Articles by Vik
Class dismissed: Art, Creativity and Education
Class dismissed: Art, Creativity and Education
by Vik Muniz
First of all, I would like to thank all of you here. I have to confess I don’t go to artists’ talks very often, so sometimes it takes an enormous effort for me to give a lecture. I would also like to thank everybody involved in the Humanitas lecture series, especially Elena Foster who is here and is a generous supporter of the programme. I was a little bit hesitant to accept the invitation because speaking to an academic crowd always makes me feel somewhat uneasy. Not having been exposed to any kind of formal education, whenever I’m speaking at a college or to a group of academics I feel like a bit of an imposter. I’ve been involved in visual literacy and arts and education for the last twenty years in many ways and perhaps my need for this kind of involvement stems from the fact that I was never exposed to much education. Nevertheless, I think the feeling of being an imposter actually helps me in some ways. My parents were very poor. My father worked as a waiter his entire life and my mother was a switchboard operator at a local phone company. Because they both worked during the day I had to stay with my grandmother. I’m going to tell you the story of my non-educational development before we get to the subject of this lecture.
My first memory, as far as I can remember, is this: I’m sitting on a grey sofa, a kind of greenish grey (almost the colour of these seats, actually—I was looking at them and thinking about it earlier) and I’m sitting on my grandmother’s lap and she’s teaching me how to read. I’m four years old. She drags my fingers around the words of an old Encyclopaedia Britannica that my father won in a pool game. It was the only set of books we had in the house. As she uncovers and covers the letters she tells me what the words mean and she somehow evokes the feeling, the taste, the scent of these words. She taught me how to read the same way she taught herself, without having gone to school a single day. She taught herself how to read by looking at her children’s books really hard. As a result, I was reading chapter books, as my kids say, at the age of seven.
I remember my favourite book then was Treasure Island, but it took me three years to learn how to write. Non-education has its benefits! Because I couldn’t write during dictation, I developed a system of shorthand notations. It was very close to stenography. I would make a little, very fast drawing for each word I could not spell. Those drawings started proliferating in my notebooks to the point that they started looking like the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was the only one able to decipher them and for many years that became a very marking trait of my personality: I was the kid who made the drawings. I made these drawings so often that at one point I started improving on them a great deal, and my identity as the kid who stays at the back of the class drawing caricatures of his teachers and passing them around started sinking in. One day I was caught by one of my teachers, the math teacher, who asked me to go see the principal. To my surprise, the principal wasn’t mean to me. On the contrary, he invited me to be part of an art contest for public schools. I remember the day I went to this place: it was the happiest day of my life until then because I met kids like me, who were still involved in a type of relationship with the world that most of the other kids had already lost.
Semiotic Black Market
When people ask me how I become an artist I remember a talk I attended with an artist from New York—actually it was Julian Schnabel and I can say it since he’s not here—and somebody asked him ‘When did you start painting?’ He replied, ‘It was at the age of five’. In my mind I was thinking, ‘Who didn’t paint at the age of five? Everybody starts at the age of five!’ At that point I realised I don’t know when or how I became an artist, but I remember very well when most people around me stopped being artists.
I was raised in the 1960s, in a climate of military dictatorship in Brazil. As a result, not only was I interested in presentation, but also in the idea of how information sort of floated around. This was very important to my development as an artist. In a military dictatorship you can’t say what you want to say so you have to resort to metaphor. All of a sudden you realise that artists are developing this relationship to language by stretching it, by discovering to what point they can express something with something else. My cultural heroes at the time were people like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque de Hollanda, who were pretending to write and sing love songs when really they were bashing the government. But there was a code—an underlying language—within these love songs that separated some people from others. People felt they were intellectuals because they could decode the love songs and understand, have an insight into what they really meant. This immediately made me think about studying more, about understanding history, and all of a sudden I began calling myself an intellectual.
The other trait of a military dictatorship is that all the information that comes to you has to be scrutinised, you have to know what it means, where it’s coming from, what it’s really doing. You become cynical. These two things—cynicism and a resort to metaphor—informed my drawings and led me to study representation a little bit more than its execution.
The Primacy of Perception
Going back to the contest, I won a scholarship there to learn academic drawing at a private school in São Paulo. I was fourteen years old. Imagine a fourteen-year-old spending an entire afternoon drawing naked people. I didn’t miss one class! I became very proficient. But there’s a learning curve in drawing. By the time I felt I was at the top of my game I started thinking about what a drawing was and how people understand things within a picture. I tried to understand the history of representation, but most of all I developed a keen interest in psychology. There was a book in the library—probably the only book there that dealt with this subject—by a Princeton scholar called James Jerome Gibson. It was a study commissioned by the US Air Force about trying to improve the interface between pilot and machine for the newly developed jet planes. In this book he talks about the body as a perceptual device. That was fascinating to me and I began to think about it when I was drawing. Because drawing is a passive activity, I began to ask myself of how I could make use of my entire body and so I started taking theatre.
Selling Ice Cubes
I tried to attend the school of advertising at the University of São Paulo twice, but I wasn’t a very good student. For two consecutive years I could not follow it and as a result I settled for a half-scholarship at another private school for advertising. I thought with advertising I would be able to bring together my interests in drawing, representation and psychology. What I really wanted to do was to airbrush naked people onto ice cubes and use them in whiskey commercials. It was a big thing called ‘subliminal seduction’ and it was actually what got me into advertising. But soon I realised I didn’t want to sell whiskey; I wanted to sell ice cubes. There was something about advertising that wasn’t quite fulfilling. After so many years of political dictatorship we’d reached a point of saturation.
