Vik Muniz and Charles Ashley Stainback: A Dialogue

Published in the catalogue Seeing is Believing
Arena Editions
Verona, 1998

Charles Stainback: When did you start using photography? Let me rephrase that. When did you realize the power the photographic image could have in your work?

Vik Muniz: Even though I have always been involved with photographic images, for a long time I was reluctant to make photographs myself. I guess I made a decision to stop producing images and concentrate on making real things right after I gave up a career in advertising. I became a sculptor so that I could work on the more material aspects of things. Those objects were somewhat successful and a gallery showed them in New York. The gallery also documented the work with slides and black-and-white reproductions. When I first saw those photographs, I liked them so much that I didn’t care if the objects themselves were all set on fire. The photograph carried the code of the objects’ tridimensionality without the baggage of weight and volume. The photograph also conveyed material information (a photograph of sandpaper, for example, “looks” coarse), but it was somehow bonded more firmly with the form of the objects portrayed. Ultimately, the photographs captured more of what the objects were as they first appeared in my mind, as an idea. I wanted to be involved with craft to the extent that it becomes invisible. This way the creative process goes full circle: you start with an idea and end up with something that resembles one.

cs: So your first use of the camera is similar to the intentions of artists in the 1960s who simply began making photographs to document happenings, earthworks, or performances?

vm: That’s pretty accurate. I have always admired that kind of art for all the wrong reasons. My first reaction to finding Spiral Jetty in a book was, “Wow, what a great photograph!” I could not believe someone had gone to so much trouble just to end up with a picture. I find quite paradoxical the fact that most of the art of the ’60s has a “what you see is what you get” attitude, and because so much emphasis was placed on the physicality and evanescence of a work, most of what we’re left with is documentation. Well, documentation can be art. Pictures of Mont Blanc taken by the Bisson Frères in the nineteenth century were records of a performance, but the performance was executed entirely with the record in mind. I am pretty sure artists like Smithson or Matta-Clark felt that a piece was complete only after a photograph had been taken of it. As for happenings, I have been to a few performances and I confess that I get very embarrassed and rarely enjoy them. Photographs of such events, however, are always fascinating. I am very interested in the ways a performance gets recorded and the way in which the record affects the performance. Japanese wood prints, for example, advertised Kabuki actors who embodied their own masked characters. Julia Margaret Cameron would title a male portrait Iago after the villainous character in Othello, ignoring the identity of the model. Jerry Seinfeld plays himself on his sitcom. How can a person play himself? These are things that interest me when I document my little private happenings.

cs: In a way, you are like a magician who reveals the workings of a trick to the audience you want them to see how the illusion is created. Was that your intent when you started using photography as a part of your artwork?

vm: The magician as well as the artist makes a living by manipulating stuff people generally take for granted. The universe of knowledge has lots of black holes: the miraculous, the funny, the grotesque, the amazing, and even the truly beautiful are merely situations that occur in the gaps between mundane knowledge. I’ve always had an interest in this in-betweenness, these places where logic and common sense collapse, creating room for new experiences. Augustine once said that miracles exist not in relation to nature but in relation to what we know of nature. The difference is that with optical illusions, the magic is indelible. The optical cortex is truly a sucker of a mechanism.

No matter what people say, art–directly or indirectly–has always had to deal with illusion. The Paleolithic artist had to deal with it and so did Mondrian. Something happens when you experience an optical illusion that exchanges the experience of an object for the experience of vision itself. You don’t simply see, you feel vision. I have neither the interest nor the means to produce illusions that expand the concept of what an illusion is George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are doing that for us. My area of interest is in the opposite end of the spectrum of illusion: I want to make the worst possible illusion that will still fool the eyes of the average person. Something so rudimentary and simple that the viewer will think, “I don’t believe what I’m seeing, I can’t be seeing this, my mind is too sophisticated to fall for something as silly as this.” Illusions as bad as mine make people aware of the fallacies of visual information and the pleasure to be derived from such fallacies. These illusions are made to reveal the architecture of our concept of truth. They are meta-illusions.

cs: Do people ever get confused by your work? Perhaps misinterpret your intentions? Or take your work too seriously? I assume you don’t, by the way.

vm: No, I’ve never had the problem or the pleasure of being taken too seriously. My work is made not to confuse but to destabilize the viewer’s notion of what a photograph is. In that respect, the viewer does get confusedÑand this is a good thing. The logical blur that one experiences in front of an illusionistic picture is similar to what one experiences after hearing a joke. Suddenly there is an enormous vacuum in your mind that the cognitive apparatus registers as pleasurable because that’s what the mind likes to do: to fill these places with wild and abstract thoughts. The notion that separates entertainment and wonder from artistic merit was probably invented by some really sad people who could only measure the importance of the artwork against the fabric of history and society, forgetting entirely the role of the individual. The even sadder thing is that this notion endures, polluting the criteria of artistic appreciation at the level of art production: artists become serious and systematic, trying to make sense out of things. And if an artist creates illusions or makes “funny things,” he is certainly bound to be taken lightly. I have elaborate opinions about race, gender, ecology, censorship, and economic distribution. I am just not confident enough to market these opinions as an artistic commodity. The subject of art is the study of the mechanisms responsible for conveying reality, and not the idea of reality itself. Only after you have emptied art of this responsibility can you actually make art that is “about” something.

