Mrs. de Menil’s Liquor Closet and Other Stories

Copyright 2001 Menil Foundation, Inc.
Vik Muniz and Matthew Drutt

Matthew Drutt: What did you imagine The Menil Collection to be like before you came here for the first time in August, and how did your impressions change afterward, if at all?

Vik Muniz: This project has evolved from the particular situation of imagining something before it’s a reality in front of your eyes. I had seen The Menil Collection in tiny pictures in books and magazines, and I had seen the paintings in the collection in the same minute format. When I visited the museum, everything was much bigger than the tiny pictures. I was immediately attracted to the scaled exhibition models because they were something I did not expect to find: they matched in scale my preconceived idea of the place.

M.D.: Surely this wasn’t a new experience for you…

V.M.: I have always been fascinated by how our understanding supports massive scale shifts when observing a model or other representation of a large system. This representation within a representation is a notion that I have always dealt with in my work. Like Hamlet’s “play within the play” strategy, it’s a means of allowing some kind of truth to emerge from the cracks in an illusion. A truth that is halfway between the way things are and the way we imagine them.

M.D.: Why was it important to do something based on the museum’s collections?

V.M.: I like the idea of specificity. In our daily routines, most images come to us without our much asking for them. When we take a car or a bus trip and pay a fee to enter a museum, we are voluntarily going toward images, spending time with them, studying them. This ritual completely changes the way we look at images: The image of the museum comes first, a bit too complex and difficult to grasp; then the great number of objects in the collection, and all the possible ways to group them, and the narratives to be explored by passing in front of them in diVerent sequences; and, finally, those objects that are important to us or to society for some particular reason.

M.D.: This specificity also seems to relate to the broader phenomenon of the imaginary versus the actual that you experienced with respect to scale.

V.M.: We can’t avoid trying to match our actual perception of these objects with the imagined version that we developed beforehand. The museum is also an imagined place before visited. By being overly specific, I can take advantage of what people already know about the place and play with their expectations, just as I do in most of my work. Only here, the context is a little bit larger.

M.D.: The museum has holdings in many areas, yet you chose to focus essentially on its Surrealist collections. Was this intentional or just happenstance?

V.M.: The Surrealist works are one of the main reasons people visit The Menil Collection. The images, for being so important, are also extremely well known. They are already preloaded in the visitors’ subconscious prior to the visit. This makes it easier to deceive them.

M.D.: Is deception the only impetus?

V.M.: No. The other reason is that Surrealism itself was a movement very concerned with the relationship between the mind and visual phenomena. I feel very close to their quest for forms that would express ideas as if they were still inside the artists’ heads. The Surrealists loved to experiment with models, mannequins, toys, and dolls because these objects stand between reality and imagination. Since we were children, we have depended on these structures to mediate between the real world and the imagined one. The Surrealists realized the importance of going back to these things.

M.D.: Why did you choose to work with the maquettes? After all, aren’t they simply objects as utilitarian to museum installation as hammer and nail?
V.M.: Dominique de Menil, the person who put this collection and museum all together, seems to have had a penchant for the toylike images I was talking about. Her liquor closet was lined with miniatures she commissioned from her important artist-friends. The bar as a small museum somehow sustained her vision of making a real museum. The bar was a model itself. I heard it was she who insisted everything be resolved in that scaled version before being tried out in the galleries. I see the maquettes as a transition between the liquor closet and the museum.

M.D.: With this project you have shifted from working with reproductions of art that are circulated in the public realm to objects never intended to be seen by the public. How does this advance the thinking behind any of your previous projects?

V.M.: We deal with images all the time, but when we are not in front of them we think very little about what they look like. This is also a particularity of drawing. You must stop looking at the model in order to project that idea on the surface of the paper. The gestating image changes in form and substance each time it is carried by memory from apprehension to representation. Models were created to establish steps in this process and they are present all along the way, from conception to display. I believe this work deals with a lot of the issues I raised in the Best of Life and the Equivalents series; the diVerence here is that I take advantage of the specificity of the Menil space and turn these mnemonic devices into an environment.

