Interview between Maria Zagala, Curator, and Vik Muniz for the exhibition Imaginary Prisons

(c) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In an email interview with Maria Zagala on 22 January 2007, Vik Muniz expanded on his interest in Piranesi’s Imaginary prisons and his working method.

MZ: Over the past decade you have made a number of series based on the art of past masters including Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, Redon, Matisse and, of course, Piranesi. You reconstruct their works by using radically different media such as chocolate, dust gathered from the Whitney’s offices and galleries, cuttings of reproductions of paintings by Van Gogh and Monet taken from magazines and, more recently, by recreating Delacroix and Cranach’s paintings with industrial rubbish. After making elaborate ‘models’ (if this is the right word) based on their works, you photograph them and the photograph becomes the final form. I wonder if we could explore your process, in particular in relation to the Prisons, after Piranesi series in more depth?
First, how do you decide on the artist or artwork you choose to recreate and what determines the media and techniques you employ when recreating these works?

VM:I usually try not to establish a definite modus operandi when it comes to managing creativity. Every source or input appears to be merely pieces of a much larger game and sometimes pieces that do not fit a particular puzzle will be saved for a future one. I sometimes start working from an image that has stayed in my mind for a while, or bump into a new technique and go after themes to apply it to. And since a lot of it has to do with recognising and remembering, either images or processes are usually chosen because of the ambiguity of their roles seen from the scope of today’s media and technology.

MZ: What attracted you to Piranesi’s Prisons series?

VM:The precariousness and yet the bravura in the description of depth. Depth constitutes a great paradigm in the predominantly ethereal media of today because while we have improved the ways to describe it, the descriptions themselves have become increasingly uni-dimensional. I wanted to produce work that would make the viewer reconsider the importance of these great works from the perspective of this fascinating ambiguity.

MZ: Did this evolve from a question you posed yourself about Piranesi’s series?

VM:I believe Piranesi conceived and produced Imaginary prisons as something very personal, but why would he make prints out of it? This only adds to the equation of superficiality and depth that I was talking about. Every artwork questions a mute and reluctant past, and shouts answers to a future that has not made up its mind of what to ask yet. I hope artists will do this to my work in the future.

MZ: How did you approach making the model for the Prisons? Seven of the eight works in your series are after the second, darker edition. Why did you prefer these prints to the lighter first edition?

VM:I had worked with thread and pins before, but despite my interest in architecture, I had never approached the subject before. It was only when I saw two girls in Panama playing cat’s cradle with a ring of thread that the idea came up. The choice between the dark and lighter originals was based on my capacity to render the dark ones with a little more detail than the light ones.

MZ: Your method of working has been described as a hybrid of drawing and photography. This seems to be an apt description for this series in particular in which you re-draw Piranesi’s lines with a needle and thread. This process suggests the Renaissance pedagogical model of learning by copying the work of a previous master. Is this of interest to you?

VM:This is what Gombrich calls ‘schemata’ and it is what first enabled image-making techniques to be passed from one generation to other. This has worked not only to create a larger public for great works in a time of predominantly manual reproduction but also to foster a deeper understanding of them, because there isn’t really a better way to know an artwork from the past than trying to reproduce it yourself.

MZ: One of the most striking characteristics of the Prisons etchings is Piranesi’s freedom of line. This is quite an achievement given that etching is such laborious and complicated technical process. His prints look as dashed-off as his preparatory pen-and-wash drawings. I think there is a certain parallel between your work and Piranesi’s in this regard. The construction of your models is time consuming, yet you exhibit the photograph, which is made in a fraction of the time.

VM:The immediacy and freshness of the photograph generally evokes spontaneity, a quality equally esteemed by anyone who is evaluating a drawing. This comes from the arbitrary consent from the part of the photographer or draftsman to allow accidents or mistakes to become intrinsic and functioning parts of their pictures. The accident is some sort of instinctive and genuine signature that endorses the artist’s link to the rest of humanity. This is one aspect of media that has endured, despite the pace of technological development, for centuries and it is still applied across the entire spectrum of disciplines today. When copying an existing artwork, a mistake is the only thing that makes that artwork yours.

MZ: I am also interested in the question of scale, as your method of working allows you to play with scale very effectively. It is impossible to know what size your original model is? From the large size of your photographs, it gives the impression of being vast. In fact, what was the size of your models?

VM:Scale has always something to do with cognition and technology. It is a great tool and should be reconsidered every time new work is conceived. I have worked on every possible scale (from etching grains of sand to making drawings of thousands of feet with the aid of heavy machinery), on my models as well as my final prints. While scale shifts generate abstract thinking about an image, photos that maintain the scale of the model work as optical illusions. In any case, a particular scale of work should never determine the style of an artist. By the way, the Piranesi models were about seventy-five by one hundred centimetres.

MZ Finally, did your work in the theatre many years ago influence your choice of Piranesi?

VM:Now that you mentioned it, yes, I really think so. They have an aura of set design to them. Something that makes them quite artificial and that might be what really attracted my attention in the first place.