Human knowledge relies on dualities and antagonisms in order to exist, making every notion entirely dependent on its negation to assert a significant meaning. In this respect, illusion becomes a way to improve our understanding of what reality is and humor becomes a subject for serious investigation.

cs: Your fakery, if I may use this description, has been taken seriously, more than once. For instance, the Principia series, in which you use stereoviews: works in which the line between fact and fiction is so blurred, there are no guide wires showing, no visible clues to your hoax.

vm: Well, there are actually two distinct bodies of work: one is about representation and the other is about interpretation. The Pictures of Wire series or the Sugar Children, for instance, are pretty much about whatever causes something to represent something else. Other series like The Best of Life, Personal Articles, and Principia are less about causes than they are about the effects of representation. They are ideas that developed from looking at mass-produced imagery and exploring how that imagery had affected me. The Best of Life fooled the viewer because the viewer thought he knew everything about the picture before he saw it. Personal Articles played with what people could not know about the pictures. And Principia tested how people would respond to very silly pseudo-scientific photos seen through an apparatus. In all these works, there is a process of digestion or perhaps I should say indigestion and regurgitation of media images. Their basic formal aspect is the stuff that is already part of our collective unconscious. More than 50 percent of the world comes to us in the form of halftones, electromagnetic waves, and distorted light.

cs: After hearing you talk about your work, I must admit that Gerhard Richter comes to mind. Not so much because your work is similar, but more for the coalescing of extremes in the entire body of artwork. Besides the connection of the extreme from “realism to abstraction,” have you ever thought about the similarities?

vm: What is very interesting in Gerhard Richter’s work is that he is not trying to push the limits of realism or abstraction away from each other. His photo-based landscapes, still lives, and portraits have the odd immateriality of an abstract painting, and his abstract works (in a way similar to Matta’s) seem to create a notion of space within the brushstrokes. I have always been drawn to his work. The series of famous men at the Ludwig Museum and the Bader Meinhof paintings had an enormous impact on me. When I stop to think of what contemporary artists I am most likely to absorb ideas from, I can only think of painters who use photography in their work. Vija Celmins and Chuck Close, for example, are also people whose work I am constantly studying. The only sculptors that come to mind when I think of what has always interested me are Robert Irwin and Charles Ray. I had a similar discussion with someone else recently, and she was a bit disappointed that I am not influenced by younger artists. She even used a funny termÑ”more contemporary.” I told her that I am sure I will love the art of today in about twenty years.

cs: You mention Vija Celmins and Chuck Close and their use of photography. However, what seems even more pronounced as an influence is the tremendous wealth of trompe l’oeil in art history. Since more than twenty years have passed for many of art history’s great illusions of trompe l’oeil, I assume a few might spark your interest?

vm: There is a kind of trompe l’oeil that does a bit more than trompe the oeil. I like illusions that say something about reality or, at least, our ability to cope with it. Illusions of this kind are usually very understated and quiet. A painting by Peto, for example, is a nice and entertaining trick, but a landscape by Bierstadt or Church is a lesson in perception. For me, Ansel Adams is a more interesting illusionist than Jerry Ueslman.

cs: Your photographs are a hybrid of intellect, humor, and illusion. Can you explain your working method and the process of bringing these often incongruous ingredients together in one work or series?

vm: I have never been very good at organizing or classifying things, separating and filing them in specific places. On my bookshelves you will find Milton next to Little Lulu. I try to keep my mind and my environment as open as possible so that all kinds of unlikely alliances may form in a natural and organic way. Combining photography and drawing is no big deal because the two things were once the same and the need for a distinction came much later. My father once won an Encyclopaedia Britannica in a pool game. It was a very old edition and you could not tell if the illustrations were very good drawings or badly printed photographs. I remember, as a child, enjoying this fact. Some things never really change.

As for working method, I haven’t worked long enough to develop one and I sincerely hope I never do. What I have is a repertoire of attitudes toward imagemaking that I explore aimlessly until I bump into something interesting. I try to leave the process as much as possible to intuition. If you work in an intuitive way, you generally discover afterward the reasons behind your decisions. My very first efforts in photography were a kind of transition between the object and the image. I wanted the image to be as light and penetrating as an idea. Again, I was reluctant to make images because of my previous experience in advertising. The work of advertising is to fabricate identities for everything from talcum powder to nations and their armies, to give form to the shapeless and a timeless image to the transitory.

This sounds very philosophical, I know, and I still think advertising is a very important part of our culture. But I wasn’t interested in fabricating identities before I could find out for myself what identity is. How are we able to recognize objects in a picture, how are we able to recognize objects, period? Advertising made me aware of the dichotomy between an object and its images. This sort of tension has consistently been part of my work. Today I look at older works such as Two Nails, Tug of War, and Cogito Ergo Sum and see clearly this dilemma unfolding in my mind. Reality or representation? As soon as I discovered how similar these two notions are once they become visual information, I began to feel more comfortable using this polarity to my advantage.

cs: After seeing the diversity of your work, I assume that you have a fascination with images embedded in objects or things, everything from topiary to silhouettes of ducks on the side of a dog to shapes in a cloud.

vm: A miracle is a phenomenon of interpretation. From Leonardo’s stained walls to Mr. Ripley’s horses to grafitti, we are bound to encounter “accidental representations” everywhere. It is as if meaning ricocheted throughout the elemental like oxygen atoms. That’s somehow linked to the basic functions of perception, the stuff designed to keep us alive when we still were hunting the hairy mammoth. To really understand art, one must return to these simple things. There was probably a time when early man couldn’t represent anything, but certainly found the shapes that were linked to his life in stone formations, cracks, tree trunks, and pebbles. We tend to think that art began with cave paintings, but I believe art started with the ability to recognize the form of one thing in something else. Some artists in nineteenth-century China did not produce any art of their own but simply looked for stones that conveyed a certain mood in their form. They were called dream stones and they predate the readymade by at least fifty years. What Duchamp made was an already-made.