My generation was tired of political songs. We couldn’t listen to another song by Joan Baez: we had had enough. There was a guy named Geraldo Vandré and I could not listen to his songs. It made me uneasy. My entire generation was, I would say, a generation of well-informed dilettantes who, instead of sticking to the programme of absorbing politics and trying to respond to them, really started downplaying the value of our opinions and started to study the mechanics of representation very carefully. We realised that it was by understanding things better or making people understand things better that we create more discernment, better judgement. This would be our way of influencing politics.
One day I was shot in the leg while trying to break up a fight. With the compensation I received from my injuries, I left Brazil. I arrived fresh in New York to a career in theatre. The theatre there offered me the same pleasure and circus-like excitement as experimental theatre had done in Brazil. To my surprise, the avant-garde in New York was emerging directly from punk and so, many times I had to endure spectacles like watching twelve naked, unattractive middle-aged men screaming obscenities for three hours straight, like in a show by Richard Foreman. There was that and then there was Cats; nothing in-between. I slowly gave up my interest in theatre and began pursuing what most people my age were doing at the time, which was going out drinking every night and rubbing elbows with celebrities. I was in the right place at the right time and surprisingly the East Village—that horrible, rat-infested neighbourhood—started becoming the scene of a cultural revolution at the beginning of the 1980s. There were clubs popping up everywhere and garage-sized galleries in which the gallerists actually talked to you! Can you believe that? There was a dialogue happening, and the scene was absolutely amazing.
I remember I started having a relationship with gallerists and going to openings at the same time that something very important was taking place. There’s a moment in history—and I think everyone needs to be attentive to it—when you realise that the tide is changing: your generation has stopped being a simple consumer of culture and has started producing culture based on everything you ever lived through. All the books you’ve read, the TV programmes you’ve watched, the songs you’ve heard. It was in the East Village that I began to encounter art that reflected my sensibility as a media consumer. Nobody had to explain to me what Cindy Sherman was all about or what Jeff Koons was doing. Besides, a lot of people were beginning to acknowledge the effects of the media on the conscience of the world. By looking at the art of that generation I understood my own confusion. Mine was probably the first generation of individuals who were raised under the spectrum of television. By the time I was twenty-something I could not differentiatea dream from a book, from a novel, from a film, from a TV programme. It was all a mess in my head. The art of these people was about trying to understand the precise point of intersection between the world of media and their immediate experience.
I thought about becoming an artist right then. I rented a studio in the Bronx and painted it white. I found a really cool modern chair in the garbage, I put it there and I said, ‘Now I’m gonna make some art’. I sat down on the chair and with outstretched arms I said, ‘Come!’ It took a while for it to come. Making art is about becoming a filter in which you collect the history of your time. The residue may become the work that you’re going to leave for posterity. The wider the filter, the more you collect, and the more superficial your art becomes at times, but that’s not a problem.
I have students in America who are about seventeen and sometimes I ask them what their work is about and they say, ‘Oh, it’s primarily autobiographical’. I say, ‘Why don’t you go live a little bit before you tell the story of your life?’ I hadn’t lived enough at that age, but my experiences were primarily filtered through my understanding of and my curiosity about media. I find advertising fascinating and I still have a great respect for commercial artists. I think people like Paul Rand are as important in the history of the twentieth century as Warhol.
I think design plays a great role in the way we see and interact with the world around us. I thought maybe I could do something that had something to do with advertising.
In advertising you give shape, colour and identity to gels, powders and liquids. And nothing else. You can create something out of nothing. I thought about making objects that had identity crises. I was a bit of a museum rat. I come from a culture that is opposite to this one here in Britain, where young trees are two hundred years old. In Brazil, the oldest artefacts that you find around you are from the 1950s. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s very old, like thirty years. It’s from the sixties.
The first work I did was a series called Relics. This is the Clown Skull, a relic from a race of entertainers who drowned in South America a long time ago. This is the Ashanti Joystick. It’s so old it was made for Atari. Here is the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica bound as a single volume, for travel purposes. This is a pre-columbian coffeemaker. And here are the Tupperware Sarcophagus, the Disney Fetish and the half-tombstone, for people who are not dead yet.
Surprisingly, I got a show in a gallery in Soho, and the owner felt it was important to photograph the work for the purposes of documentation and advertising. The day the photographer came was the best day of the show. He came with two assistants, backgrounds, lights. It was like the works were finally getting the limelight they deserved. He gave me these really beautiful Cibachromes, 4 × 5 inch perfectly-lit photographs. I looked at them for a long time and realised something was wrong with them. To find out what was wrong I bought, at the age of twenty-seven, my first camera. It was a bad camera. I loaded it with bad film, took pictures under bad light, took it to the bad developing place, and when I got the pictures back they were good. There had to be a little bit more than chauvinism to this. So I started looking at the wrong pictures and the right pictures to find out what the relationship was between them. It was actually something very mechanical: it had to do with memory. The good picture was perfectly lit; it was a good representation of the image, but not for me because that image had a story that preceded that picture.
Children and autistic people or anyone who hasn’t had enough contact with symbolic exchange or written language, for instance, have an uncanny ability to rotate mental images on a visual field. We lose that as we start learning, reading, writing and even drawing more and more. What we do before we make something is to imagine it from a specific vantage point. So if I’m to make a sculpture of a bottle, before I make it I would imagine it from a certain point of view and then I would materialise that idea. Then when it’s done I would put it on a base, walk around it and when I finally find the perfect match for this physical object that exists in the world with the mental image that originated it, I’m happy.
