Interview with Vik Muniz and Danilo Eccher, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, August 2003.

This interview is published in the catalogue that accompanies Vik Muniz solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, Italy. September 2003 / January 2004

DE: The language of photography has assumed an important role in artistic pursuit in recent decades, from the more traditional level of documentation it has gradually asserted itself as a full bodied mechanism of expression, that’s to say it has demanded a direct protagonism without any necessary reference. Photography, sustained by radical technological innovation and a consequent freedom of expression, has effectively moved the centre of gravity of contemporary artistic language, rendering what is a narrative normal procedure much more direct and immediate. In the case of your own works, one is witness however to a new, and somewhat surprising, interpretive change of photographic language: a sort of ‘about-turn’ reproduction of the work, an interpretive filter that, if on one hand enhances the extraneousness of the work, on the other it emphasizes the spectacle of the photographic image. (What, for you, is the role of this photographic language?).

VM: The day Arago announced the invention of photography in 1839, painters started to ask themselves what would become of their trade. At that time painting had already reached the peak of its technological development but even though its popularization had multiplied its uses, the medium seemed to be dying at its core. Photography freed painting from the need to exploit the factual world and allowed the artist within the painter to ask some long forgotten questions: What is a painting? Why do people paint?

I am telling you this because I see a strange parallel within current history. Photographs are now ubiquitous and seem to have developed along with market needs only to serve as a parallel reality, which witnesses the quality of the goods and lifestyles they portray. However, not unlike painting in the 1830’s, the medium seems to have exhausted, through overuse, its philosophical meaning. The first century of photography was about making a decent picture, everything after that was about making something look decent or indecent with a picture.

Now that the ghost of painting has come back to haunt photography in the form of digital technology, that aura of factuality has suddenly abandoned the medium. Paradoxically, digitally enhanced photographs have become more eloquent and less convincing. As the technology of digital manipulation becomes more transparent and skepticism grows, we are experiencing for the first time in our history a total disenfranchisement between image and reality; it’s a rather chaotic situation that fills our heads with much deeper questions than the ones asked by painters in 1839. Questions such as: What is a picture, any type of picture? How can we be using pictures when they no longer have any link with reality?

My work seems to question these binding elements between image and reality without discrediting one or the other. Artists are never very good at answers. But the questions raised by artists always reflect the reality of the time in which they live. Unlike a lawyer, I don’t particularly want to get anywhere with this questioning. I do think, however, that if you ask the same question enough times, it will start sounding like an answer.

DE: The work appears to exhibit its own precariousness, suggesting the sharp attraction for an imbalance between the adherent surrender of the model and the inevitable photographic manipulation, deception for an uncertain truth. In these works there is a hint of emotion that seems to well up from a gelatinous boundary separating the fanatical virtuosity of the model’s performance and the photographic spell of a transfigured reality. (What function do you attribute to the photographed model?)

VM: Anything in front of a camera is a model. Even in photojournalism, the advent of framing distils overbearing amounts of visual information into a single perfect fragment of reality, which is by definition a good description of a model. By constructing something exclusively to be photographed, I am trying to explore the notion of the archetype in a very peculiar scale. As children, we learn about the world around us through toys, fables, and role-playing because we are not ready yet to function in real-life scale. When we grow up, the shift from playing to working is so dramatic that it leaves us longing for an eternal return. Photographed, the model loses part of its materiality and becomes as ephemeral as a memory itself. Models also work as a buffer between people and reality. When you work with second hand experience, you are less likely to raise the defense mechanisms in the viewer’s intellect and, in this way, create a deeper, more lasting effect.

DE: It is the same physical fragility, the same inconsistency of the model of reference, the same perishability and dissolving of chosen materials which generates a perceived discomfort in front of these works. The dismay of an evaporated truth, the uncertain knowledge of a truth that can only be reached on a linguistic plane, having since dissolved its physical being. Then there is the use of chocolate, dust, clouds, threads of wool, materials that don’t want to, nor can they, clamour for any staged presence, if not that of the memory of themselves. (What determines the choice of a specific material?).