I have always been intrigued with these things because they are the basic stuff of knowledge. The moment you recognize the similarities between two things, you have created a symbol, you have learned how to use language. When Noam Chomsky took on Piaget’s theory and the nature-nurture controversy about language acquisition, he was onto something important about the nature of knowledge. The problem with the natural language theory is that it assigns an exclusively active role to our cognitive abilities. Cognition has its tidal movements. I believe that language is an innate thing, but its basic configuration is passive and contemplative and it was designed by evolution to function at the level of form recognition, a basic tool for survival. Some early man threw his spear at a bison only to discover that it wasn’t a bison but a termite mound that carried an uncanny resemblance to a bison. He was “fooled” by nature. He went back to the tribe and told the other hunters about the bison. Soon they were throwing their spears at the termite mound while he crouched behind the bushes laughing. That man was the first artist.

cs: For some individuals working with photographic imagery, the label “photographer” is less than desirable. They almost always prefer the label “artist.” You, however, embrace the title of photographer and the photographic medium itself with great fervor, yet the work appears on first glance more closely aligned to our traditional notion of fine art. Do you see yourself as a photographic heretic or a shaman with a camera?

vm: I attended art school in São Paulo for a few years. None of the instructors there knew the work of Joseph Beuys or Bruce Nauman. We would sit for three hours at a time drawing and modeling geometric solids and nudes, and occasionally chat about Bernini or Tiepolo. The seeming mindlessness of those exercises taught me almost everything about artmaking that I use today. It taught me how to organize visual information in a hierarchical way, giving me a more detailed understanding of the mechanisms of representation. It also inspired in me a respect for craft and technique that I have many times tried to rid myself of, but obviously have failed. One can learn how to be a draftsman, a photographer, or a sculptor in school, but there is no way to teach someone how to become an artist. It would be like teaching someone to be sick or happy, or to be a good dice player. I am a photographer when I photograph, and a draftsman when I draw, but an artist is what I am always becoming.

Ovid begins his account of Genesis in Metamorphoses with this: “My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms.” What a perfect way to start a work of art! A child picks up a piece of chalk and draws a circle on the sidewalk, then straight lines radiating from the circle. Any observer would immediately recognize in this doodle the image of the sun, an immense ball of fire 150 million kilometers from Earth. It takes less than a second for the meaning “sun” to embody that trace of chalk, while it takes eight minutes for the actual light of the sun to illuminate it. We have become so sophisticated in our visual habits that we often overlook the magic behind representation. It is said that when Renaissance artists started to employ three-point perspective in their paintings and frescoes, they were accused of witchcraft. Because we no longer experience fainting spells in front of a Giotto painting, all the perceptual impact of that work becomes history, but it is somehow satisfying to think of the confused viewers trying to figure out how those earthy pigments were organized so to produce a perfect likeness of tridimensional space. I try to focus my attention on this dynamic theater of visual forms, where powders and binders play the part of flying angels, charcoal traces act the role of Arcadian landscapes, and molten metal becomes the perfect likeness of animals. I try to pinpoint the moment where the change occurs, the moment a circle becomes the sun, and a triangle the tomb of a long-dead pharaoh. That is magic, in its most evocational, shamanic, and spiritual transformation that was once so distinct in art.

cs: I think that in most instances you do get that sense from your work. And that “moment” is what people find intriguing when viewing it. Nevertheless, you assume that even in today’s fast-paced, hyperactive, gigabite, morphed, and virtual world that the average man or woman on the street is aware of that “magic” associated with human creativity. Don’t you think that all too often we lose sight of the wonder of human creativity and the ability of the eye, the hand, and the mind to produce amazing illusions?

vm: Images are produced at such staggering speed that we grow conditioned to retain only a fraction of what we see. The funny thing is that as we become more proficient in making images, we become increasingly unable to understand their form and semantic structure. The faster we can produce them, the less time we have to really see what they are. The power of an image lays precisely in its potential for being underestimated. In developing defenses against this noxious visual environment, one becomes numb to all kinds of images. Sometimes I try to imagine the world before anyone had a camera. A drawing of a rhinoceros like the one by Dürer must have been a wondrous thing for the sixteenth-century viewer. Today, not even a real rhinoceros will inspire that kind of awe. We need dinosaurs.

cs: But in a way, we have that kind of illusion–even dinosaurs–in many
of today’s high-tech/high-budget Hollywood movies. Don’t these count?

vm: Isn’t this a funny paradox, that the ultimate use of the latest technology is to make prehistoric creatures? I am usually more impressed by well-executed card tricks than by this computer stuff. After five minutes of Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs only scare you by sudden appearances: a hand puppet could appear suddenly on the screen and people would be just as shocked. Films by Ray Harryhausen, for example, are far scarier because they have very little to do with reality. They look more like nightmares.

cs: Like many artists of your generation, your work is informed by media–print and television–and popular culture. In The Best of Life series, was your intention to critique our mediated culture like so many other artists had done in the 1980s?

vm:If you come to consider what one generally does every day, almost everything that is novel and that adds to one’s life comes in the form of mediated information. If you tally up everything you’ve learned through direct experience–in other words, by trying something yourself–it does not account for much compared to what you know by listening to other people, reading the newspaper, or watching television. The largest part of our memory, therefore, is allocated to events we were not directly part of. When it comes to photographic media, this phenomenon gets even more interesting: in all the photographs that have ever been taken, only the film was exposed to the recorded image, no human eye shares the precise moment and position of any photograph. That makes the history of photographed events the history of events removed from human experience. We can only share memories of images that in reality no one ever saw. If no one ever saw what everyone remembers, what exactly are these memories made of?

When I arrived in the United States in 1983, I spoke very little English and so initially did not make many new acquaintances. Reading the paper and watching TV were comforting because they were a way to participate in my new environment. I bought The Best of Life in a garage sale outside of Chicago. This book somehow made me feel safer. It made me feel more a part of the place where I was living. That “family of man” thing really works. I lost the book in the summer of ’88 on a beach in Long Island and felt really sad. Immediately, it occurred to me that people do not keep picture books like The Best of Life solely for the written content. They also keep them to check their memory of events against the photographs, just as they would peruse a family album.