The photographer had no connection to that image, and when I realised this I started thinking about mental images as something that helps us connect to something we encounter; that connection being the stuff of art. At the same time, I had a book, the first book I bought when I arrived in Chicago, called The Best of LIFE. I loved this book because I could approach anybody and say, ‘Do you remember this?’ and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, sure, the man on the moon. I saw that’. But you know, nobody saw it! It was almost like approaching an uncle or an aunt with a family album. It was something that could be shared. These images are Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures we’re tired of seeing, but from time to time we have to reload our memory of them just so we can have a more accurate picture in our minds.
I lost the book, and as an exercise—at the onset I didn’t want this to be an artwork—I started making pictures from memory, from the photos I had seen before. When I didn’t know something, I would call somebody who wasn’t looking at the picture and say, ‘How many buttons on John-John’s coat as he salutes his dead father at his funeral?’ or ‘The woman from the Kent State shootings, is she wearing a watch? Does she have a scarf?’ I composed these pictures in my head as they spoke. With certain images I had to fake some things, like the pattern on a guy’s shirt or facial expressions, which I realised are extremely hard to reproduce.
When I was offered a show for these pieces I didn’t want to show the drawings because they didn’t look very good physically, and I had grown attached to them after working on them for two years. So what I did was photograph them. I put the pictures of the drawings up for sale and kept the drawings themselves. It was a really good deal! When I photographed the drawings, I photographed them slightly out of focus, to erase the markings of my hands. And when I printed them, I printed them with the same half-tone dot pattern. It was the language in which I had seen those drawings for the first time. And so another circle was closed.
When I showed these at the exhibition people were more tempted to question the quality of the printing than the veracity of the drawings, because when you look at them, the important thing is that the picture in your head and the picture that I made meet halfway. So when you look at this picture you can relate it to an event, something that really happened in the world. This is what happened. That’s the main reason why I never got sued by the Associated Press or Reuters over the copyright of those images, because they are extremely different.
The fact that the images met in the middle made me aware of something absolutely amazing, magical: art is not something you can make yourself—you need a spectator, a viewer, an audience. It is a collaboration. We have this tendency to see things in other things. We want to see them, to transform the entire world around us with language. Proof of that is that when we look at clouds we always see things in them; things we know. I wanted to make people aware of that power. Another thing I discovered in photography: If you look at this image and you see, for instance, a guy in a kayak, a lump of cotton and a cloud, you can only see one of them at a time. If you see the guy in the kayak, you forget the cotton and the cloud, and so on. We are born with this handicap called attention. It’s what allows me to deliver this lecture to you, but it is also what keeps us from delivering three lectures at a time (I wish I could do that). It’s a bad thing, but it’s also a good thing because you can choose what to see. You just have to change your mind- set slightly. Why not take advantage of this? This is called a multistable image; it’s done by hand.
We’ve been doing this for a long time; it’s not a novelty. Like Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise in Florence. They are a perfect example of a multi-layered media structure in which Ghiberti used haut-relief, which was a medium that had existed for the longest time, and mixed it with a one-point perspective, which was the new way to depict images during the Renaissance. The result of that is total overkill. You get locked between two modes of representation, trying to find a way out. (Obviously this is a projection of that image, so you don’t get the effect that you do when you’re standing in front of these panels.)
Pictures of Wire
I wanted to do something similar, but obviously I didn’t have sixteen years to make a piece and I don’t know the Pope. So I layered two types of representation; one that is very old and we normally tend to disregard being drawing. I superimposed a simple line drawing onto a photograph, so when you look at it first you say, ‘Oh, it’s just a pencil drawing’. (It’s very small, by the way.) A pencil drawing is something you’re most likely to judge by the degree of likeness it has to what it’s trying to represent. But when you look at it you see that it’s not a pencil drawing, but an object made of iron. Sometimes, before you know you’re looking at something, you’re thinking about the way you’re looking at something. The encounter I mentioned before is actually provoking a conversation, it’s creating a questioning attitude: the questioning that’s necessary for you to really understand what you’re looking at.
Pictures of Thread
When I started making this drawing I went through a variety of subjects—this is a monkey with a Leica (I tried to put naked people on those ice cubes, but it didn’t work)—and I started trying to explore this in a range of subjects. The first pictures I ever made were lines, so I thought maybe I could try to play with lines some more and explore the ideas of distance and landscape. I used to fly kites when I was a kid and each spool of thread was three hundred yards long.
That meant distance, and distance is very important in the study of perspective. I started making landscapes that looked like old prints, but upon closer inspection were just accumulations of sewing thread. The photography versus the pictorial reading of the picture was very conflicting, and you had to navigate your way through that mess. At this time I also realised I was making a picture that was made out of layers. It was not something that could be assimilated readily; you had to clear one hurdle and then the next.
One thing that occurred to me was that if I relied on the work of other artists before me I would be extending that into art history. That idea seemed very appealing so I started working on pieces based on the work of other artists; in this case a work by Gerhard Richter, which is also based on a Rembrandt. The idea of standing on the shoulders of giants, the idea of schemata—that artists only make things because of other artists who came before them—made it possible for the works to become very clear.
The Sugar Children
From lines and from my newly acquired familiarity with the medium of photography I started working with dots. This picture is called The Sugar Children. It has a lot to do with playing with photography, because sugar is formed of crystals and basically a photograph is just that, silver crystals.