VM: I choose materials for their specific relation to the subject and for their power to short-circuit the meaning of that same subject. In other words, the material should complete and antagonize the subject simultaneously. I got this idea from observing, at a distance, how people position themselves in front of paintings in a museum; they approach the picture and position themselves so that it comfortably fills up their visual field, but is always close enough so they can sense the texture of the paint itself. The moment when the image dissolves back into matter is as revealing as the moment dabs of paint become the likeness of an angel or a fish. These are the moments that contain in their transcendence, the very nature of representation.

On principle, I don’t try to attract any attention to the mundane aspect of the materials I use. I just don’t discriminate. All materials are good for something in a picture, be it oil paint or elephant excrement. It’s interesting how people become amused by a shift in medium. If I draw somebody’s portrait with a pencil, it’s just a drawing and nothing else. But if I do the same drawing with molasses and have a trail of ants marching on it, all of a sudden it becomes miraculous. All media used by academic artists involves a color (pigment, dye, sometimes remains of mummified people) and a medium (milk, oil, egg, gelatin, saliva, anything transparent or viscous). Photography simply re-arranges the relationship between color and medium in a confusing way, a way that leaves to the viewer the task of finding out what he or she is looking at.

DE: The relationship between the inability to repeat work that vanishes and its own photographic conception is a theme that abundantly marked many artistic quests in the Sixties and Seventies, being works realized with snow and ice, with water and rocks, with desert sand and lightning, works that could not be conserved or repeated, but only remembered in their intellectual risk. Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim or Walter De Maria underlined the importance of art in using reality rather then describing it, to escape from a cage of method that didn’t consider the subjective irrationality of nature. They were the years of a contraposition between a systematic and positive objectivity on one hand and a natural and uninhibited individuality on the other. In your works however, this entire ideological mantle seems to have vanished, revealing a lighter and more detached approach, in some cases even ironic on the pleasing beauty the of precariousness. (What affinity with these experiences do you find in your works?)

VM: My grandfather never believed that a man had set foot on the moon. He thought the entire thing was cooked up in some sound studio in Queens. I never really endorsed his skepticism entirely, but while most people thought he was a bit crazy, I found something fascinating in the way he assimilated media. (He also had two television sets, a color one to watch the soap operas and a black and white to watch the news). While most people involved in the arts know what Spiral Jetty is, very few of them have actually travelled to Oregon to see the work. I recently visited Anghor Wat in Canboja and felt that while getting to finally see the ruin with my own eyes, I was also forced to erase an enormous amount of false but fantastic information that my imagination had used to construct the site in my head by piecing together all that I had found in the media about the fabled place. I always thought that the Earthworks movement was an exercise in media. When I first saw a picture of Spiral Jetty, the first thing that came to my mind was the amount of work that the artist had to go through to end up with that photo (which was actually taken by Nancy Holt). Smithson did not just build a swirly mound of soil in the middle of nowhere. By disseminating its awry presence through photographs, plans, drawings, and writings, he built a monument in our imagination, as strange and magical as Anghor Wat before being visited. In my work, I am always trying to work in the gap between image and subject. The gap that exists between an environmental work and the images we see in the galleries representing these works is so great, it seemed like a perfect subject for me. First I thought it would be interesting to build models of the known sites in my studio and photograph them leaving parts of the set-up showing (I even thought of reproducing the moon landing in a Queens sound studio for my grandfather). That generated a series from 1998 that I called “Brooklyn NY.” About two years ago I decided to revisit the subject by exploring something that emerged as I was working on the 1998 models: the relationship between the model and the work itself. So I built several Earthworks in grand scale, some a few hundred meters each in an iron mine in Brazil, and then I built models a few inches long on the same site, with the same materials. Then I photographed both the models and the Earthworks under the same light quality, enlarged the photos the same way, and exhibited them mixed together in a show in New York. With a bit of attention one could discern the models from the large works, but most people generally preferred to discard the possibility that there were any large-scale works at all (like my grandfather); others believed all the pictures were of large-scale works. Too confusing, some said. It really worked.

DE: Also on another front, more existential and intimate, like that of Joseph Beuys or the Fluxus artists, as well as the Viennese Aktionismus and, more generally, nearly all the performers, the practice of photography re-dresses a role that is almost reliquary, a type of liturgical journey that, often accompanied by real material Ôrelics’, restores a spiritual atmosphere to the performance. None of that seems to influence your work, even though one recognises performance-like passages in your journey, like the trail of an aeroplane above the skies of New York, which doesn’t seem central to the real action but instead releases a sort of ironic dissonance that in some way shifts the centre of one’s focus on the action itself into iconic surrender. Here, as well, like for the models, the formal and linguistic approach shakes up a more classic and expected reading. (How much weight does the performance element have in your work?).

