A Twisted Kind of Realist (Pictures of Magazine and Monadic Works)

by Tonica Chagas*

In his two new series, “Pictures of Magazines” and “Monadic Works,” Vik Muniz again plays with human visual perception to show that”a picture can be neither what is on a wall nor what is in our brain; it can be rather what is in between the two.” “Pictures of Magazines” aims to deal with physiognomic recognition through media on many levels and discloses some of the artist’s feelings about the new profile of Brazil, his native country. In “Monadic Works,” as if translating the theory of the mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646 – 1716) on the nature of all things in the universe and the basic elements of reality, he creates simple and beautiful images with the repetition of funny and sometimes disturbing units.

Observing minutiae in pictures published in magazines and tabloids, Vikhad a question spinning inside his brain: how far could one visually break up the physiognomy of a person, reconstruct the characteristics of the face with pieces of other images, and still recognize it? These ideas gained form in enlarged passport-like portraits of very famous, as well as ordinary Brazilians.

“Faces are made-up of thousands of little subtleties that determine recognition. When we identify somebody through an image, we tend to draw from a profile of generalized facial features,” says Vik. This physiognomic deconstruction was re-enacted in “Pictures of Magazines” by creating portraits with varying degrees of recognition. They are made-up of thousands of pieces from pages of magazines cut with a hole-puncher and then assembled into colorful mosaics of accumulated and overlapping circles. The result was then photographed and enlarged into big prints. Each portrait took three weeks to one month to complete.

Focusing on perception, memory, and illusion, Vik’s work subverts our ability to recognize and leads the observer to imagine if what he sees is a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture. “Pictures of Magazines” can be seen as a series of pointillist drawings. The photographer has chosen to fragment the images in small round shapes to explore what in ophthalmology is called “saccade,” the rapid movement of the eye from one still position to another in the visual field. In studies regarding visual perception, “saccade” is always represented by individual points.
With “Pictures of Magazines,” Vik selected a pantheon of people he cherishes as his own personal heroes. They encompass both faces well known by Brazilians — such as the writer João Ubaldo Ribeiro, the “carnavalesco” Joãosinho Trinta, and the soccer icon Pelé — and ordinary people the artist cares for.  Among these is Francisco, an elderly man who sells flowers in Rio de Janeiro restaurants who adds with finesse and thoughtfulness a branch of “arruda;” (a weed for good fortune) as treat for his customers, and the manicurist Luciana, who has to face 30 miles of commute twice daily to go to work but always displays good humor.

Vik reveals that the idea for the series came after last year’s presidential elections in Brazil. For the first time, a working class citizen — Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, who is one of the sitters in “Pictures of Magazines” — was elected to office with the largest ever number of votes. This event gave a big boost to Brazilian self-esteem and led Vik, who has been in the USA for the last 20 years, to examine the new meaning of being Brazilian.

Made of such unusual materials as ketchup, yarn, or dust collected from museums, Vik’s photos are tricks, as he himself says, to disclose the tricks our mind uses in order to reconstruct images that are filed in our visual memory. Through the simple images of “Monadic Works,” we see his dexterity as a draftsman and his ironic humor, playing with objects as little as pennies or plastic toys.

In Vik’s works the shift of scale forces the viewer to choose whether to focus on parts of the image or the image as a whole. The elements he used to create “Small Change,” “Probability,” “White Rose,” or “Toy Soldier” are a little bigger than those employed in his previous series. They are immediately recognizable and carry their own meaning.

“I would like people to walk towards a picture, to see how it changes as they walk. Pictures mean different things at different distances. There are always micro-narratives being played,” explains the photographer to writer Mark Magill, in a long interview published in Bomb Magazine. Through Vik Muniz photographs, we learn to look and think about what reality is. “I have been called an illusionist,” he says, “but I have always considered myself a twisted kind of realist.”

*Tonica Chagas is a journalist who writes for the Brazilian newspaper “O Estado de S. Paulo”