During that summer, I began to check how much I retained from the experience of those photographs. At first, it was a pastime. I would wake up and work on a few every day, and each day I would remember a bit more. When I could no longer remember anything, I began to call people (who didn’t have the images in front of them either) and ask specific questions. I discovered that people store images in radically different ways: their descriptions had a completely different structure than mine. The visual world is like a crossword puzzle: we all have the same puzzle but each of us solves it differently. I had developed from memory a few of the images quite well when Stux Gallery offered to show them as drawings. Once I’d transformed the image-memories into drawings, I thought they should be returned to their photo state. So I photographed the drawings. When they were ready, I printed the photos with the same halftone screen the original pictures were printed on. People thought they were seeing bad reproductions of photographs of famous events, but in fact they were only looking at pictures of thoughts. They were convinced by the photographs because they have the same syntax as the real photos. It worked.

cs: So your intention was to play with our collective visual syntax while testing the limitations of your own memory?

vm: Being aware of your memory limitations generally means being aware of your potential for underestimating what you see. We have been conditioned to formulate important opinions based on images we see, but the same mechanisms responsible for bringing us these images have also conditioned us not to ask many questions about the way they are produced. Photography, especially after World War II, has become increasingly transparent in this regard. If I describe to you a photograph consisting of a girl running naked on the street sprayed with napalm, you think of the girl and not the piece of paper where you originally saw the image. Documentary photography before the warÑthe Farm Security Administration pictures, for example–is a lot more sophisticated in terms of light and composition. Consequently, you imagine the relationship between the artist and the subject, and formulate opinions based on this negotiation. What I did with The Best of Life series was to make these very subjective, transparent images more objective and opaque by adding more interpretive layers. At that point, I had started to make objects that were very thin, so I decided to make photographs that were very thick. I guess that’s been my working principle in photography ever since. When these images are reinserted in the media world, they act like a vaccine, creating more antibodies against similar images. These are suspect images that make all other images look suspicious.

cs: I want to shift gears and ask a direct question about a specific image in The Best of Life series, the one of the student in Tiananmen Square. Interestingly, seeing the real–or should I say, the original–image/photograph next to yours, one is most immediately struck by the limitations of visual memory. I wonder if this photo presented special issues in that, unlike the others, it has not attained the longevity within our collective memory and therefore might be more difficult to remember and render.

vm: When it comes to photojournalism, there is a certain law of compensation that maintains the intensity of images, new or old, always at a similar level. A relatively recent image is remembered because it was seen not so long ago, an old image is remembered because it’s been seen multiple times. To my surprise, the difficulties that I encountered in rendering these images had more to do with form than time. Facial expressions, for example, were very hard to draw from memory because the huge repertoire of templates for facial expressions that we have stored in our brain is designed to work by deduction but is fairly inept when it comes to performing inductive operations. Specific details of clothing and architecture are also easier to remember than correct body positions. One thing that in almost all pictures (except the Tiananmen Square photo) remained consistent with the original photograph was the point of view from which the photograph was originally taken. This seemed to be the most remembered aspect.

cs: You mentioned technology earlier in reference to illusion and our conflicting notions of photographic veracity. Since you play with the issue of a photograph’s believability in your work, I wonder why you don’t use computers to help you generate the illusions.

vm: As I said before, illusion informs my work, making illusions is not what my work aims to achieve. The kind of illusion produced by a computer will reveal a lot about the competence of the person who produces the illusion. I am more interested in making the viewer confront his own incompetence in resisting an illusion by making them without the use of such effects. Illusions have developed in sync with basic evolutionary patterns of perception. In other words, it is natural that you believe certain images because whatever makes you fall for certain tricks also helps you to survive others. Perceptual short-circuits will ultimately inform you in a very effective way of the manner in which you perceive things, and that can be something very personal as well.

cs: Earlier you discussed the importance of photography and made a comment about the photograph of sandpaper looking coarse. This made me think of the image of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup and saucer that I had seen in art textbooks. When I finally saw the object itself at an exhibition, I can’t say I was impressed, but I do remember thinking that I liked the photograph better. Which do you prefer: fiction or reality?

vm: Reality is hard to like because it does not have a definite form, size, or color. We tend to like things with certain formal or narrative distinctions, things that convey specific meanings. The origin of fiction is closely connected to the origin of language itself. Exaggeration, emphasis, all modal elements of language, seem to be always secretly conspiring against reality. Ernst Cassirer brilliantly illustrated the effects of nonrational thought in the makeup of our culture. Photographs of objects, especially surrealistic ones, place the object into the context of their own time, while the display of the object itself is bound to be out of context. I don’t see a need to walk around sculptures: if an object is made to be looked at, there is always a best side from which you can do it. A photograph is just simplifying this process. It is telling you a story about the object (perhaps a lie), subtracting one particular view of the object from the infinite number of views that one can have by simply positioning one’s head in front of something. This ultimately effects the object’s causality: the object in the photo will not fade or rust, it will always remain the same, only the photograph will change. To ask me if I prefer reality to fiction is the same as asking if I prefer the ocean to swimming.

cs: Sure, then I would have to ask if you can swim, or do you wear a bathing suit just for the sake of appearance?

vm: The ocean of reality is pretty much of a diluvial scale and doesn’t leave you much choice between swimming or not. You either stay afloat in whatever style you can or you sink. There is nothing to hold on to. I am not much of a swimmer anyway. I prefer wading.

cs: Here comes a $100 question. Would you say that your Individuals series fits into a Dadaist or Fluxus notion of art production that rebels against the so-called bourgeois treatment of art objects as commodities?

vm: Funny you should mention that amount of money. When I made the Individuals series, I had just come back from Europe with about $100 to my name. I had a piece of plasticene, a camera, and some film and no other materials for making art. I made a sculpture and liked it, in a kind of “art therapy” style, but I used all the plasticene and couldn’t buy anymore. So I took a picture of the sculpture, destroyed it, and made another. Pretty soon I had sixty pictures of the same lump of plasticene conveying completely different moods. Kim Caputo, a friend, offered to print them for me so I could jump-start my career, and we printed all sixty of them slightly diffused (like pictures of Barbara Streisand). I then exhibited them with pedestals of different sizes on the floor. People told me the photos evoked death, memory, and loss. I thought about my mood swings and how many crazy things the same lump of plasticene can become.