VM: Considering the Fine Arts as a career was something that came up very late in my life and became an obvious choice once I figured out that it would be a great way to aggregate all my other academic interests into one single activity. Theater was one of the activities that I was always very involved in. Actually, I moved to New York to study theater direction and set design.

All of the arts are somehow theatrical, but photography, in a sinister fashion, encourages performance not only from the part of the artist but also from the part of the subject. The simple fact that we smile for pictures (even the blind do it) makes us performers in a very short play with only the film as spectator. I produced a series commissioned by The Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh, in which I used the employees of the institution acting in the roles of the inhabitants of the mansion that had been turned into a museum; a lot of people thought that was strange. I have directed a bottle of chocolate syrup into the role of Jackson Pollock; what’s wrong with turning a curator of education into a maid peeling potatoes? In my work, there’s always something attempting to become something else, trying to voice the image’s eternal longing for transcendence. You are right to mention Beuys and Fluxus. In Beuys’ work the process takes the main stage and in the case of Fluxus, process is distilled to its essential. Any artist interested in process has to consider the performance aspects of it. The challenge in my work is to map out a layered and detailed version of the process that can be followed in the frozen format of the record. The airplane drawing clouds over New York was an attempt to transform the very personal act of drawing into a broadcasting spectacle. Millions of people watched someone making a drawing of a cloud. Bob Watts would have loved it.

DE: In the series of works dedicated to Piranesian architecture there emerges, with some force, a sharp perspective analysis, reconstructed with the finest threads of wool, which isn’t just about an exhibition of sophisticated craftsmanship, but rather about the individualism of a new fracture in the composite plan, an articulate game of thought that highlights the theme of temporal ambiguity. And it’s the sense of the expansion of time, almost the necessity of a patient dilation of thought that clots and coagulates in the instant the photo is taken. (What consideration do you give to the time taken to execute a work?).

VM: In an allusion to cooking, every ingredient takes its time to cook. I try to work on two or three things at a time. Usually I choose projects that complement each other in some sort of way so I can swing from the challenging to the amusing. I would work on the Piranesi series, for example, which was very time consuming (almost a month for each picture) and then take breaks to make small drawings or take on projects such as the Earthworks or portraits, projects that took me out of the studio. It’s the diversity of projects that keeps the work alive and fresh. It’s just like with exercise machines; if you only use one, you’ll become a monster. Sometimes a great picture takes just a few seconds to make; sometimes the reward of seeing some insane enterprise you took on for a year finally make its way to an exhibition and do exactly as you expected in front of the viewers can be exhilarating. There’s stone carving and there’s ping-pong playing where years of training amounts to what can be done in a fraction of a second. Patience and spontaneity can be cultivated by different kinds of activities.

DE: In other works as well it is possible to trace more complex interpretative keys; for example from the big chocolate Ôpaintings’ emerge two contrasting elements: on one hand the Ôblasphemous’ choice of a material irreverent for its inherent greedy playfulness, on the other, a cultured iconical reference that inflames the curiosity for an ambiguous method of reference. As if in a perverse weaving of high and low culture, the continuous Ôplay of sides’ seems to represent a singular constant in this art. And so, in the suspended atmospheres of the dust particles or in the ethereal apparitions of the clouds, the enchanting evocations of visionary narrative mix themselves up and confuse themselves with the imperceptible game of chance nature, of unexpected amazement, of stylish surprise. (What balance do you look for in the thematic weaving of play and research?).

