String, Space and Surface in the Photography of Vik Muniz by Sandra Plummer


This article examines three  series of works by the artist  Vik Muniz— Pictures of ThreadPiranesi Prisons and Pictures of  Wire. These works employ a string-like  material to convey pictorial  space. The “string” is utilized in  different ways: to create a type of  landscape tapestry, as a drawing  constructed through “string art”  techniques, and to make sculptural  drawings. The use of string  provides a three-dimensional  element to the work, yet this  apparent three-dimensionality jars  with the presentation of the work  as photographs of the original  drawings. This article proposes an  analysis of the work as reflexive  examinations of the photograph.  The structure of the article follows  the movement from the nomadic  quality of the string in Pictures of  Thread, through to the taut grid  construction of Piranesi Prisons  and, finally, to the tensile rigid  “string” oi  Pictures of Wire. The  first section considers Muniz’s   Pictures of Thread and Piranesi  Prisons series in relation to  pictorial space and the haptic.  The second section examines   Pictures of Wire as an example of  trompe t’oei! and simulacra. The  article concludes by considering  the flatness of the photograph in  relation to a Deleuzian account of  surface.

Sandra Plummer is an artist and writer. She is  a research sludent at the London Consorlium/  Birkbeck College, University ot London.  Her research focuses on the ontology of the  photograph in contemporary art.  Textile. Volume 5. Issue 2. pp. 230-243  DOl: 10.2752/175183507X219533  Reprints aiiailable direclly from the Publishers.  Photocopying permitted bv licence only.  © 2007 Berg. Printed in the United Kingdom.

String, Space and Surface in the Photography of Vik Muniz


String is my foible. My pockets get  full of little hanks of it, picked up  and twisted together, ready for uses  that never come. I am seriously  annoyed if anyone cuts the string  of a parcel instead of patiently and  faithfully undoing it fold by fold.  (Elizabeth Gaskell)’

In her discussion of Cornelia  Parker’s use of string in an earlier  issue of this journal, Claire  Pajaczkowska conceives of it as  “the loose reverie of thinking”  (2005: 245). Pajaczkowska’s  conception of string removes  it from its categorization as  ubiquitous multi-purpose stuff.  String transcends the everyday and  becomes a metaphor for thought.  This association, between thinking  and string, is one that I wish to  draw out through an examination  of the work of the artist Vik Muniz.  I propose that Muniz takes the  string for a walk, in a way that is  analogous to Paul Klee’s aphorism  on drawing—the string becomes  an active line on a walk.^ The  active quality of the line becomes  like Ariadne’s thread, tugging the  viewer through the labyrinthine  surfaces of the work. ForGilles  Deleuze, the philosophical concept  of surface engenders a redirection  of thought. In Deleuze’s terms,  surface “provokes a reorientation  of thought and of what it means  to think: there is no longer depth  and height” (Deleuze 2004:148).  The encounter between string and  surface that occurs in Pictures  of Thread, Piranesi Prisons  and  Pictures of Wire creates a  complexity that disrupts the  linearity of thought in the viewer.  We move from the singularity of the  image to a multiplicity of surfaces.     

Pictures of Thread 

Vik Muniz was born in Sao Paulo,  Brazil and is currently based in  New York. Muniz’s art consists of  photographs, but Muniz is not a  conventional photographer. “Vik  Muniz does not take photographs,”  insists Germano Celant, “he  materializes them” (Celant 2003:  13). Muniz creates images to be  photographed. Often recreating  famous artworks or iconic  photographs, Muniz presents us  not with this recreation but with  its photographic reproduction. In  the essay “An Ethics of Illusion,”  Moacir dos Anjos highlights the  difference between the creation of  the originals and the photograph;  while the former “is done slowly,  with a craftsman’s art, calling  attention to the way it was made”  the taking of the photograph is  “instantaneous” (dos Anjos 2004:  47). Something happens in the  transformation from crafted image  to its photographic double. The  substitution of Muniz’s original by  the photograph adds another layer  to the artwork; it opens up a new  kind of perceptual space and calls  attention to representation itself.  Muniz’s work is predominantly  concerned with the act of  effects. Much of Muniz’s work  demonstrates his wish to challenge  the perception of the viewer. There  is an undeniable magic in the work  of Muniz, yet it is a magic that  always seeks to reveal its artifice.  Muniz aims to present what he  calls the “worst possible illusion  that will still fool the eyes” (Muniz  1998: i6). Muniz’s subject matter  often resonates with his choice of  material, a fact that is particularly  evident in a series such as The  Sugar Children (portraits of the  children of sugar cane plantation  workers rendered in sugar), or in  his reworking of The Last Supper  in chocolate syrup. Muniz’s works  in string may not seem to offer  the same resonance between the  subject matter and material. Yet  these works employ string in a  manner that affirms its physicality.  String is not used here as a mere  tool to represent something else;  string represents itself, string  becomes the subject.

