Ethics of Illusion

by Moacir dos Anjos

In the book Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges tells the literary accomplishments of a certain Pierre Menard, a writer from Nîmes whose work supposedly dates from the first third of the twentieth century. Ignored by his contemporaries, this writer accomplished a heroic and unique feat: he wrote the ninth and thirty-eighth chaptersÑas well as a fragment of chapter twenty-twoÑof the first part of Don Quixote, making his chapters match, “word for word and line for line,” those written by Miguel de Cervantes. Neither a charlatan nor a madman, Menard rigorously applied an arduous technique in order to reconstruct, of his own volition, a work that had been spontaneously written three hundred years before. It was only his early death that kept him from completing his ambitious project of creating a reproduction indistinguishable from the original.(1) This well-known story of Jorge Luis Borges expresses perfectly the desire that permeates an important part of the Argentine writer’s work: to enter and inhabit, through his writing, the distance that separates truth and fiction. It is in this same narrow but dense space that Vik Muniz has been developing his art throughout a decade and a half of intense activity. Basing himself since an early age on ideas woven with subtlety and ingenuity, Muniz has created a unique collection of works that reveal an unusual coherence of intent. Little affected by conventional distinctions between procedure and motivation, he has articulated diverse ideas and means in order to formulate a poetics of vision confronted with the gaps between reality and representation.

Two works, created almost at the beginning of his artistic career, together proclaim the central question that Vik Muniz would grapple with in the years to come. In one of them, Two Nails, 1987, a piece of photographic paper is pinned to the wall by a nail that pierces it. Printed on this same paper is the image of another nail, identical to the first, that also pierces it, but this time only virtually. In this work of simple construction, the artist asks, without presenting ready answers, what makes an image different from what it represents. In the series The Best of Life made in between 1988 and 1990, Muniz reproduces, in charcoal drawings based only on his memory, photographs of human traumas and triumphs that have been reprinted countless times in newspapers, magazines, and books: the Vietnamese girl with her body burned by American napalm; an astronaut walking on the moon; the kiss in Times Square that commemorated the end of a war. Muniz then photographs these drawings and so creates a confrontation between this printed record of his memory and those memories that the viewer has of the same images. Through the disagreement between the images that he constructs and fixes on photographic paper (his works) and the collective memory that these images evoke or copy, Muniz qualifies the ambiguity of the relationship between a photograph and its referent.

From here on, there are two basic procedures that give direction to Muniz’s work. Using ephemeral or fragile materials, and applying great skill in the construction of objects and drawings, Muniz recreates images drawn from the canon of art history or from current events: he reproduces Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper out of chocolate syrup; based on a record of the exhibition, he replicates a Donald Judd sculpture with dust taken from the Whitney’s halls and galleries; and with sugar he makes copies of photographic images (made by him) of children who live near the plantations that grow his raw material. He then photographs these perishable reconstructions and throws them away, keeping only the photograph. This method of remaking and then preserving the chosen images helps bring together different times and attributes. The material recreation of the originals is done slowly, with a craftsman’s art, calling attention to the way it was made. The photographic record, on the other hand, is instantaneous. It does not require any skill and it takes place at the exact moment when the camera shutter blocks, for the artist, the vision of the image he has created. By means of this operation both complex and candid, Muniz weakens the strong connection that one would expect to exist between the photographs and the images that inspired them, turning photography into a more opaque medium, forcing the observer to take more time to define what exactly is being represented.

After the vague but almost immediate recognition of images already seen elsewhere, a confirmation of these images’ longevity in our collective memory, the attention of a viewer facing Muniz’s work turns to the unveiling of the processes used in the recreation, provoking a prolonged and close involvement with the photographs that record the results of these constructions. When we come across a photograph of a Jean-Baptiste Corot painting recreated with delicate curls of thread, our gaze not only registers the subject, but also the unusual means by which Muniz represents it. The work’s very title, 16,000 yards (Le Songeur, after Corot), is an explicit reference to the amount of thread used in this careful reconstruction of a landscape painted a century and a half before. A similar interest is created when we face photographs of a Yves Klein monochrome reconstructed through the agglomeration of papers taken from Pantone scales, of a commonplace children’s see-saw reproduced in wire, or of Gustave Courbet paintings made out of earth.