VM: André Serrano gained notoriety in the 1980’s by showing a picture of a crucifix immersed in a liquid he described as being urine. As Goddard would put it: Ces’t pas du sang, Ces’t du rouge. Not really. I rendered the last supper in chocolate and nobody thought of it as blasphemous. Leonardo saw armies fighting fiercely in the cracks of his wall, and Cozens taught landscape painting by starting every drawing from a randomly executed doodle. The permeability of meaning within the domain of images appears to us as a faint but fascinating reminder of our primordial penchant for metamorphic phenomena. Who hasn’t, as a child, lost a full night’s sleep under the covers terrified by a shadowy specter that by morning turned out to be a hanging coat or a broom? Our vision itself has developed from a hunting tool into a more interpretative device that still fancies the shape of the pray in everything it focuses on. As a visual artist, in the most retinal sense, my job is to understand and demonstrate how the visual world manifests itself through its many guises. Like Constable, I am trying to understand how pure light breaks up into the myriad of informative textures that make up our landscape by trying to reproduce it, by playing with it in a physical way as if creating a new kind of science. Unlike Constable, my landscape appears to me as a holographic labyrinth of pre-digested visual experience. To navigate through this mirror maze, I must first learn to drop every prejudice and learn not to differentiate play from research. An Artist’s research is primarily physical. Acting and reasoning must be unified when making art. No one learns to swim by watching the Olympics.

DE: After more than a century of supremacy of the idea of the work it seems that the thought is somewhat blurred and tends to confuse itself with the Ôbrainwave’, the stupefying intuition, the banal surprise and the uncertainty that all create classification but that, as Paul Ricoult suggests, can reveal a fragile metaphor, just a linguistic beauty treatment, which fades as soon as the surprising effect has softened. That is to say that there is a place of silence, a no-man’s land that seems today to condition artistic debate, relegating it to a strategic variable and imposing prefixed schemes and pre-defined outlets. In the case of your art, the nimbleness of the amazement seems to inch forward on tip-toe, discreetly and softly, it is work that insinuates curiosity rather than overwhelms, that loves a hesitant tale rather than the jolts of improvisation, which exists within a deep thought rather than in the bubbles of intuition. (How do you consider the dimensions of surprise and of emotion in your work?).

VM: Emotion is a proprioceptive engagement. It is motivated by a deep realization of our being in relation to our temporal environment. I remember as a child, running through bed sheets hung out to dry, the exhilarating feeling of moving in space with my entire body. I needed the bed sheets not only as a surface of contact but also as a cognitive instrument that revealed systematically the successiveness of surfaces. Like the peek-a-boo game that teaches a child the parent will always be there, revelation is a tool to generate the emotions that punctuate the secret clock of our lives. We remember the past through these moments when something was revealed, and surprised, we became full of emotion. These two things, surprise and emotion, go hand in hand in such a way that we sometimes don’t even notice them. To be able to draw attention to the importance of these things, we must understand the mechanics of surprise and subvert it, positioning the audience at the same time as a victim and analyst of the experience. There is the old Buster Keaton trick of letting the spectators think that the locomotive won’t destroy the pre-fabricated house stuck in the tracks, but just a second later, another train coming from the opposite direction turns the building into shreds. Then, there was Witggenstein saying that he was expecting a surprise party for his birthday, and as nobody threw the party, he was very surprised. In the same way that we only get a chance to figure out how the mind works when something goes wrong, we seem to only get in touch with our emotions when the revealing mechanisms responsible for triggering them betray us in some creative fashion. We sometimes call this phenomenon a spectacle.

It is interesting to notice, how technology is intrinsically related to emotions. In the Romantic period, revelation was counter-posed by the impermeable darkness of nature manifested in the primordial night or the black forest. Today, things are revealed by their tangibility within a world of transparencies. Reality shows, ubiquitous surveillance, and the media’s interconnectedness have allowed experience to permeate through everything, changing the rules of the revealing process. One is just as blind when he can see through everything. We went from suffering from lack of knowledge to agonizing over the scarcity of wonder. The question is how do we play peek-a-boo when our hands are transparent, and what lesson of continuity and survival would we learn from this game?

DE: In the last few years dedicated to the portrait, one witnesses a fascinating oscillation between the dissolution of the image and its photographic reconstruction. These are popular faces that bring their own character and atmosphere, their own recognisable truth, well known personalities and those less known, who testify a transparent and calm familiarity. At the same time, their narration takes place across a linguistic fade-out, achieved by the composition of tesseras, which you highlighted in recalling the work of Chuck Close, a fade-out that increases the narrative complexity, enriching it with new details and new realities. (Why did you choose the theme of portraits and how did you choose the characters?).