Muniz describes his early  works as “hybrids” between image  and object (Muniz 2005: 22).  Tug of War from 1989 is a good  example of such a hybrid. Tug of  War consists of two photographs  placed a few feet apart, each  depicting a person pulling on one  end of a rope. The rope they are  pulling on is represented by an  actual rope suspended between  the photographs. Muniz says that  his work is not made to confuse,  “but to destabilize the viewer’s  notion of what a photograph is”  (Muniz 1998:17). What Muniz’s  work materializes is not images so  much as their act of reproduction;  his photographs manifest the  photograph as photograph.

For Muniz, photography is “the  ultimate evolution of painting,” but  it is a medium where you do not  see the marks of its construction.  Muniz is intent on making these  marks visible (Muniz 2003: 41).

“Cicero put it very well when  he said that the passage of time  is similar to the unravelling ofa  thread” (Deleuze 2004:164).    Vik Muniz’s  Pictures of Thread  are copies of famous landscape  paintings created with cotton  thread. However, the thread is not  used in the conventional way—it  is neither stitched nor attached to  the canvas but used as a threedimensional  drawing material.

These works are line drawings in  thread rather than embroidery or  tapestry. There is a performative  element in the creation of these  works; Muniz states that he took  the idea of the “accidental” to  these landscapes (Muniz 2005:  51). Although there is an original  motif, it serves as an inspiration  rather than dictatinga pattern.  Muniz chose complex pictures or  paintings that seemed to define  the development of the genre.  The picture is created by Muniz  unspoolingyards of thread on  top ofa light box—the amount  of thread used subsequently  becomes the title of the piece.  The actual  Pictures of Thread exist  only to be photographed; they  function like the mythic shroud of  Penelope^—the thread constantly  unravelled and reused.

20,000 Yards (The Castle  at Bentheim, after Jacob van  Ruisdael) (Figure 1) is a copy of The  Castle at Bentheim by the Dutch  seventeenth-century landscape  painter Jacob van Ruisdael.  Ruisdael made a series of paintings  of Bentheim Castle but this  particular painting was completed  in 1651. There is an obvious  similarity between the original  image and Muniz’s rendering of  it—we can make out the trees on  the left, foliage in the foreground  and a central meandering path  which winds its way towards the  horizon where a castle is perched  on a hill. 20,000 Yards looks like  a tangled embroidery—a mass of  threads, but individual lengths  have been skilfully teased out to  form details such as the branches  of trees, the roof of a house, the  outline ofa turret. Yet 20,000 Yards  is a monochrome drawing rendered  in burnt umber thread and provides  no indication of the color, light  or space of the original painting.  There are two figures on horseback  in the Ruisdael, the bright red tunic  of the figure on the right contrasts  vividly with the ochre background;  these figures do not appear in the  Muniz rendition. The fallen beech  tree in the immediate foreground  that serves to exaggerate the depth  in the Ruisdael landscape does not  appear in 20,000 Yards.

The thread in 20,000 Yards  appears to project from the  ground, demonstrating that this  is not a flat depiction but a type  of three-dimensional relief. The  picture seems to expand outwards  drawing the viewer closer to the  snaking thread and to its tangled  depths. Looking at the loops of  the thread, we are reminded of  Derrida’s analysis of Van Gogh’s  painting of peasant shoes—where  the loop of the undone lace  functioned as a trap, “a leash.” For  Derrida, “the picture is caught in  the lace” and here we get caught  in the spider’s web of thread (Derrida 1987: 277, 331). Yet our  desire to touch the silken texture of  the thread is indefinitely deferred  since this is a photograph. The  apparent depth belongs to the  absent original picture rather than  to the photograph we see. The  photograph of the work transforms  the depth of the actual thread to  the status of a representation of  depth. Our focus moves across  the picture from form to ground,  from thread to void, from depth to  shallowness. The string leads us  through a multitude of surfaces  rather than an abyss of depths.

Landscape paintings rely on  pictorial conventions to represent  space. Since paintings offer the  viewer no sense of haptic space,  the painter will often exaggerate  spatial distance. In addition to the  use of scale to describe space, the  painter may distinguish between  distinct spatial planes by level  of detail, contrast and color. The  foreground has greatest detail  and contrast, the middle distance  less so and the background is  often rendered as most distant  through the use of atmospheric  perspective. Thus, far-off hills  String, Space and Surface in the Photography of Vik Muniz 235  may appear misty and rendered  in a lighter tone—in pale blues or  purples. As a genre, landscape  paintings tend towards larger  scale, and function as a panorama;  we need to stand back to see them  properly. Our bodies project Into  the painting, roaming amongst the  different planes.