Now, to answer your question, Fluxus and Dada are a constant intellectual source for my work, and yes, Man Ray and Max Ernst are like gods to me. But when I made the Individuals, I was too poor to think about the bourgeoisie and the commodification of objects. Although they are ambiguous enough to contain a lot of ideas, that series is more personal than it might appear: I was dealing with a separation from my son and trying to survive as an artist. Well … do I still get the hundred dollars?

cs: Intuition seems to play a significant role in your work. Would you talk specifically about the moment you realized that drawing or painting and representations of the three-dimensional world did not have to be rendered solely by the pencil or the paintbrush. Were the Cord pieces, for instance, Cogito Ergo Sum, your first venture into the land of limitless materials for mark making?

vm: If I make an exceptionally good pencil drawing of you, a viewer will look for veracity, expression, fluidity, etc., but the basic fact that a trace of carbon becomes processed as not only the form and texture of your face but also your personality at this very moment rarely occurs to someone looking at a drawing. Now, if I make the same drawing with molasses and have a trail of ants walking on it, people will find it “miraculous”–or at least strange. When I visited Florence, I saw Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Baptistery gates, and no work of Renaissance art has had a more profound impact on me. Here you have an exquisite mastery of perspective which is basically intellectual and illusionistic, combined with detailed relief work which is highly physical and realistic. The two forms of rendering combined seemed to be simultaneously enhancing and canceling each other. The haute relief combined with three-point perspective was definitely overkill, but it made my mind go beyond what I was looking at. It made me think about vision as a process and not as a result. All of a sudden, I became aware of this incredible dichotomy, of real things and things that are images of things. That was when I started to play with ideas of reality and representation within a single narrative. Cogito Ergo Sum, Historical Photo, and Cozy Couple are pieces from this time.

cs: In thinking about the subversive nature of some of your images, it’s curious to remember that you worked in advertising, a business known for such tactics as hiding suggestive or seductive images. Did your advertising experience influence any particular series or ideas about images?

vm: I think my own ideas about images had more to do with my decision to study advertising than advertising influenced the development of these ideas. Advertising helped me organize these ideas a little better though. When I was a kid, I would follow the progress of a humidity stain on the ceiling above my bed by drawing it and writing reports about it. It started as a swan, then turned into a gorilla, then an old car named Gordini. As far back as I can remember, I liked to give forms to things. I would make sequential drawings trying to find the exact moment when a monkey turned into a helicopter. The idea that I could airbrush people frolicking inside ice cubes to sell more whiskey definitely had an effect on my decision to study media. But I wanted to sell ice cubes more than I wanted to sell whiskey, so I gave it up.

cs: In working with various drawing media–dirt, Bosco, sugar, pinholes, whatever–how much significance do you attach to the thing renderedÑbinoculars, eggs, Freud–and the material used to create the image? Is there a material or substance that’s offlimits? I’m thinking of Serrano here, as well as Warhol’s Oxidation paintings.

vm: Jean-Luc Godard once famously quipped, “C’est ne pas du sang, c’est du rouge,” which means, “It’s not blood, it’s red.” That demonstrates a lot of lucidity about the stuff of representation. Serrano’s photographs were not piss, they were yellow. Conservative Republicans are the ones who get pissed when they see yellow. Warhol, on the other hand, showed the real thing and made an abstraction out of it. I always thought it was great that he chose to call them Oxidation paintings. In my work, I am not that interested in the nature of the material that I photograph as much as in the way the viewer recognizes the material in the photograph. Serrano’s work relies on the viewer’s awareness of information about the subject; Warhol, on information about the process. I want to work with both notions simultaneously without relying too much on outside explanations. The choice of subject is often very intuitive and it often comes after the choice of the process. They are linked in a strange way that I am not sure I can explain, but I think it is exactly this doubt that gives me satisfaction when I make things.

cs: You’ve described your photographs as “low-tech” illusions. Yet like certain conceptual artists–for instance, Jan Dibbets and John Pfahl, or more mainstream artists such as M. C. Escher–your photographs do toy with a viewer’s perception in a way that merges high-art concepts. Can you explain how your “illusions” fit into the larger picture of art and perception?

vm: I remember realism being a dirty word in New York for a long time. I often visited a photorealist gallery in Soho and I am almost ashamed to admit that I got more inspiration from that place than most of the other idea factories I visited. Some mysterious iconoclastic conspiracy has forced people to separate illusion from serious art. But I can’t help myself–I have always been a sucker for figurative art. During my first visit to New York, the only thing that remained in my head was a huge Chuck Close portrait in the Whitney. I guess I am old enough now to become shameless and confess that I always liked Salvador Dali and grew up collecting Frank Frazetta and Roger Dean posters. I am definitely over my airbrush envy complex, but still I can’t help but respect anyone who has tried to make a faithful representation of something, even if just to learn that it’s hard and invariably enlightening. In the 1960s and ’70s, a few artists started to get back at it via Neo-Platonism. Dibbets and Pfahl got away with what they were doing because their work was inserted into the discourses of minimalism that were predominant at that time. But even those with no understanding of minimalism would find their work interesting. Come to think of it, in a very unconscious way I am always trying to do the wrong thing. I have always felt that fear of illusion and wonder was making the art world a place for cultured hypocrisy where the sole pleasure of the viewer was to share this deprivation honorably. I had a funny dream about that once: I was with Barnet Newman at his deathbed. Unable to talk, he gestured for a pencil and paper, then nervously scribbled something and died almost immediately after with a smile on his face. It was a drawing of Mickey Mouse.

cs: I wonder what Freud would say about that. What if Mickey Mouse were on his deathbed and he drew a Barnet Newman painting? Would he die laughing?

