Seeing Is Disbelief

by Dan Cameron

If nobody ever saw what everyone remembers, what exactly are those memories made of?

Vik Muniz, interview with Charles Stainback, 2001

For most of the first century following its invention, one of photography’s main goals was to persuade its viewer that it was faithfully recording reality. A primarily chemical process for registering rhe effects of light on chemically treated surfaces, and then relaying those effects to a second surface, and finally a third, photography was invariably viewed as a kind of objectifying medium, one that could only produce effects consistent with the materials it was offered. As the medium evolved though the 20th century, and interest waxed and waned in a vast range of variations on photography’s basic methods — from rayograms to holograms, the underlying principles remained more or less the same. Even when techniques were developed that underscored the essential artifice and illusion upon which the authority of the photographic print rested, such efforts were no less reliant on the unspoken consensus that the result of the process was still based on a kind of objectified reading of the outside world. Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, may have effectively dispensed with the aura of the original, but it left intact the tendency to interpret the photograph as visual evidence.

The paradox behind the reproduced photograph is even more destabilizing than that of the so-called original print, since by the creation of a potentially infinite number of identical copies, the possibility of a direct relationship to the subject that was first documented is stretched even further. In addition, an event that unites large portions of the civilized world by being captured in the form of indelible images is a profoundly different phenomenon than the same event experienced directly. This is particularly true in the case of tragedies and catastrophes, which have the power to disrupt the lives and well being of people who were thousands of miles away when the disaster took place. Because we tend not to question the conventions of mediated experience (in much the same way that we do not typically question the veracity of the photographic image), we are conditioned to regard as shared experiences things that took place when no one affected by the event was actually there to experience it directly. Collective memories, then, are more often than not the shared residue of fictions, illusions and reproductions, with the idea of authenticity saved for the ability to conjure up those memories with a strong degree of emotional empathy.

During the 1960s and 1970s, with the first expressions of art that fell outside the framework of specific objects intended for designated contexts, photography was re-introduced into the avant-garde as a way of registering moments in time and space that were produced for the sake of their intrinsically ephemeral nature. Performance art and earthworks, to take the most obvious examples, existed at such a phenomenological remove from the art gallery and museum that artists took up photography as a way of indicating that what had been claimed to take place was, in fact, capable of being documented. The works of Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson — or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul McCarthy and Carolee Schneemann — would have been lost to successive generations without the use of photography as a documentary tool. And yet this return of the camera to the field of experimental art practice opened up a kind of trap door in the more metaphysical question of illusion and reality. By revisiting the tradition of the photo as a kind of proof that something actually took place, an entire generation of artists found themselves at the brink of one of the most far-reaching transformations in the idiom of the photograph since the medium first came into existence.

The advent of post-modernity, which has been credited with many drastic transformations in the way that art is made and appreciated, signals the end of an era in which one could speak coherently of an idea of –truth– with regard to any system of art-making. Art, in its post-modern incantation, became transformed into a system of references to analogues and precedents that, taken together, made up a historical context in which all notions of invention were categorized and evaluated. To speak of art’s great lie, or perhaps its systematic untruth, was to pay tribute to its unyielding essence as a cultural operation in which nobody was fooled, least of all the artist or the viewer. In Cindy ShermanÕs early photographs, which have frequently been cited as one of the first major artistic accomplishments of the post-modern era, lay out this dilemma with persuasive authority. We know that the artist wishes to pay a kind of homage to cinematic tropes of the past, but we also know that she has no interest in fooling us into accepting them as the real thing. As a consequence, Sherman’s untitled film stills invite us to occupy a previously untapped critical realm, in which the unveiling of an illusion becomes an act of liberation from the need to invest our belief in the first place. Our acceptance of Sherman’s ‘trick’ coincides with a similar recognition that the photograph is no more a verifiable record of what happened in front of the camera lens than it is a vehicle for any kind of essential truth about its purported subject.