VM: In Brazil, I have been witnessing an increasing number of celebrity magazines. There’s too much space and not so many notorious people so the magazines are forced to fabricate some celebrities of their own. These people become well known because they appear in the magazine, and vice versa, for no particular reason at all. I am fascinated by the naiveté of broadcasted identity. There’s a beautiful episode in Brazilian media when the late diva singer Elis Regina delivers a monologue before a song. She’s in tears as she describes how she felt after working so hard to become famous. Her tears are transformed into tiny points of light glittering in millions of TV sets across the country. She mocks the tragedy of her fragmentation into these points of light by saying, ironically: Now, I am a star. When I became involved with portraiture, I was more fascinated by the fact that we can recognize one face from millions of others than anything else. After working for so long with recognition, I decided to explore the subject in which this phenomenon is exercised with the greatest skill by our brains. How do we recognize a face? First, there’s the eye’s natural inability to see everything in focus; Foveal vision amounts to less than two degrees of our visual field and allows us to understand what we see only through movements called saccades. The eye wanders through a face, scanning for familiarity. It goes from point to point, making every face a narrative. Every face is a story. Then there is the face we see through the media, equally fragmented through edition and association. In the end physiognomy, especially when mediatized, is a far more complex bricollage than we assume. What I’ve been doing in this latest series of portraits is mimicking the mental inability to piece together those bits of information that make us know someone through the media, by literally composing portraits of “celebrities” at different levels from confetti-sized bits of paper punched out from magazines. My own failure in making a seamless likeness of the subject somehow reflects the chimeric aspect of familiarity in physiognomy. The subjects were chosen to try to create a full spectrum for the meaning of being famous. There are movie stars, popular singers, literature laureates, presidents, sport legends, flower sellers, manicurists, and waiters; they are all people who became well known by using different media–from television to the street to word of mouth.

DE: An ever increasing number of artists choose to live in other parts of the world, leaving their cultural backgrounds, or, on the contrary, exacerbating the theme of their original culture. Recently artists of Asian background have established themselves in Europe or North America, but this is only the latest episode in a process that hasn’t spared any country. The results are contrasting: frequently their own cultural origins dilute themselves in a more Ôglobal’ climate, which, in a certain sense tends to uniform artistic practices and a common critical sense which, for example in architecture, has produced an Ôinternational style’. One can witness however a radicalisation of the artist’s own cultural origin, taking to extremes a memory or an atmosphere that often doesn’t have any current relevance to reality but represents simply a faded memory of it. Until a few years ago to speak of Latin American or Chinese or African art responded to relatively reliable rules, now perhaps it no longer has any coherence or, worse, it risks sinking into the ethnographic play-pen. (As a Brazilian, living in New York how do you consider this phenomenon and how do you view the young art coming out of Latin America?).

VM: My case is actually an inversion of the trend of regionalist exhibitions established in some kind of parallelism with the raise of a global economical environment. I was trained as an artist along the traditions of the European academy in Brazil, and as my entire career as an artist took place after I moved to New York, I actually had a much harder time finding a place for myself within the context of Brazilian art than I had in the U.S. or in Europe. Only recently have I been able to patch together my ignorance about the art of my country of birth. When I lived in Brazil, I thought the main trends in visual arts, Concretism for example, with a few exceptions, were already too detached from their own political environment; they made a very poor case for authentic regionalism. Although my main influences are American and European art from the 60’s and 70’s, it was by my awkward revision of these ideas that the Brazilian artist started to transpire in me. My training, received through the controlled media of an oppressive political regime in which there were only half-truths and all safe communications, happened only through the use of metaphors. I learned to question media from living in a dictatorship; that makes me feel more Brazilian than wearing a fruit hat. In the summer of 91, I found guavas for the first time in a deli in New York. Shortly thereafter a number of equally packaged curiosities started to flood the contemporary art scene in New York: Young Africa, Young China, Young Russia, Five Women from Borneo, Albino Eunuch Midgets from Easter Island, and so on. I wrote an article that I never published on the phenomenon called “The Summer the Guavas Came” so annoyed was I by these shows. The Euro-American cultural cannon needs the exotic, the outsider, the regional, and the traditional to assert its own identity in the magma of contemporaneity. It’s up to the artists coming from more secular cultures to surmise if what they are producing is an intrinsic part of what they are or simply a product designed to satisfy the identity of a market.

Latin American artists profit from the rich cultural environment in which they live and the high degree of information the artists are exposed to. From my point of view, the most interesting art coming out of South America is actually focusing on a sort of negotiation between their culture and the culture of the countries in which they are exhibiting.