20,000 Yards does not  conform to the conventions of  landscape painting. There is  little differentiation between the  treatment of far distance and  foreground; both are rendered  in the same color and tone and  with the same level of detail. This  picture is reduced to a single plane.  In contrast to the original Ruisdael,  20,000 Yards lacks a sense of  space and distance. The visual  clues for the eye are provided only  by scale, by the diminished size  of the castle in the distance or the  thinning pathway as it meanders  through the landscape. In 20.000  Yards, depth exists only in terms  of the thickness of the thread, but  even this depth is flattened by the  presentation of the photograph in  place of the original image.

In The Life of Forms in Art,  Henri Focillon notes that “man …  does not measure space with his  eyes but with his hands and feet”  (1989:162-3). A representation  of space, however, must provide  optical clues. Muniz reverses the  convention and presents us with  a landscape that prioritizes the  sense of touch. 20,000 Yards  transforms a genre dominated  by the optic into a space that  pertains to the haptic. The  illusionistic space of landscape  is replaced by an appeal to the  viewer’s tactile and haptic sense.  As Mark Paterson explains, the  haptic is not restricted to touch in  the sense of actual skin contact  but also extends to a notion of  “haptic space.”” Laura U. Marks  has formulated a concept of  “haptic visuality” that also extends  beyond the literal sense of touch.  For Marks, “haptic visuality” is “a  kind of seeing that uses the eye  like an organ of touch.”^ 20,000  Yards seems to incite a haptic gaze  where the viewer ranges over the  texture and surface of the image  rather than delving into illusionistic  space. For Marks, “a haptic  composition appeals to tactile  connections on the surface plane of  the image” while the optical image  invites the viewer to perceive depth  (Marks 2000:162).

Most landscapes demand  viewing from a distance; 20,000  Yards, however, can only be  understood from close range; we  range over the surface, becoming  lost among the forest of threads.  It is interesting that the concept  of the haptic has its origins in the  analysis of the art historian and  curator of textiles, Alois Reigl.  Laura U. Marks asserts that it was  during his study of Persian carpets  that Riegl conceived his notion of  the haptic: “These carpets with  their endless, interleaved patterns  don’t allow the eye to rest in  one place; they invite the eye to  move along them, caressing their  surface” (Marks 2004). Pictures  of Thread perhaps share some of  the qualities that Riegl saw in his  research on textiles. In 20,000  Yards nothing recedes into the  distance; everything is close up  and demands close viewing.  Embroidery goes from point  to point, but 20,000 Yards runs  freely in lines traversing the  canvas, building up in clusters  here and there. Although we can  discern individual threads, they  do not appear rigidly connected  or knitted together to form a  cohesive pattern. Each thread is  not dependent on the existence of  another; the dropping of a stitch  would not weaken the structure.  Although some threads are teased  out into straight lines to define an  outline, most appear to freely roam  the landscape. The threads inhabit  the space nomadically without  fixed settlement, the intersection  occurs only at a surface level.  There is no interpenetration of  thread and no attachmentto the  support. 20,000 Yards is an image  of pure surface—there is nothing  underneath or behind it.

It is interesting to note that  Muniz approached Pictures  of Thread by thinking of the  landscape as “a sense of infinity”  where distance was “compressed  within a very thin surface.”  Thinking about distance, Muniz  remembered that metered thread  was used in Brazil to measure  land. Muniz’s inspiration for  using thread also arose from his  childhood recollection of using it  to make kites.  Pictures of Thread  resonate with this memory. For  Muniz, thread embodies “an  abstract way of conquering  distance and measurement”  (Muniz 2005: 51). The conquering  of distance is achieved in 20,000  Yards by the inversion of depth for  length and by the compression of  this length on to a pictorial surface.  In 20,000 Yards the extended  length of the thread suggests  an encompassed landscape, but  the spatial depth and distance  collapses. The transformation  236 Sandra Plummer  from picture to photograph further  erodes the remaining depth of the  thread and compresses distance  onto a flatter surface. The title  oi 20,000 Yards emphasizes the  length of the thread and perhaps  it is only this that persists in the  representation of space.

