by Olivier Kaeppelin
Translated from the French by Brian Holmes
Can one bring a dead figure back to life? Is the essence of art not to transform inert things into living forms – long-lasting forms?
In the face of an exaggerated taste for objects and their assemblages, for anecdotal, autarkic life-sequences, all quickly exhausted, yet composing an important part of today’s art, Vik Muniz proposes something quite different : a precise conceptual position that accords little worth to the seductions of reality. He takes an ironic stance toward “object-works,” illustrational shortcuts, to put the accent instead on the powers of thought and the creative process, the capacities of the human mind to metamorphose the banal, the merely common, into a complex figure which by its very treatment becomes an inexhaustible source of virtualities.
What Vik Muniz photographs, what he concretizes, is the distance between ourselves and things, the doubt cast on reality, the construction of another real by art, and particularly by the art of photography, which for him is never simply a shot but above all the activity of a black box, of a mental laboratory.
What exactly is the process which forms the subject of Muniz’s work?
It allows him to seize hold of the most artificial things — imitation flowers made of fabrics — and to lead them to become an intense part of the real, a source of continuous life. It incites him to use the stereotypes of art history, or images stripped of meaning by notoriety and repetition, in order strangely to give them new meaning, delivering them over to their fragility, to their capacity to disappear, if photography were not there to suspend them in the ambiguity between their deaths and appearances. Returning to the work of Andy Warhol, who undermined the stereotype by its displacement into painting, he redoubles the critical position of the American artist. Using his canvases (the Liz Taylors, for example), which in their turn have become alienated reproductions, he places this whole critical set-up in a hall of mirrors, prolonging Warhol’s approach by his own, and defining a process that allows art to outwit the death of the work by the impoverishment of the image. Thus he draws the practical conclusions of Walter Benjamin’s reflections.
What Vik Muniz photographs is the metaphysical position constructed, on the one hand, by the melancholy of belonging to a world of objects, a written world where everything which has received a name becomes an image and withdraws from us — neutralized by the additions of signs — and on the other hand, by the emotion, the fever, the joy that we ceaselessly feel at the rebirth of creative thought.
For that, Muniz uses the simplest of material, but sets it immediately aside, negates it with humor and photographic specularity, in order to concentrate his creativity, his astonishing mastery, on the new appearance of a new image, a double emergence or double birth which confirms the permanent promise, the lightness and irony of the games and mental festivities which lie at the heart of his work. Is this not a Trojan horse able to reenchant the ruins? A splotch of sugar and chocolate on the lineaments of death?
*Excerpt from the text by Olivier Kaeppelin Translated from the french by Brian Holmes originally published in the catalogue After Warhol, which accompanied Vik Muniz solo show at Galerie Xippas, Paris in 1999.
Republished in the catalogue that accompanies Vik Muniz solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, It. September 2003 / January 2004