M.D.: Your selection of the maquettes as subjects transforms their character from something private into something public. They have become objects worthy of aesthetic consideration not only by your redeploying them in photographs but also through your recasting of their scale. How has scale become critical to your work in general and how does it figure strategically here?

V.M.: One of my favorite places in New York is the model of the entire city at the Queens Museum of Art. My admiration has nothing to do with perfection or achievement. It has to do with the odd scale of the model. Models that are designed to help develop spatial ideas are usually crafted to allow us to manipulate them. The model of New York City does not serve that purpose. It was designed for display only. You enter the room, and the model is so big that you feel you are entering it; you have the odd feeling of being “inside” something that is small in theory but large enough to accommodate a person. You don’t know if you should feel big or small; it’s like something out of Alice in Wonderland. In Europe, these mini worlds are everywhere. It’s a very different idea from, say, the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, where you observe the tiny, perfectly crafted environments from outside, as if you were watching television. Dioramas are also interesting, but the model as display is a different tool, one that offers not a means of solving problems but of bringing these perceptual quandaries to the surface.

M.D.: In the past you have editioned your photographs. Why is this project composed of unique images?

V.M.: I consider this piece an installation, and as an installation it would make very little sense elsewhere. So I decided it should be unique.

M.D.: Let’s discuss copyright. How does your work, and this project in particular, displace or problematize the fragile distinction between fair use and violation of copyright?

V.M.: Fragile is right. I cannot answer this question as a lawyer would because when it comes to copyright, the law tends to solve problems by trying to simplify them as they become more and more complex. Fifty thousand Elvis impersonators can’t be wrong. My job as an artist is not to find legal loopholes in trying to advance the power of seemingly exhausted images. In exploring what we know about images, I often need familiar ones to work with. But again, I am not using the images themselves. I am only using what we know about them as raw material. You violate copyright law when you employ an existing image for the same reason the original artist did. When you adopt an existing image to speak about the effects that particular image has had on the media-consuming populace, that is no longer a copy and should be considered fair use.

M.D.: What about the sanctity of the original?

V.M.: I tend to believe in Gombrich’s theory of schemata, which argues that every existing image is a copy of another image ad infinitum. Copies help us gauge the subtleties of artistic experience through time. If some medieval painter had copyrighted the images of the Madonna and Jesus, we would not have television today. In this work, I am trying to figure out how the copies stand for the originals in a practical situation.

M.D.: Why include the model with the maquettes in the exhibition? Doesn’t that give away more information than the viewer should have about the origins of the works on the gallery walls?

V.M.: The inclusion of the model was strategic. The model gives everything and nothing to the viewer, for the copies are in the actual space while the “originals” are in an idealized room. Showing the model sets the viewer into a mise-en-abîme situation. It’s quite confusing, so it works.

M.D.: The maquettes contain flaws in part from their being used so often. You chose to leave these imperfections intact in your recasting of them as photographs. Further, you chose to light the works in a way that accentuates this imperfect quality. Why not take advantage of the ability to digitally correct them and make them more realistic?

V.M.: Imperfection is an essential component of reality, therefore it is also essential to illusion. Lighting a small object evenly is easy. Lighting a small object unenvenly requires sophisticated equipment –fiber optics, screens, and so on. I wanted to bring the models to their real scale with all the imperfections they have. A collector who used to purchase my photographs would stand in front of them for weeks with a magnifying glass trying to find imperfections in the prints. When he finally found something he would return the print and ask for a new one so he could continue his pastime. I called him and asked if he could please get a smaller magnifying glass because the big one he was using was turning him into a very small creature. He never called me back, and never bought another work. He spent his money buying larger microscopes so he could find every flaw in everything, so the entire world became a network of tiny imperfections. He has disappeared.