Natura Pictrix

Peter Galassi and Vik Muniz

Peter Galassi: I think it might be useful for people to know a little bit about what you did before you started making the work for which you have become known.

Vik Muniz: It would be easier to start listing things I didn’t do before turning to art. Even though I have drawn compulsively since I was a child, it never occurred to me to become an artist. When you are born in Brazil in a working class family, you think of things like being a doctor, an engineer or TV repairman. I studied media with emphasis on advertising, I was involved with theater and taught life drawing. I also did an infinity of odd jobs to be able to support myself and although they are not worth mentioning, they are just as important a part of what informs my work today.

PG: What did you make before you turned to photography, and what drew you to it? For a while the medium of your finished work has been photography, but that hasn’t always been true. What did you do before and what drew you to photography?

VM: I experimented with a lot of things but never felt like becoming a specialist in anything. Maybe because I was so involved with image-making in advertising and theater, I was drawn to sculpture and object-making. I always made things that had certain identity problems: a pre-Colombian coffee-maker, a game joystick disguised in an Ashanti figure or the entire Encyclopedia Britannica bound in a single volume. I had fun concocting these things but I did not see them as sculpture at all. They were more as exercise, and an excuse, to experiment with the greatest possible variety of media in a single context. Painting, drawing, and sculpture as single disciplines had no meaning to me. I was really interested in how all these different manifestations get inserted into the make-up of culture as a whole, and I thought that by working on a single medium I would be pertaining the habit of not looking at art as a system of relationships. In other words, I had a keen interest in art as a whole and not as a collection of independent disciplines. Photography appeared initially as a tool for documenting this confused array of experiences but, as I started to become conscious of its power of synthesizing many elements into a single structure, it gradually became the end result of most of my work. Once you photograph something you make, you not only document it but also idealize it. You take the most stupid snapshot and it will still be something that started in your mind. You make it look more like that image in your mind that led you to create the object. That somehow brings a sense of closure; an idea going full circle, a way to evidence how your own imagination survives being digested by the material world. Photography is also the way that at least half of the knowledge–why not say the feeling–of the world comes to me on a daily basis. And since great part of what I am is photographic, I felt that understanding photography a little better would help to me understand myself.

PG: Like many artists, you tend to work in series, and each series is made under a certain number of conditions and rules. What are the rules for each of the series you are exhibiting at the Cnp?

VM: I think this game-like structure is as fundamental in the making of series as it is in the making of individual works. The difference is that the more you play the game the more chances you get to improve the score or to test different strategies. Most of the works chosen for this exhibition reflect a decade-long interest in creating interactions between photographic and non-photographic representations, mainly ones that are about drawing.

The Best of Life Series, for example, are drawings of very famous photographs made entirely from memory. When the drawings were good enough to look like a bad reproduction of the original image, I photographed them and printed them with the same half tone pattern we usually see in these images for the first time in the papers. In these works I tried to find out what a photograph looks like in your head when you are not looking at it. They carried the structure of the famous news pictures but they were in fact very different.

PG: Allow me to interrupt you for a moment to say that I think that, if most people–including most curators of photography–performed the same exercise, your versions would look like masterpieces of Michelangelo in comparison.

VM: In fact I tried to make the drawings look like anyone could’ve done them. The body of work that started with the wire series had a different focus because it was a way to fuse two seemingly contentious media, photography and drawing, in a single image. When you blend these two kinds of representations, you create a perceptual rift–you are not just looking at something, you are actually feeling vision itself. I started with the wire pieces because they conveyed the familiarity we share with pencil drawings. I always use images that appeal to something you think you already know. I tried to make landscapes with them but I realized I needed something with more volume to pass on a sense of perspective, that’s how the thread series came about. I went on exploring different genres of representation and different rendering strategies. In the most recent series, I have gone from lines to dots and pixels. In the soil series for example, my interest was to experience drawing on luminous surface rather than on an illuminated one, and try to make a conceptual connection with this and idea of the negative in photography. Basically, I am trying to compound an epistemology of flattened visual forms. All these things, while they remain photographic objects, they attempt to make the viewer examine the role of representation as an exchange and interaction of forms rather than an improvement on a specific one.

PG: You have said that you have tried many experiments, most of which have failed. Could you give an example or two of something that didn’t work and explain why and what you think learned from the failure?

VM: I learned to live with it with no hard feelings. Once I tried to produce a likeness of an unknown movie start with M&Ms, trying to copy the dot pattern we are used to seeing in billboards. Well, because of scale discrepancies and the unwillingness of such stubborn candy to stay in place, I did not get a picture and ended up in a mild depression cured only by the amount of M&Ms I was left to eat. Good thing M&Ms taste good and I wasn’t drawing with cod liver oil. Failure is a sort of background for things that miraculously mange to transcend their original meaning. When you look at a map, you see all the roads and cities, and then, the empty spaces that the mapmakers try to fill with silly icons and sea monsters so as not to look too boring. That’s how I visualize failure: as this interstitial space that keeps the rods from coming together running in the same direction. Everything that successfully conquers any identity is surrounded by this wasteland of semi-developed forms. The purpose of science, for instance, is to extend the reach of these cities and roads in a linear way. The artist, on the other hand, works more like a surveyor of these empty spaces. Art is somehow like brain-science; you only get to know something works by looking at things that have stopped working. I have failed so much that I now stand on failure itself. It has become my work place and where I harvest my best ideas.

PG: It might be said that you are not a photographer at all, in the conventional sense. After all everything you present as your work is photography, but everything you may photographed is something you have made.