Piranesi Prisons 

How could Socrates recognise  himself in these caves that are no  longer his own? With what thread,  since the thread is lost? (Deleuze  1983:53}

Piranesi Prisons are drawings  after Piranesi’s Corcer/(or  prisons)^ etchings circa 1780.  At first glance. Prisons look  like architectural line-drawings  or etchings. However, closer  inspection reveals that the lines  and cross-hatchings consist of  thread. The method of construction  contrasts with the unwound  looseness of  Pictures of Thread.  In Prisons the picture is created  using string art techniques—the  thread is wound tight around  thousands of pins pressed into  a flat board. Muniz has spoken  of the shock of “two antagonistic  depth-perceptions” in the Prisons  series—the perspective and the  shallow relief of the thread that  exists on a raised surface above  the flat ground. The convergence  of media (the three-dimensional  relief of the raised thread with  the rendering of that thread  to suggest linear perspective)  provokes confusion in the viewer.  This confusion is exacerbated by  the presentation of the work as a  two-dimensional photograph (the  actual three-dimensional space  thus collapses into illusionistic  space). Muniz plays with the  paradoxical coexistence of media,  seeking to produce an affect  of both “expansiveness” and  “claustrophobia” in the viewer  (Muniz 2005: 55}. The ambiguity  in the image provokes fascination  and vacillation so that the viewer  becomes trapped in the picture.    

The Gothic Arch is an  impressive recreation of a Piranesi  “prison of the imagination.” The  picture shows multiple floors  of gothic halls, arches, and  passageways v\/ith labyrinthine  staircases. The stairways,  populated by anonymous dark  figures, are reminiscent of M.C.  Escher’s illusions of impossible  staircases. In The Gothic Arch,  however, there is a perspective of  a different order. The use of thread  as a three-dimensional drawing  material competes with the space  it seeks to convey. The actual  depth of the thread disrupts the  perspectival depth. This is most  apparent in those areas where  strands are wound together to  form the suspended chains that  hang from the protruding beams.  The texture of the chains of thread  operates as a relief against the  neat taut lines of perspective  that (in contrast) recede into the  background. The individualization  of single threads from the mass  undoes the three-dimensional  illusion of perspective and breaks  the “surface” of the picture.

String and Line 

In Vik Muniz’s  Pictures of Thread  and Piranesi Prisons, the string  operates as a substitute line for  that of a pencil or etching. Yet  the materiality of the string and  its use as a three-dimensional  line competes with its attempt  to convey depth. The notion of a  three-dimensional line in art may  seem paradoxical; tines function  to provide contour, describe an  outline or enclose a surface.  Muniz’s string, however, resists  this demand, transcending the  status of line and becoming  surface. The string returns us  instead to the original meaning  of “line.” As Hillis Miller reminds  us, “the word line comes from  a root lino meaning linen, flax”  (Hillis Miller 1992: 7). The clumped  lines in  Pictures of Thread and  Piranesi Prisons that reflect  the thread’s fibrous origin also  resonate with the origin of “line”  itself. The unspooling process of   Pictures of Thread produces an  apparently unstructured mesh  of unspun fibres, echoing the  beginning of thread manufacture.  In Piranesi Prisons, however,  the process of the work is more  advanced, as is the resulting  spatial representation. The  thread is unspooled in order to be  “woven” and the lines are fastened  and restrained. The grid-like  construction of the picture echoes  the loom and the interlacing of  lines mimics the interweaving of  warp and weft.  The loose string of mapped  landscapes in  Pictures of Thread  becomes the taut threads of linear  perspective in Piranesi Prisons.  The movement from landscape to  architectural interior also indicates  a shift from an expanse of open  space to a closed, contained one.  The haptic or tactile quality of the  string in Muniz’s work disrupts  the representation of space and  produces multiple surfaces.

James Elkins has reiterated  Muniz’s claim to make the “worst  possible illusion.” Writing on  6,200 Yards (Lighthouse), Elkins  states that “Despite Muniz’s skill  at traditional, academic drawing,  string just does not make good  waves, and if you look closely you  can see the threads looping back,  as if the water was full of eels. The  string painting demonstrates its  insufficiency, but reluctantly.”‘  The reinforced string in Pictures  of Wire, and the close focus on  domestic objects, takes us yet  further from the openness of   Pictures of Thread. It is in Pictures that the  string becomes  most comp/ex and knotted, losing  its linearity and becoming a threedimensional  surface.^     

Pictures of Wire: Trompe i’oeil  and Simulacra

Line is the thread of Ariadne, which  leads us through the labyrinth of  millions of natural objects. Without  line we would be lost.