Vik Muniz first showed his work to a gallery-going public at a moment when the post-modern transformation of critical and creative norms was no longer in its infancy, but had advanced to the point where the notion of the artwork as an elaborate falsehood was celebrated as a genuine emancipation. Rather than extend Sherman’s infatuation with the cinematic parallels to making photographs, however, Muniz began to investigate the phenomenon of collective memory as it existed in his own life, and to insert an additional layer in the form of drawing. As is well known by now, Muniz bought a copy of the book The Best of Life in the early 1980s, and marveled at its capacity for bringing together a collection of images that had defined many of the historical milestones of his life up to that point. After losing the book on a beach some years later, he gave himself the task of trying to recreate the images he had studied through the act of drawing. Although he did not think of drawing as his given medium, he tried as faithfully as possible to capture the images stored in his memory. Once the series was complete, however, Muniz realized that the best way to present them was not in their status as unique objects, but as photographs taken to record the drawings’ existence. By 1990, The Best of Life, Muniz’ first body of work in his signature style was complete, incorporating images ranging from John Lennon in his ‘immortal NewYork City’ T-shirt to the lone protestor confronting Chinese tanks at Tianamen Square.

Although a few more years would pass before Muniz narrowed in exclusively on this initial embrace of the photograph as a kind of false document, in retrospect the simplicity of the solution is striking. Still struggling to define a methodology in which illusion functioned as a way of letting the viewer in on the joke, Muniz labored to construct visual puns that set up a kind of logical premise and then just as methodically tore it apart. Photography figured prominently in some of these works, as for example the 1989 piece Arrangement, which consisted of 16 identical black-and-white photographs of a bird flying in formation. The photos were installed in a V-shape instantly familiar to anyone who has observed a flock of birds moving across the sky in a formation in which the uniqueness of each animal is subordinated to the behavior of the group. Just as often, however, Muniz produced sculptures in which the notion of the copy became a kind of antidote to his own ambition to impress his ideas on the viewer’s memory. Probably the best-known of these latter works is the 1989 skull in which the clown’s bulbous nose has retained its shape even after the fictitious flesh has fallen away.

As the climate for art-making shifted during the early 1990s, away from the Pop-inflected work typified by artists like Jeff Koons and towards a more socially-driven idea of content, Muniz found himself increasingly at odds with the artistic mainstream. Viewed within the context of their period, his 1993 series Equivalents seems stubbornly attached to the nearly anachronistic notion of the photograph as a field where fact and deception go hand in hand. They are also among his most accomplished works, fusing layers of art history and universal depictions of nature as part of a running joke about the insubstantiality of all perception.  The Equivalents photos, which required the fabrication elaborate cotton-ball sculptures to simulate the recognizable images suggested by passing clouds, play with the double illusion of photography and clouds, even implying a kind of convergence between the two. The most compelling point of the series, however, deals with the highly transitory nature of the visual evidence documented by the photos. The sheer time and patience required to make the cotton-ball sculptures, and the tricks of lighting and suspension that produced the illusion of clouds, might appear to be a kind of visual parlor trick, but the ease with which the two illusions fold into one another is nonetheless deeply satisfying. It is as if we begin to feel a strong resonance with the artist’s ongoing task of unmasking photography’s veil of illusion, thanks to the degree to which this process connects with the sorts of visual daydreams that inhabit our daily lives. As we allow the images to work their effect on us, the more we feel increasingly justified in wanting to embrace truth and illusion at the same time.

Another reason the Equivalents series is so effective derives from the playful contrast between the solidity of the forms depicted, and the insubstantial means by which they have been attained. This same dichotomy occurs in many of Muniz’ successive series, including Pictures of Wire (1993-97), which highlights the intertwined flatness of the constructed forms and the perspectival space that they occupy partly as a result of their sheer familiarity. His Shadowgrams (1993-94), created from X-rays of hands making shadow puppets, are the most obvious visual puns of this period of his work, since they toy with the equivalence between light that moves around solid objects, and invisible waves that pass right through them. However, it is not until the Pictures of Thread (1995-97) that Muniz achieves the same degree of the uncanny that he manages in Equivalences, and for much the same reasons. As its title suggests, this series relies on the labor-intensive process of arranging accumulation of thread to create the image that is then photographed. For the first time, however, Muniz dips into art historical sources, specifically a genre of 19th century landscape painting in which the intrusion of manmade elements into nature is the ostensible subject. Although the casual viewer may not recognize specific references to paintings by Courbet, Corot or Lorrain, the tangled textures of the thread are enough to underscore the contrast between the force of unbridled nature and the painstaking effort with which the artist had to tease the images into existence. Muniz’ choice of sources even seems to underscore his precursors’ efforts to depict the action of wind within a painting — a visual pun that further amplifies the precarious state in which the threads exist prior to being photographed.