They are very pointillist and are done in negative. They also started something very important for me. It was after the recession of 1992 that I started creating these pictures. I was about to get a job and stop working as an artist when I decided to take a vacation. I traded work for a vacation on the island of Saint Kitts, where I spent three weeks playing with the children on the shores of a hotel on a black beach there. On my last day, the kids were wonderful. One of them took me to meet their parents and the parents, on the contrary, were sad, very weary people; humourless.
When I came back to New York I thought, ‘How do those children become those grownups?’ I then realised the sugar had been taken from them; the sweetness. I was reading a poem by Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar in which he describes that road from sweetness to bitterness, and ends with a seminal phrase: ‘It is with the bitter lives of bitter people that I sweeten my coffee on this beautiful morning in Ipanema’.
I remember thinking about that and saying to myself, ‘Well, I can draw with sugar! I can also add the idea of taste to it’. Drawing with sugar is easier than drawing with a pencil because you can just lick your finger and move the sugar crystals around. And it also tastes good! I gained a few pounds doing it, but it also got me in touch with children. The subject of childhood is very dear to me in that it has never left me. For me the most important thing is that these pieces are now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA New York, the National Gallery, and also in the library in Saint Kitts, where these kids came from.
Pictures of Chocolate
Taste adds something to pictures, I thought. But not just sugar, it’s too simple. I want to work with something that is a creation: not an industrial creation, but a cultural one. Chocolate can mean many things: it means romance, for instance (it’s a brown goo and still it means romance!), it means guilt. It means a whole bunch of things, but when you take something that’s very complicated and try to make pictures out of it you can gauge the interference of these two elements. The sugar pictures took a long time to make—these I had to make in less than an hour to be able to come up with a picture. Otherwise, the chocolate would dry and become dull and it wouldn’t work. I started from the upper left-hand side of the picture and worked my way down to the lower right side many times until I got something that was satisfactory. I made pictures of people kissing each other with chocolate and people killing each other with chocolate. For me it was a way of developing a relationship between the material and the image. And because I did them very quickly, I could do lots of them and improve my research: you don’t use elephants for genetic research, you use fruit flies. Here’s Jackson Pollock doing his scatological thing. Pictures of crowds were particularly appealing to me and the scale of the work started to increase.
I’m one of those people who go to museums and look at people. Sometimes it spooks people out; they don’t like that. But I sit around and see if they go by the left side, if they go by the right side. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every time someone goes to a museum they walk towards a certain point—let’s say there’s a landscape right in front of them, maybe a Ruisdael, a beautiful landscape of a guy fishing—and then they stop as if there’s tape on the floor and look at it from close up and then from further away. It’s perfectly natural to do this because by approaching and then distancing themselves from the painting they’re doing the two very important things that you have to think about in art. First they see a picture, something that is idealised, that came from an artist’s fancy, from the mind. Then when they approach they get to see what it’s made of. It’s just paint. Paint is very mundane, it’s something that comes from animal oils, the earth. Most pigments come from the earth. As people distance themselves from the painting they see mind, and when they approach it they see matter. In this back-and-forth they can find the precise moment when one thing turns into another. That’s the sublime thing about art. When we finally connect or sense the fine membrane that separates the world we see from the world that’s out there through the limit of our senses. Only art can do this. I say this all the time and it still gives me goose bumps because it is something that is very important. It’s a way to connect our human sense to something that we virtually ignore, but we can feel.
From substances, I increased the size of my studio and this is kind of where my idea of working with education comes in. By increasing the size of the studio I realised that the scale of my work was directly conditioned by the studio and that I could do a little bit more than that. This is a toy soldier. I worked with toys because I find that art is a metaphor for playing, which is very important to me. Once you deal with things that have no consequence you are able to be more creative, and that can serve as a model for more practical things. People should play more often.
Pictures of Junk
I thought, ‘Well, I have a slightly bigger studio now so I can start making really exciting work. Why don’t I get a really big studio so I can make bigger things?’ It sounds like a cliché, right? Just trying to make big things. I had to do it.
There’s something very curious about these large works. You tend to develop a physical and haptic relation with the image’s subjects. You see an image that initially seems flat and suddenly the pieces come into perspective, since you can stand in front of these works and see them from a vertical point of view. On the floor of the studio they don’t look anything like that; they are elongated and trapezoidal. They are what we call an anamorphosis and can only be seen in this rectangular shape from a tower that’s twenty metres high, because the drawing is done on a forty-degree angle—or forty-five or sixty, depending on the width of the drawing.
I then started working with mythology, because mythology offers you very clear moral messages. Everything is black and white. You’ll notice that Saturn appears where there’s no garbage. Actually it’s not even a colour picture when you come to think of its making, of its process. It is just a high-contrast picture. But the idea that the meaning emerges where there’s no confusion is very important to the conceptual make-up of this work.