Pictures of Wire are line-drawings  of everyday objects. Yet the line is  not so much drawn as sculpted.  As with the pictures created using  thread, the lines here consist  ofa string-like material that  exists in relief.  Pictures of Wire,  however, are three-dimensional  forms modelled in wire rather  than drawings. The wire forms  appear to project from the white  background—there is a discernable  shadow and advancing form.  Yet something is not quite right;  Pictures of Wire are photographs  of the wire sculptures. Our  attention switches between  the picture as image and the  picture as form: between two-dimensional  representation and  three-dimensional form. Pictures  of Wire hover between illusionistic  two-dimensional space and actual  three-dimensional depth. Vik  Muniz has said that Pictures of Wire arose as a response to seeing  Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Baptistery  Doors—Porfo del Paradiso.^° The  inspiration is not immediately  apparent; however, Muniz explains  that it is the meeting of two media,  the convergence of drawing and  three-dimensional relief that most  impressed him about the work. For  Muniz, this meeting of different  media results in an overwhelming  of the senses of the spectator so  that the confused eye “is arrested  in the surface of the picture”  (Muniz 2005: 46).

Fiat Lux is a drawing  ofa light bulb sculpted in wire.  The bulb appears to hang from an  invisible ceiling in an undefined  space with only a shadow behind  the hanging wire and behind the  suspended filament to suggest  space. The selection of such a  banal everyday object seems an  uninspiring choice for a picture,  yet Muniz is not interested in the  subject matter so much as the  form that it takes. The content  of  Pictures of Wire lies not in the  object of representation, but in  the operation of spatial illusion.   Pictures of Wire operate as  trompe /’oe;7—”tricking the eye”  of the viewer. It is interesting  to note Baudrillard’s assertion  that the objects of trompe I’oeil  are invariably banal—”Their  insignificance is offensive.””  Still-life paintings are the most  common form of trompe t’oeil  painting. The specific genre of  “quodlibet” paintings (literally  “what you please,” or “anything  at all”) particularly conform to  Baudrillard’s accusation of banality  in the trope l’oeil tradition.’^  Muniz’s selection of objects in   Pictures of Wire fit the trompe l’oeil  criteria: a light bulb, a suitcase, an  ashtray, objects that recede into  the everyday.

However, the operation of  trompe l’oeil in Fiat Lux is not to  be confused with the traditional  form of trompe l’oeil painting; it is  not the verisimilitude of Muniz’s  representation of the light bulb  that fools us. In Fiat lux the viewer  is not tricked by the artifice of  painted illusion or by the veracity  of the representation of the light  bulb. There are at least two distinct  moments of illusion that operate  in Fiat Lux. The first occurs with the  three-dimensional rendering of  an object in a material (wire) that  can be read as a two-dimensional  line drawing, thereby causing  a convergence of diverse forms  of representation and of their  respective spatial dimensions. The  second moment compounds the  first ambiguity; the presentation of  the work as a photograph causes  the collapse of these spatial  distinctions. It is the transparency  of photography that facilitates this  ambiguity between the photograph  and the original. The photograph  functions like a window that  opens on to the world but this  transparent medium becomes  invisible through the presentation  of its image.  Pictures of Wire force  this transparency to collapse  making the photograph visible as  photograph.

The trompe I’oeil in Pictures  of Wire operates through the  substitution of a two-dimensional  photographic representation for  its three-dimensional referent. The  resemblance of the photograph  to the actual sculptural drawing  operates on more than one level—it  is not simply that the photographic  representation resembles the  original, but that we become  unable to determine the difference  between the two. There is a short  circuit in the viewer’s perception,  a disruption of their assumed  perception of depth from the  confusing visual cues provided.  The uncertainty we experience in   Pictures of Wire is analogous to  that produced by optical illusions  (particularly in cases where the  ambiguity, like that in Pictures of  Wire, is facilitated by a simplistic  wire-frame drawing). In Pictures  of Wire we cannot see both the  “drawing” and the photograph  at the same time; the result is  that our perception flips between  the assumed three-dimensional  object and the actual photographic  surface.

In Pictures of Wire the viewer  experiences an overwhelming of  the senses, yet the experience is  also marked by a return to self,  a return to rationality and to the  capacity to distinguish between  appearances and reality. The  confusion gives way to reflection  and to a reassertion of the  physicality of the photograph.  The phenomenon that occurs in   Pictures of Wire is not unlike the  experience of the sublime. In the  case of  Pictures of Wire the affect  is induced by a representation,  rather than nature.  Pictures of Wire  embody the delineation of art as  semblance in Plato’s The Republic.  For Plato, the artist’s copy is  “something which resembles ‘what  is’ without being it” (Plato 1987:  362). Muniz’s work functions like  a simulacrum: the photograph  5/mu/afesthe appearance of the  actual.’J  Pictures of Wire are not  simply copies of reality but copies  of copies of reality whose effect is  contingent on the conflation of the  copy and the real.