The theme of a fragile pictorial construction which is then transformed into a lasting photographic image is the basic dynamic that informs virtually all of Muniz’ most significant work from the past decade. However, in his series The Sugar Children (1996) he makes a fairly startling foray into subject matter that is both politically sensitive and culturally astute, and a working material that is entwined with that subject matter. Following a Caribbean beach vacation during which he befriended a number of young children living in the region, he was struck by the contrast between their happiness and the resigned attitudes of their parents, many of whom worked long hours for low wages in the sugar industry. Preoccupied by the disparity between the cultural image of sugar and the conditions under which it is produced, Muniz set out to portray the children that he had met using sugar as the transitional medium. This was the first time Muniz worked with subjects that were not either recognizable as icons or completely abstract, and his technique was to sprinkle the sugar onto a darkened background, thereby creating a kind of negative space out of which their faces emerge. Even without knowing the background behind this series, the combination of virtuosic rendering and unabashed poignancy makes The Sugar Children one of the high points in Muniz’ work to date.

Having embraced sugar as an everyday substance with very specific cultural implications, it is not surprising that Muniz next turned to chocolate, the most sensuous and erotic of foods, and in some ways an even greater technical challenge. Choosing chocolate syrup because of its liquid consistency and reflective properties, his Pictures of Chocolate (1997-98) is perhaps his widest-ranging series, recalling The Best of Life in its efforts to capture iconic subjects ranging from Sigmund Freud to Jackson Pollock in the studio. One of the points about Pictures in Chocolate that remains remarkable — besides the baffling question of how the artist was able to produce such strikingly lifelike representations — concerns the issue of drying time. The viscous properties of the chocolate syrup are only intact for as long as it remains wet, a point that seems to converge poetically with Muniz’ specific interest in images from the past. Even a subject as hackneyed as Leonardo’s The Last Supper actually regains something of its original drama from the viewer’s implicit awareness that the material being used to create the image is not behaving according to its natural properties. The fact that Jesus and his apostles are rendered in a moment of relative action has been retrieved by way of Muniz’ ability to also convey the moment of suspense before the entire creation loses its consistency and begins to run together.

An almost moralistic subtext seems to inform the Pictures of Soil series (1997-98), due in large part to the religious invocation of dust and soil as the substance from which life emerged and to which it will return. Although Muniz does not limit himself to representations of the human figure in this series — animals and objects also figure into his program — the images of the outstretched hands or the child’s torso are clearly the most affecting. Reinforcing the mental association between dirt and mortality, these images succeed in communicating, as few works in Muniz’ oeuvre attempt to do, the fleeting nature of human existence. A vanitas project that recalls the long art historical tradition of the memento mori, the Pictures of Soil also seem to mark a turning point in Muniz’ working methods. In the past few years he has begun to move away from his abiding preoccupation with photographic illusion, enabling the viewer to see behind the methods and techniques that have brought his work to the attention of an audience which now extends beyond the limits of the art world. His use of sky-writing to create images of clouds, for example, or his project to temporarily replace the fade of the Brooklyn Academy of Music with billboard-scaled images of the same structure made out of gingerbread and then blown up, suggest that Muniz’ characteristically restless nature has propelled him away from subjects and methods that are familiar to him.

At this point in his artistic development, Muniz has succeeded in developing an entire idiom that belongs exclusively to him, and which is almost instantly recognizable. Although the images he has produced run the gamut from gimmicky to profound, and from comic to moribund, they share a propensity for giving visual form to a dilemma that is particular to our age but with more far-reaching implications. How does a culture that relentlessly produces far too many visual images for any single consciousness to process re-invest the act of seeing with a sense of both pleasure and provocation? Muniz’ solution, although sometimes open to criticism for being overtly populist, is notable for possessing the considerable virtue of being able to frame issues of theoretical import with a directness that enable viewers who have little knowledge of contemporary art to somewhat appreciate the dilemma that artists today face. The challenge is not so much one of creating something new or original, as of presenting an image of the world today that corresponds with the dilemmas faced by those who face their culture skeptically, but also with a need to create. A debunker of illusion with a strongly ebullient bent, Muniz looks at the act of seeing things, asks us to reconsider it from another perspective, and then implores us to celebrate for all its limitations and inconsistencies. He does not invite us to imagine a world that doesn’t exist, or to help him envision the impossible, but to experience the world we already know, only as if we were seeing it for the very first time.