vm: With his academic sense of humor, Freud would probably fail to see that a vertical line crossing a piece of paper is a good thing for a moribund cartoon character to do before he dies. I bet if Mickey Mouse made any art, it would definitely be monochromatic painting. But don’t get me wrong. I love abstract art. A lot of what happened in both abstract and representational art in the second half of this century was too hung up on the dualism between the two. What created the chasm between abstract and representational art is that people began to assign too much importance to the way art is produced and not enough to the way it gets interpreted. Again, I am not fit to work on the extremities, I try to squeeze myself between the two, trying to find out what makes something an abstraction and something else an octopus. I love people like deKooning and Arshile Gorky because they operate between language and perception without ignoring facts pertinent to one or another. I also feel very close to minimalism because it brought simple perceptual ideas back to art in a dynamic way. Artists like Serra, LeWitt, and Robert Morris are very important to me.

cs: Because of the minimal aspect of your work, or because Serra, LeWitt, and Morris broke with conventions of representational art?

vm: I think because their work was a disguised comeback of formal and structural ideas.

cs: How much exposure to contemporary art did you have prior to coming to the United States in 1983? Did any particular artists/artworks stand out?

vm: In the 1970s, because of the military government in Brazil, intellectuals lived in constant fear of being persecuted. Most of the music and art of that time is either camouflaged activism or corrupted by patriotism. There was always this lingering climate of a semiotic black market where hidden messages seemed encoded in every phrase: everything meant something else. People who carried books in their bags were considered a different kind of criminal by the semiliterate authoritarian police state, so reading books and hanging out with intellectuals was a way of being rebellious. That atmosphere gave me a chronic allergy to slogans and a clear vision of how information can be manipulated to serve certain ends. For obvious reasons, in those days I thought political art to be a government thing and abstract art to be for people who never walked the streets. I liked drawing the old paintings at the museum and didn’t give much thought to contemporary art. The first contemporary artist I met was Leonilson. In 1979 we were both helping the experimental theater group Asdrubal Trouxe o Trombone during their stint in São Paulo. I worked with him designing a poster and I told him that the boat he drew was crooked. He told me that the boat was crooked because that boat was his own. Leonilson made things that were infused with fragility and ambiguity, one of the very first Brazilian artists to show that side of an art object. He was an extraordinary artist and a great person. I miss him a lot.

cs: Would you say that in some way your works pay homage to artists of the late ’60s or early ’70s like William Wegman, Robert Cumming, even Douglas Huebler? I’m thinking in particular of the dry, often banal humor and the low-tech illusions associated with much of their conceptually based photo works.

vm: There is something about the art of the ’70s that I can’t seem to escape. Maybe it’s a generational thing. There is a certain homemade feeling behind the works of these artists that makes me think of itinerant circus troupes and high school science fairs. I have always liked Dada and Fluxus, which probably influenced their work, and tried to cultivate that attitude toward artmaking. It’s like conceptual art without a frown.

cs: Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist? Loosely defined, of course, since we know that the true conceptual artist never really produces anything.

vm: It is hard not to be conceptual. The term “conceptual art” always bothered me because it’s impossible for me to imagine an art form without a concept. I think art becomes “political,” “conceptual,” or “spiritual” only by subtraction. Basically what the so-called conceptual artist is saying is that he does not dance, sing, carve wood, draw nudes, or practice easel painting: he thinks ideas without form. If you find an idea without form, please let me know because I would love to take a picture of it. “Conceptual art” only emphasizes the concept of an art object by the systematic impoverishing of its aesthetic value. I am an artist, and I think a real artist could not stand the sacrifice of beauty for the sake of smartness. You don’t have to do that! Take people like Courbet or Manet, for example. You can’t get more conceptual than that. You don’t need a neon sign to proclaim your intellectual intentions, all you need is a good story to give them form. Leonardo is always quoted for saying that art is a mental thing. I think what he really meant is that art is mental without exception. Marcel Broodthaers is a conceptual artist. So is Grandma Moses. On this subject, deKooning had the final word when he said that in art, one idea is just as good as another.

cs: Chuck Close was quoted as saying to deKooning that “he was glad to meet someone that had painted more deKoonings than he had.” Close was referring to his own early work, which was quite derivative of deKooning. Is there a deKooning out there for you?

vm: If I met the guy who photographs Chuck’s paintings for documentation, I would probably say, “I am glad to meet someone who has photographed more Chuck Close paintings than I have.”

cs: Have you ever considered doing theater or performance art? I have to say that it would suit your personality. Are you always “on”?

vm: I worked in theater in Brazil, basically experimental amateur groups. One of my thoughts behind moving to New York was to study theater. I like reading plays, but now I rarely go see one. Theater is perhaps the most important component of my work today. For example, if I see a performance of King Lear, say, with Anthony Hopkins in the main role, the excellent actor with his body and voice alone will be able to temporarily convince you that he is indeed a king. It is a great illusion that you only learn to appreciate when you get a chance to watch the same piece performed by a bad actor. Now, here is the beauty of the whole thing: the good actor, Sir Anthony Hopkins, seems to disappear as himself once he embodies the old king. You forget about him and you only see what he represents. The bad actor, on the other hand, keeps shifting back and forth from his royal character to his incompetent self. The good actor lets you experience the play while the bad actor allows you to experience theater itself. I think of my photographs as very short plays, sometimes a fraction of a second long, in which a bad actor, say, soil, thread, or chocolate, performs the role of an object, a person, or a landscape only for the lens of the camera. I cast bad actors in my pieces because I don’t want people to simply see a representation of something. I want them to feel how it happens. The moment of that embodiment is what I consider a spiritual experience.

cs: You seem to draw many of your ideas, or at least your inspiration, from art history, in particular those artists and works that have seemingly been of little significance, or at least overlooked by much of the contemporary art world. Where would you place your work in today’s art world, an arena that puts such a huge premium on theoretical discourse?

vm: I’d rather say that I sometimes make work based on “old pictures” than on art history, which in general implies that there are some things to be considered before a certain work is perceived by the eye. I am more inclined to work with anonymous pieces because they are less polluted by historical information than masterworks. I’ve never taken a class in art history and sometimes think I’m very fortunate to have learned art by responding to pictures at a very personal level. The work of art that changed my life and prompted me to become an artist was a painting of a slightly cross-eyed girl whose facial asymmetry made the painting look alive. Her name was Clara Serena and it was just a coincidence that her father, the painter who executed the portrait, was Peter Paul Rubens.