Muniz’s photographs of an Andy Warhol work recreated with black pepper, curry, red pepper, and cayenne pepper, the polyptych Liz, are particularly revealing of the decoupling that he provokes between the images that he creates and their referents. The silkscreen method of photomechanical reproduction, Warhol’s preferred technique, already took away much of the living presence of the people whom he chose as models (celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy or, in the work discussed here, Elizabeth Taylor.) Warhol diluted this human presence into the graininess particular to this type of reproduction and covered it with colors as varied as they are apparently random. The material that Muniz uses in his duplications of this work, where the grains of pepper mimic the dots of the original silkscreen, while his diverse colors evoke the tones of Warhol’s drawings and paintings and create numerous symbolic associations, weakens even more the presumed linkage between the memory of a well-known image (a movie star’s face) and its photographic reproduction, inserting a dense layer of meanings in between. In addition, the remembered image of Andy Warhol’s work (the colors, textures, and size) is confronted with photographs of its recreation made out of spices. Even more than Elizabeth Taylor, Warhol’s famous silkscreen is the referent of these photographs.

Muniz does something similar by reconstructing, in perfect models, works of land art made almost three decades before by Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty) and Walter De Maria (Lighting Field) in order to photograph these models. He creates images that are very similar to the photographs in which these famous works survive today as art. He thus transforms what were originally records of interventions made in open space into referents for photographs: a series appropriately titled Earthworks in Brooklyn, Brooklyn being where Muniz has his studio. Through this subtle alteration of meanings, Muniz lengthens the perceived distance between the images of these environmental interventions and their physical existence in the places where they were created. The discomfort and fascination caused by the conceptual problems created by this kind of photographÑwhere the representation of an ephemeral or difficult-to-see work takes its place as an artifact of artÑled Muniz to go beyond photographing miniaturized versions of well-known works of land art. He went on to make models of works supposedly made in the open air and photographed from above or from afar, much like those that he had already copied, except that these works had never actually been made. Furthermore, instead of images without any foothold in daily lifeÑtraditional in land artÑthese works always reproduced recognizable signs of everyday objects: a spoon, a clothes hanger, a pair of open glasses on top of an indistinct surface. Muniz also began making representations on a scale similar to that of the works that he had previously used as models, replicating the onerous procedures used in their construction. Using the equipment and open spaces of a mining area, Muniz drew in the sandy ground gigantic, iconic images of everyday objects that originally were modest in size: an envelope, a key, a pair of scissors. Taken by helicopterÑsince it is only from on high that these works become legible as imagesÑhis photographs record the simple drawings, purposely carved into the earth, and also their insertion into landscapes created over the years by the mine’s activity. In all these works, whether photographing a model or photographing an image carved into the ground, Muniz not only makes explicit reference to contemporary experiments in land art and to ancient traditions of drawing in the earth (such as those of the Nazca Indians in Peru or the Celts in England), but also transforms these experiments and activities into meanings placed in between the images of the everyday objects used as models and the gaze of the person seeing his photographs. In these worksÑpart of his series Pictures of EarthworksÑobjects of everyday, ordinary use take the place formerly reserved for the transcendent or sacred.

It’s interesting to note that, to a casual, layman’s glance, there is almost no possible distinction in process between a photograph of a drawing made with sand on a tabletop (of a clothes hanger, for example), and a photograph of a gigantic drawing made directly in the ground (of a key, for example.) Brought together by an illusory similarity in construction and by the similar size of the photographs, these works, shown side by side, confuse our gaze and put in perspective the observer’s own scale when faced with his or her surroundings. By creating a deliberate confusion about the sizes of the images that he chooses, about the material used to reconstruct them, and about the photographs that are the result of these processes, Muniz promotes a rupture in the idea of comparable scales in the world and makes this procedure an important part of the illusion that he tries to create.

