Articles by Vik

Surface Tension

by Vik Muniz

In a dark corner of the church of Santa Cecilia in São Paulo lies the mesmerizing image of the child-saint Santa Donata. Her prostrate position combined with the uncanny anatomical veracity and naturalistic coloring with which she is rendered gives visitors the charged sensation of watching someone sleep. The priest of this parish once confided to my grandmother that every two or three years, they had to open the glass casket in which the image rests, to trim her hair and fingernails because they had not stopped growing since the image arrived from Rome as a papal gift in the eighteenth century. The explanation of this miraculous phenomenon, legend has it, is that beneath the waxen surface of the statue is the actual body of the saint, preserved by a remarkable embalming technique. Its surface is meticulously worked to render the image true to life. In the 1930s, the image had to be encased in glass because skeptical visitors, drawn by the legend, would poke at the relic to see if it would bleed. Far removed from the Platonic geometry of the standard coffin, here we find a being encased in its own mimetic image.

I have often pictured those skeptics’ faces as they watched the dark blood ooze from the frail body of the saint, not sure if what they were witnessing could qualify as a miracle. Discovery, the unnominanted tenth muse, lures us with black holes, Klein bottles, and South American gods who live inside their own bellies, only to leave us with matroshki as consolation prizes. What is it that makes us desecrate sarcophagi and smash piñatas, travel to distant places and perform autopsies, repaint houses and wear costumes, slash canvases and wrap gifts? What is it that fuels this ritual of surface orchestration if not a fundamental predisposition toward pure and empty interpretation? Interpretation is the compulsive recycling of surfaces.

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

OSCAR WILDE, in a letter

As I stroll along a supermarket aisle, I notice that with the exception of those packages which contain liquids and powders, every single one bears a picture of its contents. If solid products were treated with the same ambiguity as liquids and powders, most packages would be opened illicitly. The instinctive understanding of perceptual shortcomings is the reason why people buy liquids in unillustrated packages when, epistemologically speaking, all contents of all packages share the same synecdochical mysteries inherent in powders and liquids.

Language as an organization of the more stable aspects of surface was devised to multiply the perceptions of seemingly fixed surfaces through representation. By enabling the senses to experience many surfaces at once, language has formulated a concept of depth and substance that convincingly probes the universe behind immediate sensorial stimuli. The problem is that, as this universe is experienced solely through representation, it is understood to be a feature of surface: Only surface communicates.

As language develops through the deliberate manipulation of representational surfaces, sophisticated systems of signs tend to become more superficial than primitive ones. In fact, what fuels linguistic evolution is this lapidarian thinning of surfaces. Photography, projected cinema or television are perfect examples of these attenuated surfaces. Knowledge is the painful longing for transparency and representation is its analgesic.

Varnish is to philosophy what formica is to politics: the isolating of surface into a manageable representational meta-structure of belief. The role of rhetoric is to simplify dichotomies existing in form, content, and substance into a dichotomy of representational surface and form, flattening complexity into a diagrammatic dimension. The fabrication of complex representational surfaces acts as a believable trompe l’oeil for depth and substance. If we consider the rhetoric of power as a quest for surface control, we will find in art – especially in painting – the ultimate simulacrum of this quest. Art as a twisted branch of politics is simply better equipped to generate such models because time for the artist is invariably in sync with the models she or he produces. The artist is the link between the surface and the promise of the surface’s own depth.

Painting, masks, effigies, ornaments, and stories: Ritual is the only possible venue in which to physically experience what lies beneath and beyond surfaces. Sensation, doubt, feeling, emotion, and wonder: Faith has little to do with pure interpretation. As surfaces emerge, new rituals should follow. The role of the artist is to adapt ritual material to contemporary surfaces.

As, recently, modern design has begun to take place at a molecular level, so does serious artistic inquiry operate at the thinnest crust of its perceptible environment. Art has always been superficial. Using the vicissitudes and ambiguities of visual ideas to probe their structure, the artist evokes superficial abysses – for whatever lies behind what we see and perceive can only be created.

Vik Muniz text originally published in Parkett, No. 46 (1996)