I tend to like works from periods when new media emerge, forcing the existing ones to change. Early nineteenth-century painting, sculpture, and photography; Impressionism; photography and painting between the wars–these are works that I am always scrutinizing. One day I was looking at a book by Sister Wendy and saw this very sweet portrait of Saint John the Baptist and a lamb done by Murillo. I have no idea why, but the silly little picture brought tears to my eyes. If I had studied art history and learned how corny Murillo was, I would have been deprived of that poignant experience. I have done some pictures after better known works, but tried to play down their iconographic value by emphasizing their perceptual output. I did Leonardo’s Last Supper, for example, but I wasn’t thinking of Leonardo. I was thinking of perspective and the idea of the Eucharist as an early form of broadcasting. As for theory, I think that the only bad thing about art criticism is that it makes possible art about criticism. I like reading philosophy and history books. I even have an interest in neurology, psychology, and physics. But when I want to read something that will ultimately influence my work, I pick up a novel or book of poetry.

cs: Do you ever write poetry or fiction yourself?

vm: Yes, but most of it is still garbage. I say this because I just saw the Drawings of Victor Hugo at the Drawing Center. These drawings are the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, and they were done by a writer. I can’t even draw like Victor Hugo, much less expect to be a writer.

cs: Could you talk a little about the actual process of making an image, one of the Thread pieces, for example.

vm: These developed out of my inability to do a landscape with wire. I tried but they were really sad. I wanted to try different subjects, but I discovered by changing the material in which I was drawing that each material could only render certain things well. I needed something more fluid, so I began to work with sewing thread. The process is very similar to the wire objects except that it allows me to build up the material and create volume. In one hand you have a drawing and in the other you have the photograph of the “actor” responsible for the enacting of that landscape. When you perceive one, you loose the other. It works like a visual puzzle, like the Necker cube or the Rubin vase.

cs: Did you intend to mock the pompous seriousness of Alfred Stieglitz’s cloud images, Equivalents, when you made your cloud pictures?

vm: No. Stieglitz may not have been America’s greatest artist, but he was definitely its most influential one. He spread himself thin but covered a lot of territory. He worked on many fronts and used many devices to help shape the artistic milieu of his time. He singlehandedly introduced modern art to the American public. I usually use images from people I admire or find important in the context of general culture. I wouldn’t want to mock anyone, especially someone with Stieglitz’s mind and reputation. If you look at one of his Equivalents, you will get a glimpse of the ungraspable nature of sensations and the artificial ways in which meaning is fabricated. If you look at one of my Equivalents, you will see–depending on the way you choose to interpret it–either a cloud, a lump of cotton, or Dürer’s Praying Hands. The title “equivalents” was chosen because these “clouds” had something to do with what Stieglitz was trying to say: that the objective of a photograph is not merely portrayal of a subject but the range of symbolic and emotional associations the formal treatment of a subject will bring to the viewer. He treated the question by pushing it toward ambiguity. I decided to push it toward specificity.

cs: Thinking about the need to solve the riddle, I imagine that you might be interested in mysteries: murder mysteries. Yes? Have you ever had an opportunity to closely examine crime scene photographs?

vm: The problem with mysteries is that in the end they cease to be a mystery. There is a great murder-mystery writer in France named Daniel Pennac. His main character, Benjamin Malaussene, is a guy who takes care of eleven siblings and gets blamed for every single death in the city. The book always starts with his mother returning home with another baby and ends with her leaving with another man. The killer is always an old lady. There is very little mystery, and as I have said, I don’t care for the mystery itself, but the way he constructs the plot and illustrates the scenes is absolutely brilliant. It’s like Bulgakov meets Conan Doyle. I like the Columbo films too because you know the identity of the killer from the beginning, and you spend the rest of the film trying to understand how that half-witted cop is going to solve it. That’s the real mystery. Well, there is certainly something about crime and medical photography that gets to you. I have seen a lot of police pictures, but they don’t do much for me. I guess I have seen too many police movies where those scenes are abundant and the only difference between the real and the fake ones is a caption, something outside the photo. I think medical photography has a more potent effect on me.

cs: In many of your works, text, language, or the caption are integral aspects of the viewer’s understanding of the work. In a way, your captions–especially with the Displacements series, where there are no images–totally subvert the notion of photographic veracity and toy with the notion that we should believe everything we read. Do these little white lies ever get you into trouble?

vm: The newspaper clippings that I make up are partly inspired by the wacky abstract pictures I find in the science section of the New York Times every Tuesday. There, what looks like a wine stain is identified in a caption as a field of antimatter in the middle of a galaxy several light years away. I made a bunch of drawings that look like wine stains while talking on the phone and decided to start writing little stories for them. Like the one about a virus that makes people unable to read, or the photographer from National Geographic who was indicted for photographing his girlfriend’s underwear in such a way that it looked like a rare mushroom. I wrote a silly story about the guards at Yosemite not letting people take pictures with small-format cameras and faxed it to a friend, who faxed it to a friend, who faxed it to a million other people. When I showed these images to a group of people in San Francisco, an old lady approached me and said that I was lying about having fabricated these stories because that particular story was true–she had heard it on the radio. There I was being called a liar by claiming authorship of a lie that had become a truth by convention. It’s hard to own a lie when everybody owns the truth. The Displacements series also comes straight from the stuff I did while working with the Life magazine images. I was trying to gauge the power of a caption over the image.