Speaking of big things, I am very informed by the art of my time. I’m not a Brazilian artist. I’m sorry to disappoint you —I know I was billed like that. I am an American artist because I developed my interest in art by analysing, studying and scrutinising art history from the time I was born. That means art from the sixties and seventies is at the core of my work. I think my work is influenced by artists like Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, but I’m very informed by minimalism as well. Minimalists sometimes try to make impossible things—they try to connect mind and substance in the most beautiful ways. They’re almost stubborn about it. I think that really informs the poetics of what I’m trying to express most of the time. There is a gap between mind and substance that often leaves a lot of room for reverie. Spiral Jetty is one of these things. I don’t ever want to go see Spiral Jetty. I’ve been invited many times. A guy I know bought a plane and he was like, ‘Oh, I have a plane, we can go!’ and I said, ‘No. I don’t want to, because I’ve been to the Pyramids and I thought they were too small’. I want to keep Spiral Jetty in my mind just the way it is. It is big, sometimes full of ice; sometimes it’s in the night. I think about it and it’s beautiful. Smithson made a sculpture in my brain and because it’s so far I don’t have to go there. I learned I’m also a member of a generation of people who learned about art history from looking at reproductions. I was brought up in Brazil—we didn’t have the Louvre or the Prado around the corner. The first artworks I ever saw were in the same Encyclopaedia Britannica that I described earlier. They were reproductions that were so bad you didn’t know if they were really good drawings or really bad photos. And they were tiny. I remember seeing a Jackson Pollock that was about an inch big! I was disappointed when I saw the big one. See, this is how it works: I wanted to do something with Spiral Jetty so I started making props in the studio, seeing if I could maybe create a relationship between the studio work and the real thing, trying to mediate my relationship to this thing that existed only in my mind. And I realised Smithson had had so much more fun than I did because he had actually done it.
Pictures of Earthworks
For six years I bought a local mining company in Brazil, which let me use their equipment and their grounds to make land works. Obviously I didn’t want to make land works like Robert Smithson, because most of the land art projects of the 1960s and 1970s were geometric abstractions. I remember the first time I saw a picture of Spiral Jetty. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Wow! How did they manage to take such a good picture?’ In my mind, the whole land art movement was just a photographic movement. So I wanted to go to the trouble of making these enormous pictures, really stupid pictures based on copyright-free images like clip art I found on a CD and then photographing them from a helicopter. There were thirty of them, some of them as long as one kilometre, but I mixed them with fake ones, some of them done at a scale of sixteen inches. So the fake ones made the real ones look fake and the real ones made the fake ones look real. The idea was to incite you to realise how much you know about pictures.
After a long time I stopped thinking I was dealing with an uninformed audience. It’s very fashionable for people to say, ‘He’s ahead of his time and no one understands him’, but I realised that if you have a pair of eyes and you know how to use them, you’ve been getting the kind of education that is necessary to appreciate my work since the second day of your life. That’s a long career right there. So I have great respect for my audience. One thing that is important is that when you are working towards this meeting point you have to be perfectly aware of what the viewer is bringing to the bargain. In this sense, working with archetypes, stereotypes or icons is very useful because you know people have at least seen things that look like that before.
Pictures of Clouds
The idea of making big things and placing them where nobody usually looks was very appealing to me, so I thought, ‘What if I did something that everybody could see at the same time?’
I always loved the idea of skywriting, but it is always used to sell stuff. What I wanted to provide was an experience. If you are walking around here in Oxford and you look at the sky you can expect to see a cloud, but never as a drawing. Before the idea that every single cloud can mean something else emerged, I wanted them just to mean ‘cloud’ and nothing else. But obviously this looks like a sombrero. This is a much better one; I did this in 2011 over Manhattan. Whoops! That one that went by very fast is pretty much the time you had to see these things drawn on the sky. I remember making that one and getting a letter from a couple in New York. They had just lost a son who was very involved in the baseball community in New York City and they sent me a picture of the cloud saying that at their son’s burial everybody looked up and saw a huge baseball glove. I said to her, ‘It was the wind’. I failed miserably at making a cloud that looked just like a cloud! This one was over Miami and everybody said it looked very phallic. I have to agree.
When making big things you work at a scale that is not ergonomical, so huge things like this have to be imagined before you can make them and still, like Spiral Jetty, they have a place in your mind. Small things are the same way. I’ve been doing a residency at MIT for the past four years, trying to develop things that are unimaginably small. I work with that machine and have no idea how it works. It’s called an FIB: Focused Ion Beam. With that, you can just blast ions onto a single grain of dust. Some of the pictures I’ve decided to put on single grains of dust are castles. The scale is so small you cannot move things around so these are like incidental imageries, just other grains of dust. We had to design the software to be able to do this,but also the software to scan it with an electron microscope. The beauty is that it is such a small drawing, such a feeble thing, that when you draw with the ions and you scan with the electrons, the electrons actually erase the drawing that was there before. So you have to scan it about five thousand times and ultimately you end up with the same grain of dust you started with. And they are massive. They are the highest-resolution microscopic images you can find.
At the same time I began working with the department of bioengineering because I wanted to do things with mould— things that grow, that I can make films of. I got a lot more than I bargained for. I worked with an Israeli bioengineer called Tal Danino, and we figured out a way to create these microsystems where we can actually grow living cells and bacteria. What you see looks like the wallpaper of your dorm, but they’re actually live liver cells. They are very large images: you can even spot all the nuclei. Liver cells are binucleated: most of them have two nuclei—it’s fascinating! Then we decided we were going to make a whole bunch of pictures like that. It turns out that every cell has different behaviors so we had to change the scanning process, the stamping process. It’s taken about ten years for this to come to fruition. Cervical cells move around very quickly, for instance, so they’re better to do thin lines with, and they have influenced the drawing process. For one of these pieces we got a circuit. I started with a few set patterns and then branched out to different types of patterns, like circuit boards, traffic jams and crowds. We’ve also been able to draw with neurons, among many other things.
