained, cheerful worlds, in which scenery is enfolded within the purity of snow, first became popular in France in the 1800s. One result of the Industrial Revolution was that members of the merchant classes suddenly found themselves with both money and leisure time. That combination sparked a new industry: tourism. Any new industry creates adjunct, supporting industries. The rise of tourism led directly to the invention of the mass-produced souvenir: commemorative silverware, memorial plates, and, of course, snow globes.

Snow globes are still sold to tourists to memorialize their visits. They’re also used to commemorate holidays and as an appealing form of advertising. Why? Because they make people happy. They make people smile. The snow globes crafted by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz also make people smile, though the smile also contains a wince.

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Snow globes are designed to be turned upside down. Martin and Muñoz, though, really turned them upside down. Their six-inch snow globes violate almost every snow globe convention. Where traditional snow globes are intended to evoke a pleasant memory, the snow globes of Martin and Muñoz seem to portend an anxious future event. These orbs seem to have more in common with the crystal ball of some depraved fortune-teller than with a tourist’s souvenir. They seem to anticipate terrible events that might happen, or might be happening right now to somebody else.

Where traditional snow globes depict cheerful scenes, Martin and Muñoz give us eerie scenes, scenes rife with anxiety and uncertainty, scenes that reside in the darker parts of the human psyche. We’re not quite sure what has happened in these scenes, or what is about to happen next…but we can be fairly certain that whatever it is, it’s not going to be pleasant.

Where the snow in traditional snow globes gives the interior scene a bright and merry glimmer, the snow in the globes of Martin and Muñoz has a psychological edge to it. Sometimes it serves to make an already-chilling scenario that much more forbidding. Sometimes it obscures our vision, elevating the anxiety. Sometimes it further isolates the characters inside the globe. Sometimes it serves as an ironic counterpoint to what’s taking place.

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The scenarios inside the snow globes of Martin and Muñoz are never entirely clear. We see a man in a suit embracing a blonde woman in a classic 1950s-style dress. She’s kicking her legs in perfect imitation of Doris Day as she hugs him around the neck. Then we notice she is being held on the very edge of a cliff. What is really going on here? We see two stocky men dressed in farmer’s overalls. One dandles a child on his knee; the other dangles a child upside down over a well. What’s going on here…what the hell is going on here?

That sense of uncertainty and ambiguity is enhanced by the both the design of the interior world and the figures who inhabit it. It’s a world of tall, leafless trees, a world of sharp angles and dark shadows in the otherwise white world, a world of paths that lead nowhere. The people who wander those paths are never dressed for winter. We see children in short pants, men and women without coats, people who are vulnerable to the elements…vulnerable to things worse than the elements. Those figures who aren’t vulnerable are generally menacing.

The power of these snow globes comes from the shattering of the viewer’s expectations. We expect a snow globe to be a fantasy world, a self-contained pleasant reverie. Martin and Muñoz give us globes that are nightmares, self-contained scenes of calamity and torment. The closed-in world of traditional snow globes make the scenes within them feel snug and cozy. With Martin and Muñoz, the closed-in world only serves to exacerbate the feeling that there is no exit, no escape.

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Martin and Muñoz have entitled their snow globe series The Travelers. In many of the globes, the figures inside are toting suitcases. They are clearly on their way from one place to another when something unexpected and unpleasant interrupts their journey.

The title is significant. Obviously, when we are traveling we’re not at home. Home is familiar, home is comforting, home is a place where we expect to be safe, home is a sanctuary. It’s also significant to note that travelers haven’t yet arrived at their destination. They are in-between, neither here nor there; they are, in effect, nowhere…and in the snow globes of Martin and Muñoz, the travelers will remain trapped in nowhere.

Martin and Muñoz have begun to transition their work away from the confined spaces of snow globes, creating a series of larger tableaux which they call Islands. These manufactured scenes retain the same anxiety-producing ambience, the same menacing ambiguity, the same uncertainty…only on a grander scale.

Although the snow globes and the larger tableaux are works of art in themselves (and are sold as such), they are crafted with the specific intent to be photographed. The snow globe C-Prints measure 40×33 inches and are generally limited to a series of five prints. It’s interesting to note that the photographs sell for as much or more than the globes themselves (the six inch snow globes are priced at US$5000; the prints fetch anywhere from $4500 to $10,000). The prints from the Islands series measure up to 35×72 inches.

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Although the figurines used in the scenes are store-bought, Martin and Muñoz create the rest of the tableaux by hand. They use a self-hardening plumber’s epoxy to craft the trees and structures. For the larger topographic elements…the islands, the snowy terrains…they rely on a translucent pink-beige polymer clay called Super Sculpey. As a team, they decide on the scenario they want to create, then each lends a hand constructing it. When the tableau is finished, Muñoz uses a medium format camera to photograph them against a white or black background.

It’s an indication of the contrary and perverse nature of their work that people respond to the scenes created by Martin and Muñoz with a combination of dismay and delight. We know we shouldn’t be smiling, yet it’s difficult not to. The innocent kitschiness of the snow globe somehow ameliorates the appalling events contained within it.

When you turn a traditional snow globe over and shake it, you get to see the beauty gradually emerge from the delicately falling snow. When you do the same thing to a globe by Martin and Muñoz, you’re not entirely sure you want to see what will gradually emerge. And yet you can’t help but look.