Baudrillard draws an analogy  between simulacra and trompe  I’oeil, situating the latter as antirepresentation,  as “simulacra without perspective.” The objects  of trompe l’oeil are not real  objects; for Baudrillard, they do not  describe reality but “the void and  absence” of representation. There  is an additional void in Pictures of  Wire: not only are the objects not  real, but the shadows produced by  them are not real either. It is the  shadows in Fiat Lux that initially  reveal the three-dimensionality  of the wire drawing but, in the  transformation from actual object  to photograph, the shadows serve  to deceive the eye. The shadows in  the photographs cause distortion  in our depth perception causing us  to believe that the objects we see  are real. It is not that the shadows  are not real (they are the shadows  cast by the original object), but  the shadows that are presented  in Fiat Lux are photographs of  shadows. These shadows belong to  another space and time—they are  not shadows whose light source  we share. It is interesting to note  Baudrillard’s reflections on trompe  L’oeil again—”The sun that shines  upon them is very different …This  shadow does not move with the  sun.” The shadows we perceive in  Fiat Lux are simulacra: shadows of  internal depth that pre-exist the  viewer and belong to the realm of  representation. These shadows  belong to another world, not to  the one from which we view the  image.  Pictures of Wire emphasize  that the photograph belongs to the  past—to what has been, so that the  photograph always precedes us.  The “depth”of ffoftuxisone that  is, in Baudrillard’s terms, internal  fof/jewor/c (Baudrillard 1988:  Photography is often  characterized by its capacity to  produce an incomparable copy  of reality. Vik Muniz’s Pictures  of Thread, Piranesi Prisons  and  Pictures of Wire series,  however, transcend the notion  of the photograph as a copy and  demonstrate instead its potential  to operate as a simulacrum. In   Pictures of Thread, Piranesi Prisons  and Pictures ofWirethe actual  depth of the work is transformed  into a flattened representation by  the substitution ofa photograph  in place of the original object. This  occurs nnost notably in Pictures  of Wire, where the shadows that  “prove” the three-dimensionality  have become representation.   Pictures of Wire have a particular  relation with space; they do  not represent it, but envelop it.  The three-dimensional model  encapsulates space; the wire  outline delineates the space it  encompasses. The representation  of space occurs only through  the movement from object to  photograph. The string in Pictures  of Wire is not the string on the  surface of  Pictures of Thread, nor  the string on a raised surface of  Piranesi Prisons. The rigid string  in  Pictures of Wire has become  separate from the surface;  it generates its own surface  pushing its way through to the  photographic surface.

For Deleuze, there is a relation  between simulacra and surface;  simulacra may take us in two  directions at once but they are  always ascending to the surface.  Surface is conceived as the space  where meaning exists. Deleuze  attributes the origin of this concept  to the ancient philosophy of  Stoicism.”‘ The concept of surface  has important philosophical  implications because, in Deleuze’s  terms, it provokes a reorientation  of thought. The Deleuzian concept  of surface is of a space where  events occur—”Everything that  happens and everything that is  said happens or is said at the  surface” (Deleuze 2004:150). This  conception of surface, however,  is not to be read in opposition to  depth, or as a ground on which  events unfold.’^ Rather, surface is  a place of continuous unfolding  and becoming that enters into  composition with the effects that  cause it.

Surfaces are what are visible to  the eye; photographs, however,  deny their surfaces for the images  they depict. Yet the photograph  always signifies on the surface.  The operation of the photograph  is an endless movement of depth  becoming surface, of surface  becoming depth. We can draw a  parallel between the experience  of being photographed and Alice’s  String, Space and Surface in the Photography of Vik Muniz  entry through the Looking-Glass:  Deleuze remarks that Alice releases  her “incorporeal double” and that  it is “by skirting the surface, that  one passes from bodies to the  incorporeal” (Deleuze 2004:12).  Vik Muniz’s  Pictures of Thread,  Piranesi Prisons and Pictures of  Wire reveal the movement from  embodiment to the incorporeal.  The “string” is made into an  “image” then to be photographed;  there is a double transition from  object to image. The string that  skirts the surface in Muniz’s art  loses its actual physicality in the  transformation from original object  to photograph. The substitution of  a photographic image in the place  of the object is not immediately  apparent, the manipulation of  string (as a three-dimensional  drawing material) enables the  perceptual ambiguity to take place.  However, this uncertainty also  provokes a counter movement  from image to object—the initial  invisibility of the photograph  gives way to a renewed visibility of  the photographic surface. As the  illusion becomes clear, the threedimensional  dravi/ing is revealed  as a depthless image and the  dematerialized object gives way  to a re-materialized photograph.  The dematerialization of string is  exchanged for a materialization  of the photograph as such and  for an affirmation of the string as  representation. The transparency  of photography, that which made  the illusion possible, is rendered  opaque. The interaction between  string and surface reinstates the  photograph; the photograph  becomes an ob/ecf rather than the  image it depicts.