Pictures of Magazines
This is a relatively new series. I started it about four years ago. It’s called Pictures of Magazines. Before, I used to make these things with an X-Acto knife whenever I travelled by airplane, but now they don’t let me take the knife on the plane anymore, so I have to rip it by hand. I call it ‘plane art’. When you look at a magazine, before you find something that’s interesting or worth reading, you scan it. All that scanning produces a kind of imagery, a kind of information that you don’t have anywhere to put. It just stays there. When I was doing the garbage pieces I realised it was a very simple project. The meaning emerges from the background, where the garbage isn’t. But this isn’t quite the way we see it in our minds. If I have one ethical responsibility towards my audience it is to show the world as it can be seen and imagined at this precise moment in time. I’m always trying to get to that picture. A lot of people have been to Provence, for instance, and they know that Montagne Sainte-Victoire is not the colour that Cézanne painted it. But it was the way it could be seen at that particular time.
I’m looking at this zebra and it tells me a lot of things. It tells me that pictures do not appear from nothing, they don’t just stand in the ether of your brain: they always emerge from a background of sheer confusion. It’s what you can’t recognise versus what you can, and it takes an enormous effort to focus on that picture and keep it there for just a little bit before you can make anything worth thinking about. At least my mind is like that. I’m easily distracted. Also the picture is just a composite of everything you’ve ever seen that is zebra-like or zebra-related so when you look at this picture you are lookingat it through the filter of every single zebra you’ve seen in your entire life, and it’s still hard to focus because the picture is composed of a myriad of little distractions that are non-zebra-like. Between the zebra and the non-zebra ideas that you have, you can make a very fleeting, very evanescent picture that may or may not be a part of a more complex line of thinking. I really enjoyed doing this series because it’s about information that is spread around; it’s about collective history. Things anybody can relate to.
There are other types of images that speak to us directly. My work has spanned twenty years, during which there have been significant developments in media. The role of paper, for instance, has changed considerably, as it has gone from being something you use to spread information to being something that you merely use to retain it, as a document. The photo album, something that exists in everybody’s house, used to be like genes: families would give them to the following generation and they would be passed on as a natural part of their cultural heritage.
I’ve been collecting personal pictures and albums for twenty years. I thought I could have money at one point to buy every single photo album that came on the market. Now I’m running out of money. In the past five years loads of bulk images have been put up for sale on eBay—and I’m still trying to buy all of them! I find these orphan images and I wonder, ‘Where are they going?’ They deserve to go somewhere and I can host them. I don’t have any more storage space left, but I started thinking about how every single family album in my collection is very similar. You open it and it starts with a baby picture. From the baby picture you get the Bar Mitzvah, or the First Communion if you’re Catholic, and it goes on to the first vacation, school, graduation. It always tells the same story, but ends at different times. These pictures that exist in everybody’s albums are stereotypical pictures. They are part of a collective; they mark the rituals we all go through. The individual pictures are what connect the person to the event. Something I’ve noticed is that I can go to a really good book of photography like, say, Photographs of the Twentieth Century, and I might like ten pictures in a book that has three hundred images. But I can go through a bag of three thousand personal pictures and there’s absolutely not a single one that I don’t like because these moments were deemed important by someone, they’re part of a history of somebody I’ve never met and will never know. They carry so much mystery within them.
I started to actually connect these two things by making these very generic pictures. In this case, that’s me. I only have eight pictures of me as a kid because my aunt who lived in Miami used to take pictures of me when she came to visit, and then she would bring the pictures the following year. That is also part of the reason behind my obsession with personal pictures, because I didn’t have any. Every single detail on the pictures has a little face, a little something on it. They’re made out of millions of other pictures. It’s a series that will be exhibited in three days in New York in an exhibition called Album.
One of the hardest things for an artist over the course of many decades is to manage their creative flows. I’ve recently reconnected with sculpture. I was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to curate a show. I put together a group exhibition called Rebus that talked about linear processes and seriality. I remember the first time I walked into a museum.
I was seven. It was the São Paulo Museum of Art, an amazing museum created by Lina Bo Bardi. Lina was very aware of the fact that if you see an exhibition in which the paintings are linearly placed on the walls, you will see a completely different exhibition if you start from left to right than if you start from right to left because there’s a cumulative effect with each subsequent image that creates a sort of phrase, a statement. This is what my show at MoMA was about. What Bo Bardi did was put all of the works in glass panels, facing you, and it was a very beautiful greeting: all of the pictures in the museum are looking at you. You can go this way or that way and every time you visit the museum you’ll be visiting a different museum and going through a different narrative, a different story.
I have to say, it looks very beautiful, but as a seven year-old I couldn’t care less about the Raphael or the Velázquez they had there. What I was really into were the spider webs and the little rusty things that were on the backs of the paintings. We’re talking about the history that’s for everybody and the history that’s just for a few people: your personal story.
The front of a painting is supposed to look exactly like the moment it was finished, the moment it was varnished, and it’s supposed to look like that forever. The back of the painting, however, changes. Every time it goes on tour, it gets a different label. A few years ago I was walking with Lisa Dennison, who at that time was the director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and I came across something that caught my attention: I saw the back of a painting again. It was the back of Woman Ironing, a really iconic painting from the collection, one of my favourites, and I said to her, ‘Is this Woman Ironing? Can I photograph the back?’ and she said, ‘Yeah’. So I said, ‘Can I bring my big camera to photograph it?’ She said, ‘Sure!’ And I did it, and from then on I started asking all the museums in New York and everywhere else if I could document, measure and scrutinize the backs of the paintings. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I initially thought I would make big pictures, but they turned out to be really boring. With time I realized I wanted to make sculptures, so I created perfect life-size copies of the backs of very important paintings—they are not photographs, but photorealistic copies. This is the Demoiselles D’Avignon. I asked Kirk Varnedoe at MoMA if I could photograph it and I was so surprised when he said, ‘Yeah, sure, take it out! Photograph it!’. You start to see the painting from the other side, the side that only the painter saw.
