Articles by Vik

Blind Spot Magazine: Mirrors or ‘How to Steal a Masterpiece’

by Vik Muniz

A Sunday afternoon in the Louvre — I could not pick a worse day to visit a museum. Wandering in, unable to decide what to see, I’m dragged by the thick flux of tourists to the Denon wing: The place where the Mona Lisa hangs. In the ample room, an endless line is formed by those who, for a second or two, will share a moment of partial intimacy with the famous painting. Nearly everyone in the room carries a camera. Some don’t even get to see the work with their bare eyes: cameras glued to their faces, they approach as close as they can, taking as many pictures as the patience of the next in line allows.

The steady movement of the line and its clicking possesses the aura of a strange cinematic event, in which each frame, after being exposed, departs to a completely different destination. This deconstructive “cinema” perfectly traces the trajectory between the universal image and its ultimate image for personal (even if mechanical) interpretation.

Like an eye test, each photograph will gauge the relationship between photographer and subject. Hundreds of thousands of photographs are taken here every year, and indeed the subject smiles differently in every single one of them.

Because of its reflective protection, it is virtually impossible for one to photograph the Mona Lisa without photographing oneself. An impossibility that can also be perceived as the most curious form of self-portraiture.

Either literal or metaphorical, this reflection seems to be a common property to everything in the museum. In their solely visual function (no touching please) all these objects and paintings seem to rely on the presence of the viewer in order to exist.

Reflection can also mean introspection: Thinking about a thing particularly with the notion of meditating upon a previous experience or event and its significance.

I look at myself in the mirror and suddenly I come to realize that not only my image, but everything else purely visual, can never avoid posing.

Both mirrors and museums are not mere subjects; they are subjectivity itself. And the same neurotic instinct that leads us to photograph mirrors (the mirror can tell you how you are but never what you are), leads us, in a social scale, to photograph museums: The arrest of this reflective convolution (the same one that killed Narcissus), the tricky metamorphosis of the viewer into the voyeur.

It is not the figure of seduction that is mysterious, but that of a subject tormented by its own desire or its own image.

Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories.

Narcissus knew that he could never have himself. But if he’d had a photograph maybe his tragedy would have been avoided.

Photography has enabled society to have itself through the evanescent disembodiment of its own symbols. More than just a copy, each personal Mona Lisa represents the theft of a fraction of a second form the (exclusively) visual life of the symbol, a distorted echo no two people can hear.

In photographing the unchangeable, we always end up with the same image. But in doing so we shift the emphasis of the photographic act from the subject to our own presence in relation to it. For some reason this makes me think of The Forbidden Reproduction, a painting by Magritte in which an apparently generic man gazes deeply into a mirror that oddly only reflects the back of his head.

Photographing the museum has not always been as ingenious and spontaneous as we commonly see it today. As early as the first half of the nineteenth century, photographers like Talbot and Fenton were already taking their (much larger) cameras to the museum; an instinctive and technical choice of subject that would eventually become frequent practice among major photographers throughout the history of the medium. But it wasn’t until recently that artists’ concern to redefine their own social relevance would allow the serious professional to borrow the eyes and perspective from his or her instamatic counterparts.

By coldly categorizing these cultural spaces with the same unflinching eye of the security surveillance camera, photographers like Hiroshi Sugimoto, Candida Hofer and Thomas Struff make the viewer oscillate between seduction and alienation, vision an voyeurism. Others such as Louise Lawler and Olivier Richon place their emphasis on the artifices of representation and value through a vocabulary of symbolic elements and conceptual juxtaposition. Zoe Leonard, as well as Doug and Mike Starn, enhance the distance between image and event. Concentrating on subjects consistently involving pose and display, they give back their subjects a token of material objectivity. Often creased and without touch up, their prints contrast the common place of universal imagery with the materiality and presence of the self over the subject.

It is a world where anyone can take picture, art photography has always sought uniqueness, some elusive “decisive moment” to set itself apart from the realm of drugstore snapshots. Defying these odds, this generation of artists has turned their lens to the most mundane of all subjects. Whether through directness of artifice, their remarkable efforts stand out as art in itself; something soon to be photographed by another Sunday tourist.

Vik Muniz text Originally published in Blind Spot, Vol. II (1993)