String is ubiquitous and  multi-purpose; it ties, secures,  tightens, attaches, loops, lassoes.  It is cord, filament, thread, fibres,  sinews, skein, and twine. String  is a liminal material that operates  on the threshold between stuff  and equipment. Vik Muniz’s   Pictures of Thread, Piranesi  Prisons and  Pictures of Wire  employ string in ways that both  reveal and transcend its everyday  use. In Pictures ofThreadthe  string becomes a visual medium  that acquires a form through  its unspooling. The string art  techniques of Piranesi Prisons  employ string in a manner that  is closer to its everyday use: it is  the wrapping and securing of the  thread that creates the picture.  The rigid string of P/cfureso/lV/re  recalls the use of string to define  or to enclose. Muniz’s string  measures, encompasses and  envelops space; it becomes more  than outline, corresponding to  what Riegl describes as “relief.”‘^  String can be used to restrain  us—to impede our progress, but  it can also be used to help us find  our way. The string in Muniz’s  work demonstrates the qualities  of tension and resistance; but  the tines also suggest direction.  It is by following the string that  we discover the surface. String  eschews the role of pure line in  Muniz’s art, resists delineation,  and is always disrupting the  surface and creating new ones—it  in this capacity that it renders the  photographic surface visible.


I would like to thank Parveen  Adams and Steven Connor from  the London Consortium for their  comments on earlier drafts of  this article. My thanks also go  to Diarmuid Costello and to the  reviewers of this article for their  comments. Finally, I would like to  thank the artist Vik Muniz for  providing the images and copyright.


1. See the “Old Letters” section  of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford  (1993) originally published in  1853, pp. 75-6.1 am grateful  to J. Hillis Miller (1992) for his  citation of this quote in his  Ariadne’s Thread.

2. Klee’s quote generally appears  as “taking a line for a walk” and  his drawing is also referred to  as a “walking-line.” Frank Gehry  (2004) quotes Klee: “an active  line on a walk, moving freely. A  walk for a walk’s sake” (p. 13).

3. Penelope, the faithful wife of  Odysseus, wove her design for  a shroud for her father-in-law  Laertes by day (but unravelled  it again at night) to keep her  suitors from claiming her during  the years while Odysseus was  away.

4. See Mark Paterson’s website,  particularly “The relation  between touch and space” for  an introduction to his research  and his concept of “haptic  spaces.” <http://www.ggy.bris.>,  accessed August 2006.

5. See Laura U. Marks. (2004).  “Haptic Visuality: Touching  with the Eyes.” Frameworii: the  Finnish Art Review 2 <http://  visitor/artikkelit/marks.htm>,  accessed August 2006. See  also Mark’s (2000) The Skin  of the Film: intercultural  242 Sandra Plummer  Cinema. Embodiment, and the  Senses.

6. In the accompanying text  for their Piranesi exhibition.  the National Academies  note that Piranesi changed  the title from the original  “Invenzioni Capric[ci} di Carceri  or ‘imaginary inventions  of prisons’ to Carceri  d’invenzione, or’prisons of the  imagination.'” <http://www7.  Piranesi_Muniz.html> accessed  August 2006.

7. James Elklns”‘The Most  InterestingThingthatcan be  done with Representation”  is available from Vik Muniz’s  website <http://www.vikmuniz.  net/main.html), accessed  August 2006.

8. I am paraphrasing Hillis Miller \i^.  (1992) here when he notes  that the linear may become  “complex” (thus losing its  linearity), “knotted, repetitive,  doubled, broken, phantasmal.”  p. 17.

9. j . Hillis Miller’s >lr/odne’s  Thread (1992) opens with this  quote by George Grosz on page  1 in a section on “line.” 

10. Muniz (2005) refers to  Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise  (1403) in Florence as  inspiration p. 46.  u. See Baudrillard (1988)—  “objects without referents,  out of context… like old 15.  newspapers, these old books,  these old nails” pp. 154-5.

12. 1 am grateful to OlafKoester  (2000) for these translations of  “quod libet” p. 25.