I had to hire some really bad people, forgers, to make these labels and we had to manufacture the hardware that was originally made to stretch the paintings. My collection of famous backs of paintings was up to thirty-five at that point, and I bugged the Louvre for six years until they let me do the same to the Mona Lisa. As you can see I’m very happy here. I got there! The Mona Lisa leaves its wall the first Monday of November every year and on that day, not even security or maintenance is allowed inside the museum; only people who carry this little badge. I photographed the painting, and for a year and a half I worked with a group of conservators from the Uffizi—who are actually the people who care for its maintenance—to make a perfect version of it. It was cracked in the 18th century and was repaired with a butterfly joint. They made an electronic band for it so that if somehow it should open even a millimeter, some guy will get an SMS and will go there straight away to try to fix it.
I worked with the Uffizi team in developing working versions of the electronic band for my piece and actually allowed them to improve on theirs, so I have the new version on the back of my picture. The result is this. The cool thing is that they let me bring it back the following year to compare it to the real one and more than half of the people there could not tell the difference. This is me happy again with the back of my picture and the front of theirs.
Getting out of the studio, going to MIT, photographing bacteria, going to the Louvre to photograph things… All of this makes the world your studio. That for me is the most important thing. A few years ago I embarked on this great adventure. Prior to that I was doing a retrospective exhibition that was traveling around the United States. While I was putting together a catalogue raisonné I had the chance to go back to these twenty-five years of work and analyze it. When I was young, the main motivation for me to make art was that I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be an artist and that’s it. After twenty years you don’t have that excuse anymore. You are an artist. You’re actually getting old. And then what’s moving you? It’s got to be something more than paying the rent. It has to be something more than just having some spare money to throw dinner parties and things like that.
I started thinking more about why I was making art and what it entailed. There are so many things involved. It took me five years to have a second show in Brazil. When you’re an artist you deal with two things: there is a wide audience of people with whom you want to connect; you want to be in the world and talk to this world. But on the other hand you need rich sponsors in order to make that possible. In the gallery I was among collectors, buyers, rich people from São Paulo, and in come my father and my mother. They walk in, they feel extremely uncomfortable and I cannot in my mind put these two things together. It took me another five years to begin to make peace with this poor boy I had left in Brazil before I came to the US and started working, and connecting him with the society in which I now lived. I started to receive an enormous pleasure from this connection, from being part of a bigger family and being able to manage these two things.
Pictures of Garbage
It started here in England, when I did a show at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. Michael Hue-Williams introduced me to a producer called Angus. He came with a film director called Lucy Walker and they said, ‘We want to do a documentary about your work’. I said to them, ‘Every time I do a documentary about my work I get a divorce so I don’t think I want to do this again’. Instead I suggested—and this got me a divorce too—we do something else, we document a body of work from the beginning to the very end. And that’s what we did. I wanted to create a work about something that doesn’t inspire the gaze. Garbage is something we’re always hiding, that we don’t want to see. It reminds us of death, something that tends towards invisibility. For that reason I thought it would be very interesting to make something with that. So I went to a garbage landfill site in Brazil. I wanted to prove to myself that art was important, and for that I conducted an experiment in which I got a whole bunch of people together and I made their portraits with them. These people had nothing to do with art. They had never read an art book, they’d never been to a museum and they were only used to seeing themselves in tiny pictures that they took on the cell phones that they found. Their self-image was very different to the one we have.
I didn’t want to add anything to the equation so I used the same materials that they dealt with every day for this project. For three years we were able to produce these drawings and it changed their entire lives. The great thing about documenting this process was that you could see how their lives changed and how my life changed as well because it showed me that there is something else there. Art has the amazing power of humanizing people, of showing them that there are other things to do, that there is a—I love this word—diversion. Diversion in Portuguese means entertainment; it’s almost derogatory when you use it to refer to art. But in English it means a detour,something that strays from the way you go about things every day. Art has the power of changing the way you look at things and challenging your vision of the world. Doing that challenged my vision of the world. It’s that important, really. It’s so important that if you question it, all you have to do is, for a moment, think about a world without images, not a single one. You cannot imagine that. But there was a time when there were no images in the world. And a distant cousin of ours, as they walked into a cave, saw something in the accidental patterns of that cave that reminded them of something else. Not just something else—it reminded them of an animal. Not just any animal—it reminded them of a bison; a bison that had been hunted the previous winter. They thought of that image and all of a sudden they were thinking about the pursuit of the beast with their fellows. The way they rushed towards it, the fear. Everything came together at that moment: the blood gushing, the taste of the meat, the feast afterwards. Then it all disappeared and all they had left were just some cracks on a wall. Not happy with that, they picked up a blunt instrument and carved the missing parts of that picture, something that they had already imagined when they were remembering the hunt. And so they came up with the first picture.
What’s great about that is that the invention of representation is perhaps the most important thing after the control of fire.
Through this, they could not only see something that wasn’t there anymore, but they could also pass that along to their fellows. And when they died their children could see what had happened that winter. I see what we do today in museums, or even what people do with virtual reality, as the continuation of an unbroken straight line from that moment. From that moment we made amazing discoveries. We developed every structure of belief that involves symbolic exchange. We developed religion. We developed economy. We developed politics. To understand something you have to let yourself be fooled temporarily and by letting ourselves be fooled more and more we developed a language and a civilization.