cs: You’ve moved away from the three-dimensional aspect of your earlier work, but do you have any interest in going back to sculpture or even installations?

vm: It’s hard to forecast what I will do next. I don’t have much of a plan and neither am I bound to a specific style or technique. Photography has allowed me to pack drawing, sculpture, painting, and theater into one tight bundle. I have been developing series of drawings and sculpture for years; it just happens that the photographic work has matured at a faster pace. I am also working with film now, but so far have created very short loops with not much going on–they look more like a photograph than a film. As for installation, I’ve never felt the need to walk around sculpture and I don’t see a point to being inside one. I am very claustrophobic.

cs: Is there a way of making marks that you’ve always wanted to do, but could never get it to work?

vm:The things that work are few compared to the ones that don’t. Once I thought I could duplicate the dot pattern of a billboard with M&Ms. I almost died of nervous exhaustion. Live ants, rubber bands, black beans, chains, electric sparks, magnets, oil and milk–you name it, I’ve tried a lot of things but only succeed with a few.

cs: One might say that the Soil pieces are small-scale earthworks. Have you ever thought of doing something larger like a real earthwork or the ancient land drawings photographed by Marilyn Bridges?

vm: Yes, I would love to make land drawings, but they would be portraits of TV personalities, old cars, or marsupials. I would use half of Patagonia to draw the RCA dog, and the gramophone would have lines as large as the Suez Canal. However, the final result of this work would be a 4×5 platinum print.

cs: What is particularly intriguing is that your illusions are becoming more and more about flatness. The Soil and Sugar Children series seem to have a similar methodology. Were they done at around the same time?

vm:The early pieces took ideas from drawing. I was replacing the drawn line with physical things like thread or wire. The sugar and soil pieces have a lot more to do with photography itself: the idea that the image is composed by a certain logical arrangement of tiny dots that we can’t really perceive individually. Well, I just made the dots bigger and gave them identity. The Sugar Children also developed out of a very personal circumstance. Marion and I spent a few days in St. Kitts and swam every day with a group of local children who were very sweet and unspoiled by Nike commercials. We got to know their names and a few things about them. They were very happy kids. Later on we had a chance to visit the place where most of their parents worked on the sugar plantations. The hard labor in the scorching sun had certainly taken a toll on their outlook. They were very sad and bitter. I took photographs of the children and brought them back to New York, and one morning as I was drinking my coffee and looking at the pictures, I remembered this poem by the Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar in which he is drinking coffee and begins to wonder about the origin of the sugar. He ends with a seminal phrase: “It is with the bitter lives of bitter people that I sweeten my coffee on this beautiful morning in Ipanema.” The radiant childhood of those children will inevitably be transformed by sugar. Children who become sugar. It hit me like a brick. I went to Canal Street and bought black paper and tried to copy the snapshots by sprinkling sugar over its surface. I was very surprised when it worked. The Soil pieces are the opposite of The Sugar Children. The potting soil is dispersed over a lightbox and then systematically cleaned with the aid of miniature vacuum cleaners, straws, moistened Q-tips, and other improvised tools.

cs: One of my least favorite bodies of work is the X-ray series, I assume because they seem too easy. They don’t have the rigor–intellectual or otherwise–of the other series. Now, I guess I’ll have to pay you that $100 after saying that?

vm: The X-rays are very hard to do because you can try only so many times. They are about those theater ideas that I mentioned earlier. I was talking to a friend about mimes and how we hated them. I think that has something to do with the X-rays, but I am not sure what. I was trying to photograph shadows and have them X-rayed. I was also frustrated trying to make photograms of hand shadows. Well, all of these things came together at one point. I thought it would be funny to provide an illusion and the wrong explanation for it at the same time.

cs: In the Pictures of Chocolate series, you use chocolate syrup. Maybe I’m stretching the point, but in photography and film chocolate syrup is often associated with death. In old black-and-white B-movies, chocolate syrup is substituted for blood. And to take one example from photography, Les Krims used chocolate syrup for a series of photographs in the early ’70s entitled The Incredible Case of the Stack-o-Wheats Murders.

vm:Alfred Hitchcock used Bosco for the famous shower scene in Psycho. Apparently, real blood does not look bloody enough on screen. There is a major difference between the “real” and the “realistic,” and sometimes the real thing does not make a persuasive representation of itself. I chose to work with chocolate because it had something to do with the feeling of painting. Chocolate inspires a multitude of psychological phenomena: it has to do with scatology, desire, sex, addiction, luxury, romance, etc. I have never met anyone who doesn’t like chocolate. Freud could probably explain why everybody loves chocolate. That’s why he was my first subject. I also wanted to make a drawing that challenged me in time. It usually takes an hour before the chocolate starts to dry and only a few minutes for it to melt under the hot lamps. I have to run a lot and the studio can get messy at times.

cs: Besides cleaning up all the messes you make, you also teach. Photography? Drawing and painting? It must be a great class and I would love to see the supply list you pass out at the beginning of the year.

vm: One of my greatest heroes is John Dewey, who always spoke of the individual’s responsibility to pass on one’s experience in the form of education. I teach photography, and drawing for photographers. (I do that more often than I clean up after myself.) Teaching, like writing and editing, is another way to pass on to others things that I consider important for everybody. I am always thinking of the responsibility–which we all have–to leave something for others. Recently, I began some research in the field of education concerning the development of programs for teaching visual literacy to children. There is very little being done in that area. It is important to teach kids the visual grammar behind the images they so readily consume. As images become increasingly more eloquent than the text that accompanies them, visual literacy becomes as important as reading itself. My classes have nothing to do with what I make. I don’t tell them to bring mustard, gunpowder, and maple syrup to class (although they do anyway). The school is where I vent those formless ideas and go wild about the immateriality of things. It saves me the trouble of having to cover that in my work. It also keeps me from making art that is didactic. I want these things to be beautiful, and I want this beauty to conceal the rhetoric behind them.