Despite the interest awakened by such constructions or by the use of materials uncommon to art, Muniz is not using these procedures of representation in order to attenuate the viewer’s interest in the appropriated images’ subjects. Modifying what is usually expected from photographyÑgenerally seen as merely denotativeÑMuniz is really inducing our gaze to distance itself, for at least a little while, from the referents described in the photographs. He is suggesting in these remade images new meanings and a distinct rhetoric. By associating the content of the chosen images with the symbolic and formal properties of the processes and materials with which he reproduces themÑand then making a photographic record of this tense unionÑMuniz is creating and perpetuating something that formerly did not exist. Instead of dissolving the subject’s importance, the careful investigation of the reconstructed imagesÑstimulated by the charm or strangeness that they gain through their new formÑlets us see once again, even if in a manner different from how they were previously known, scenes, figures, or things that have become invisible through their excessive familiarity. In spite of the alterations or additions of meanings provoked by the mechanisms used to reproduce these images, their iconic character is preserved in Muniz’s photographs. (2) The enigma of Mona Lisa’s smile or the banality of a pair of binoculars is maintained in the reconstruction of these images with peanut butter and jelly, in one case, and earth, twigs, and leaves in the other. And even if the nature of the materials used to recreate these images sometimes makes them comic or “declassifies” them, the often transient nature of these substances ends up affirming, by contrast, the integrity of the referents that Muniz has used.

It is necessary to explain exactly what kind of illusionist Vik Muniz is. If he does not cover up his methods of constructionÑwhich can be mentally reconstituted by anyone looking at his photographsÑhe also doesn’t hide or disguise the origin of the images that he reproduces. An attentive viewer will identify the substances employed (whether ketchup, spaghetti, or ashes) and, to a varying degree that depends on the observer’s visual culture, he or she will also identify the original images. Without proposing new hierarchies, Muniz simply confounds old meanings with new ones and tries to express, visually, “the worst possible illusion”: that which is effective and yet at the point of breaking up. (3) Contrary to all the expectations that the word’s signification authorizes, Muniz is proposing an ethics of illusion, where what is hidden in one instant becomes evident the next.

The competing effects of discomfort and identification perceived all at once when facing Vik Muniz’s photographsÑtestimonies to the ambiguity with which he reintroduces, for all of us, the world’s visual repertoryÑdepend largely on the careful articulation between the appropriated icons and the methods used to reproduce them. Yet there are no set rules to create this synergistic meeting between message and medium. Sometimes, it is the images themselves, images which Muniz has become familiar with for various reasons, that indicate the most appropriate materials for their representation. This is the case with the series Sugar Children, where the substance used tells us something that was not explicit in the simple photographs that served as his model. On other occasions, characteristics intrinsic to everyday materials make them fit to represent images dear to Muniz: (4) since cotton lends itself to imitating clouds, it is used to create images “equivalent” to the famous photographs of Alfred Stieglitz; since thread is flexible and thin enough to reproduce intricate landscapes, it is the material used to remake vistas painted by Claude Lorrain or Gerhard Richter; and since wire works well to replicate in three dimensions simple images formerly drawn on a plane surface, it is wire that makes possible the change into physical presence of objects as varied as a light bulb, an ashtray, or a cage.

Yet the greatest interest of Muniz’s work lies not in explaining the images used, nor in the appropriateness of his raw materials’ formal aspects for the facts described in the images. It is the symbolic uproar created by the approximation between the works’ referents (immediate and distant) and the materials used for their reconstructionÑallied with the surprising relations of scale with which they are often put together and enlarged on photographic paperÑthat make these photographs an excellent platform for the emergence of what images and materials separately cannot enunciate. Among the various works in which this tension emerges, some stand out for their eloquence. Such is the case with the series O Depois [The After], where prosaic photographs of street children, reproduced with trash left over from Carnival, force us to confront closely-related facts that the society that created them treats as distant. The disproportion of size between the trash and the images of the children when printed as photographs reinforces, by means of a different syntax, the work’s ambiguous meanings. Redoing a photograph of Sigmund Freud in chocolate sauce stimulatesÑalmost as a parody or a cartoonÑcomplex associations between desire and food, based on psychoanalysis, that today are objects of a supposedly sophisticated consumption. In the same way, reproducing with modeling clay pornographic images taken from the InternetÑworks that make up the series EroticaÑbrings together the playful and the sensual. It mixes the fingerprints left in the clay with the marks on the naked bodies that they are reproducing, and it turns the bright colors of the synthetic material into a substitute for the varied tones of anonymous skins that rub against each other. Here too there is an evident discrepancy between the supposedly reduced scale of the images’ reconstructions, made with modeling clay, and the photographs of these reproductions, which are much bigger. What was the subtle touch of hands becomes, in the enlargements, a rough but plausible representation of broad brush strokes, turning these works into a link that optically ties together photography and the painted image. By separating from his photographs the “obvious” meaning of the images that he is appropriatingÑa meaning that reaches, in an unobstructed, clear way, even the careless observerÑMuniz creates cognitive pathways for the emergence of the “obtuse” meaning embedded within themÑa meaning alien to any realistic representation and one in a constant state of reformulation. (5)