The idea that there is an unbroken link from that moment to now is very interesting. But it is not quite so. Around the early nineties, very powerful technologies—image technologies— made a dent in that narrative by allowing us to cross the threshold of visual convention. Until then, seeing was believing. If you looked at anything and could attest to its being there that would prove that it existed. Technologies like Photoshop or Corel have corrupted our minds, and through them we’ve learned to believe in things. It’s very interesting. When the first image was made the whole tribe was probably astonished by it for like a week. The following week they would just go see it and say, ‘Mmm, it’s just a crack on a wall with some marks, let’s add a little color or some shadows’. The story of the development of representation is this: just a constant race between technology and cynicism. Cynicism is always a little bit ahead, to the point that the whole project of representation has come to a sort of closure. We’ve managed to produce representations so powerful, so convincing that we’ve lost the link to the thing that happened. That winter, that bison, that taste of the meat.
If I can point to a culprit in all of this it is probably photography. The implications of it are very serious. We learned how to believe and we knew how to layer these structures of belief until now. I see a lot of people changing their profile pictures on Facebook. They erase pimples and wrinkles. Sixty years from now they’re going to look just like they look today and they’re going to ask, ‘What happened?’ We’ve lost or made obsolete a vehicle we’ve trusted our entire history—both collective and private—and now where are we going to put it? How are we going to continue the process of history if we don’t trust what we see anymore? What we see—the authenticity of things—is not only confirmed by convention, but also by coding. Today, to ensure that something is real or authentic, normally you look underneath or in the back—like I did with those paintings. In this way we’re creating a system of authentication based on ignorance and exclusivity rather than one based on convention. It doesn’t seem like much. You think, ‘Oh, it’s Photoshop, it’s fun’, but I see something really serious emerging. There’s a gap between what’s represented and what is—a widening. This gap can only be filled by the only tool we have available, which has always been the way in which we perpetuate the driving force of culture: education. The culprit is an education that does not allow us to fulfil that process. With the development of photography we have lost the need to draw, or to learn to draw. Drawing is not a way for us to come up with pretty images. It’s an exercise. Before photography was around people had to learn how to draw to be able to relate to reality in a graphic way, in a richer way. The Victorians, for instance, were notoriously good draughtspeople. The idea of learning to draw—of practising drawing frequently— probably led to an entire generation of polymaths who were responsible for the Industrial Revolution in England. You have to acknowledge it has something to do with that. They had worked the right side of their brain to such an extent that they could make wild associations; they had an amazing associative power.
I’ve been involved in arts education for a long time. I’ve seen that happening. I think we now have a very clear idea of how visually rich education can enhance our understanding of the world we live in thanks to the creation of kindergarten by Friedrich Fröbel. It is said that Modernism is the result of this turning point where the entire social, economic and political situation transformed our vision of the world. But that vision wouldn’t be possible if people weren’t informed enough to have ways to describe it. It is a known fact that most of the early Modernist masters—I’m talking about Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Frank Lloyd Wright—were exposed to that type of education. Fröbel believed that when you start to get into the mode of symbolic acquisition these symbols are not just there in the ether; they have to have a strong background of abstract and visual education. At the same time, when kids stopped being artists, when they started reading and writing, that wouldn’t happen. They would still have the support of a very visual education. I think in the future, because we won’t have the comfort of a medium that can represent everything that goes on in our lives, we will have to understand what images are a little better. In the last twenty years our world has changed enormously and our perception of it has followed, but our education has done nothing to follow that progress.
I’m now opening a school in Brazil that’s based on the two types of anxieties that children have today. During the industrial revolution, public education was developed in the United Kingdom and in the United States to provide the world with technocrats, bureaucrats and soldiers. With time, that function has become obsolete and today I see that our education is simply creating consumers. But what do children consume? They consume images, which is what prevails in their environment, and they consume technology. And they learn to be passive about it. I think we need an education that empowers our children to make videogames rather than simply watching them. There are a lot of really amazing efforts to that end. Instead of watching cartoons, make cartoons! Instead of looking at drawings, make them! To become actors in this world in which they so long to participate. In the last five years, with the prospect of building the school I’m opening in a favela, I’ve been coming across amazingly creative people and great education is proliferating. I’m not the only one thinking about this, but I find it very hard to consolidate these things into one discourse. This is what I’m trying to come up with. But more than that this is the story of somebody who had no artistic education and is now talking about artistic education. I don’t think I would be a better artist if I had received a formal artistic education. I probably wouldn’t be an artist at all. I went to a meeting in New York a few years ago where they were giving a prize to a teacher who was an amazing arts educator. The first thing she did was show a huge bruise on her arm. She told us she had gotten it that day and went on to say: ‘I’ve been teaching art for the last twenty-five years and I’ve never, in these twenty-five years, formed a single important artist. But I formed better policemen, better lawyers, better doctors. And I wish, from the bottom of my heart, that I had formed the nurse that drew blood from me this morning.’
Art humanises. It makes us aware of a world beyond our immediate existence. The job of improving, updating and making people aware of this world that extends beyond us is assumed to be the job of an artist. But I’ve think it shouldn’t be. Otherwise art would turn into some boring didacticism (just as I’m probably boring you now by talking so much). I also think art should expand into education; it was there once, but has now been robbed from it.
Thank you very much.