13. See Plato’s The Republic (1987)  Book Ten—”Theory of Art”  for an account of “imitation”  and the work of the artist (the  artist produces an appearance  or apparition of what they  represent, “something  which resembles ‘what is’  without being it.” Deleuze’s  account of “simulacra”  (1983) draws on the last  sections of Plato’s Sophist,  where Plato distinguishes  between “likeness-making”  and “appearance-making”  (a distinction which can be  simplified as “good copy”  and “bad copy” respectively).  Taking issue with Plato’s  inherent hierarchical  distinction, Deleuze  construes the terms as “iconic  copies (likenesses)” and  “phantasmatic simulacra  (semblances).”  Deleuze (2004) attributes  the origin of “surface” to the  Stoics, “The autonomy of the  surface, independent of, and  against depth and height… are  the important Stoic discoveries  against the pre-Socratics and  Plato” p. 150. According to  Deleuze, Stoic philosophy  was the first philosophy to  overturn Platonism. However,  in his discussion of Plato  and the Simulacrum (1983),  he claims that Plato was the  first to overturn Platonism  (with regard to his concept of  simulacra).  I am grateful here for Jean-Clet  Martin’s (1996) formulation  of “surface” in his essay “The  Eye of the Outside”—see  particularly pp. 18-19.  Alois Riegl (2004) views art as  either pertaining to form or to  surface-sculpture belongs to  the former and painting to the  String, Space and Surtace in the Photography of Vik Muniz 243  latter. The relief however “aims  to create a tactile surface  while breaking away from the  three-dimensional extension of  space,” p. 411.  References  Dos Anjos, M. (2004), “An Ethics of  Illusion,” in Vii< Muniz: Incomplete  Works, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:  Ministerio da Cultura, Fundagao  Biblioteca Nacional.  Baudrillard,). (1988), Selected  Writings, Mark Poster (ed.),  Cambridge: Polity Press.  Celant, G. (2003), “Mimesis of  Mimesis: Vik Muniz,” in Vik Muniz,  Milan: Mondadorio Electa.  Deleuze, G. (1983), “Plato and the  Simulacrum,” tr. Rosalind Krauss  October 27 (Winter) 45-56.  — (2004), The Logic of Sense, tr.  Mark Lester, London: Continuum.  Derrida, J. (1987), The Truth in  Painting, tr. Geoff Bennington.  Chicago: University of Chicago  Press.  Elkins, J. (2004), “The Most  InterestingThingthatcan be done  with Representation,” in VikMuniz:  Incomplete Works, Rio de Janeiro,  Brazil: Ministerio da Cuttura,  Fundagao  Biblioteca Nacional, <http://www. accessed  August 2006.  Focillon, H. (1989), The Life of  Forms in Art, tr. C.B. Hogan and G.  Kubler, London: Zone Books.  Gaskell, E. (1993), Cranford,  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions  Ltd.  Gehry, F. (2004), Gehry Draws,  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT  Press.  Hillis Miller, J. (1992), Ariadne’s  Thread, New Haven/London: Yale  University Press.  Koester, 0. (2000), Painted  Illusions: The Art of Cornelius  Gijsbrechts, London: National  Gallery.  Marks, L.U. (2000J, The Skin of  the Film: Intercultural Cinema,  Embodiment, and the Senses,  Durham/London: Duke University  Press.  — (2004), “Haptic Visuality:  Touching with the Eyes,” in  Framework: the Finnish Art Review  2 <http://www.framework. fi/2_  2oo4/visitor/artikkelit/marks.htm>  accessed August 2006.  Martin, J. (1996), “The Eye of the  Outside,” in Deleuze: A Critical  Reader, Paul Patton (ed.), Oxford:  Blackwell, pp. 18-28.  Muniz, V. (1998), “Vik Muniz and  Charles Ashley Stainback:  A Dialogue,” in VikMuniz:  Seeing Is Believing, Charles  Ashley Stainback and Mark Alice  Durant (eds), Santa Fe: Arena  Editions.  — (2003), “The Cunning Artificer,”  an interview with Vik Muniz by  Vincent Katz, in VikMuniz. Milan:  Mondadorio Electa.  — (2005), Reflex: A Vik Muniz  Primer, New York: Aperture.  Pajaczkowska, C. (2005), “On  Stuff and Nonsense: the  Complexity of Cloth,” in Textile:  The Iournal of Cloth and Culture 3  (3): 220-49.  Paterson, M. “The relation  between touch and space,”  <  postgraduates/ggmp> accessed  August 2006.  Plato (1987), The Republic, tr.  Desmond Lee, London: Penguin.  Plato (1993), Sophist, tr. Nicholas P.  White, Indianapolis: Hackett.  Riegl, A. (2004), Historical  Grammar of the Visual Arts, tr. J.  Jung, New York: Zone Books.