VM: I photograph what I can paint and I paint what I can photograph. You have to be Man Ray to make good art based on principles. I am a photographer because my work ends up being a photo. Now, if the definition of a photo extends beyond this premise, we will be talking about different kinds of photographs. Still, I think that a photograph is always something that you made before you clicked the shutter button. Perhaps the first photo ever taken, Niepce’s view of rooftops over Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, was a truly pure photograph. The second one he took, he was already comparing nature to the first photograph he had taken. When the concept of improvement enters the observation of reality, we can no longer separate mind from phenomenon, it all becomes a kind collaboration, a conversation, a judgment. It’s not that I don’t believe in anything spontaneous about a photograph. simply think that any good picture should emphasize the photographic act as a part of its make-up. Some people may find it hard to call what I do photography, but I don’t feel myself so very distant from the wedding photographer who asks people to smile before he takes his shot. I usually choose to work perishable or unstable materials because I want to emphasize the temporal element in every picture. They are records of short performances, about a second long, enacted exclusively for the lenses of my camera, but they are nevertheless photographs of something that happened in time, like in any other photograph.

PG: Part of the pleasures viewers get from your pictures is an appreciation of the skill and effort that went into making them. It’s as if you had built a contraption the size and complexity of the Taj Mahal in order to boil a pot of water. On the other hand, if you succeeded perfectly, then your art would be a failure, wouldn’t it?

VM: Success is simply a failure to fail. You may not know this, but the Taj Mahal was actually made to boil water for tea, but since it didn’t work, the Rajah gave it to his wife as gift. I once had a car that had the most incredibly stupid design and as a consequence, nothing worked. I had to repair to every other day. That car did not take me anywhere but taught me all I know about car repairs. In a VCR manual, for example, a generic line drawing is supposed to describe something and in most cases it does so very well, and for that same reason I have never seen one of these drawings in anybody’s wall. I always thought that people invented the movies because some photographs lacked the narrative flow that we find in paintings. They lacked the little mistakes and failures that make the mind of the viewer travel not only to the time of the picture but also to the moment of its making. A great picture describes an event while telling you how the artist felt and what he or she was thinking while the event was recorded. Like the old car I was talking about, it is designed to give you a lesson on picture-making. The artist does enter the picture through a complex system of marks that are not necessarily part of the visual experience of the event. Skill is precisely the subtlety in which the artist enters the picture. It comes naturally and it is almost inevitable. An artist can only really fail if he imagines himself apart from what he is trying to describe.

PG: You have said that there are two distinct threads in your work. One is concerned with the mechanism of representation. The other is concerned with what you called “interpretation”- with photography’s power as a cultural symbol. Wouldn’t it be fair to say one thread leads inward toward the labyrinth of art and the other leads outward toward the world outside the studio?

VM: In one way or another my work aims at meeting the viewer half-way by betting on the assumption that the viewer will already have a preconception of what I am about to show him or her. In The Best of Life Series, for example, the viewer was fooled by what he thought he knew of the picture. In works such as the Wire Series the effect is similar but based entirely on personal archetypes. One tendency of works such as The Best of Life Series is to talk about the experience acquired through media. The effort of these works is based previously acquired knowledge and their structure is essentially indexical, while other works such as the wire pictures try to stay away from cultural references, concentrating primarily on the perceptual responses of the viewer, their structure is of a more iconic order. Another distinction that can be drawn between these two trends is that one type of work deals with the illusion of a consolidated visual universe and the other with the idea of illusion itself. In both cases, however, I am still trying to gauge the effects if images by reducing their representational value to a bare minimum; in The Best of Life, I aimed at producing the worst possible picture that would still pass for the real one. In the wire, thread, and chocolate pictures, I tried to produce the most rudimentary form of illusion. One that was still capable of fooling the eyes of viewer. I don’t want the viewer to believe in my images; I want him or her to experience the extent of his or her own belief in images–period. That can only be done with images that can be easily taken for granted. I was once fooled by a street child in Rio. Anger past, that somehow made me feel like a child again.

PG: It’s part of historian’s job to trace the evolution of artistic traditions, but of course the paths of creativity are always more complicated and quirky than the neat outlines we draw. In addition, I’ve noticed that in the messy variety of contemporary art, each artist seems to be obliged to assemble his or her own pantheon of creative ancestors. What does yours look like?

VM: It’s even funny to think of it because I believe that if I had to list everyone who has influenced my work we would have to write another book. It would be called: My Heroes From Aristotle to Wegman. But there are few special ones: I have always been interested in the circus and street magicians, the kind of entertainment that counts on the poorest kind of illusion-effects and demands enormous amounts of belief and imagination. Things that allow the viewer to exercise his human qualities rather than admire those of the artist. People like Federico Fellini, who could not only tell stories, but also show you how much we need to believe them. Man Ray of course, is my role model, an artist of human scale, human skill, and superhuman curiosity. Max Ernst is another inescapable one. Warhol. There are also writers, the most special of all being Roger Caillois whom I humbly consider a spiritual partner. Recently I discovered another great writer and I was thrilled to find out that he is my age–his name is James Elkins. As this list grows longer it becomes increasingly unfair. I would like to say that I have probably taken inspiration from anyone who had an idea that could have been one of mine. Complicity is always the fuel of veneration.

PG: You are a person of great kindness and generosity, so I suspect you will find a way to dodge this question gracefully. But I wonder: Is there any art you really hate.

VM: Hate is usually a great sign of interest, I can only hate things that I am somehow interested in and have a specific opinion about it. Bad art is usually the one that does not even deserve aversion. For that reason I don’t know much bad art because I ignore it and don’t remember it. Coming back to hate, interested hate, I hate art that attains the “look of art” by trying to be something other than art. This may sound old fashioned and retrograde but for me, if something doesn’t look like art, it probably isn’t.