It is precisely because it is full of latent meanings that alternate and grow that Vik Muniz’s work, despite representing peoples and things of this world, refuses to belong to two of the principal systems of visual representation that have underpinned Western art ever since the Renaissance: idealist Cartesian perspective, the theoretical exponent of which was Battista Alberti, and the Dutch tradition of empirical, descriptive painting, of which Jan Vermeer is perhaps the greatest exponent. (6) Even when he appropriates images based on the geometric idealization of space (works, for example, by Michelangelo Caravaggio, Giovanni Piranesi, or Albrecht Dürer), the mundane nature of the materials that Muniz uses to reproduce these images serves as a counterpoint to the optical illusion that the originals gave their viewers. Recreated with chocolate sauce, thread, or hundreds of pins, the duplications that Vik Muniz then photographs disorient our gaze and turn ambiguous the apparent distinction between the surface and the background of the scenes that they contain. Subverted by the artist’s slight of hand, the monocular, static narrative of the original images symbolically gives way to the malleability proper to the materials with which they are reproduced, opening themselves up to diverse collisions with the senses.

Analogously, the visual system inaugurated by seventeenth-century Dutch painting is also incapable of serving as a model for Muniz’s photographic representations. Even though this tradition of painting anticipated a few characteristics of his method of fixing images (photography), such as the emphasis on fragmentary surfaces and arbitrary framings of a world that, primarily, is to be only described (7), the belief of these painters (Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jan Steen) in the perfect legibility of the objects represented is incompatible with the cognitive ambiguity that Muniz’s works establish as typical of the world that they inhabit. When observed from afar, the photographs seem to clearly depict people and objects; when seen from close upÑwith our eyes seduced by the materialÑwhat is depicted on their surfaces is reduced to mere pins, food, dust, or some other substance, in an almost tactile approximation with the photographs.

More in agreement with the ambiguous nature of Muniz’s work is perhaps the visual system of the Baroque, different from the other two in assuming the opacity of the reality that it represents and the concomitant impossibility of portraying it precisely. Taking ambivalence as a value, Muniz does not try to reduce the visual experience to only one dimension, nor does he try to bring together the diversity of viewpoints that an image supportsÑthe referent, the material in which it is presented, and its various meaningsÑinto an impossible synthesis. Fascinated by the folds, fissures, and gaps that discredit the faculty of seeing, Muniz focuses on the disorientation of vision before that which it cannot take in ready-made, and on the almost ecstatic nature of the recognition of this insufficiency. He is thus betting on an observer’s lengthy engagement with his works and on the sensuality of contemporary visual experience.

(1) Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” in Ficciones (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1969).

(2) Fernando Cocchiarale, “Sobre a Poética de Vik Muniz: Matéria, Imagem e Memória,” in Vik Muniz, exh. cat. (Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2001).

(3) Vik Muniz and Charles Ashley Stainback, “Vik Muniz and Charles Ashley Stainback: A Dialogue,” in Vik Muniz, Seeing Is Believing (Santa Fe: Arena Editions, 1998).

(4) Ibid.

(5) Roland Barthes, “O terceiro sentido,” in O óbvio e o obtuso: ensaios críticos III (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1990).

(6) Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Hal Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality. Dia Art Foundation. Discussions in Contemporary Culture. Number 2 (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988).

(7) Ibid.