Muniz and the Contemporary Envelope
by Demetrio Paparoni
Let’s begin by saying that Vik Muniz considers art to be a tool for scientific knowledge. It might be said that for artists this is nothing new, that it has been like this since the fifteenth century, since the study of perspective married the work of art to mathematics and geometry. It is since then that, because landscape was a perspectival breakthrough, the viewer can look at the painting as though through a window.
And from the fifteenth century onwards art has never stopped being a tool for scientific knowledge. This was also so in the sixteenth century when Leonardo invented flying machines and dissected corpses to understand anatomy; it was also the case in the seventeenth century when Caravaggio studied the refraction of light or the flickering of a candle flame. In his first version of the Supper at Emmaus (1601 circa, the National Gallery, London), a work of amazing realism, Caravaggio showed Christ in the moment when, on Easter day, he revealed himself to two Apostles in the guise of a young man. The scene takes place in an hostelry. To the left the Apostle Cleopas is caught in the instinctive act of jumping up from his chair. The Apostle to the right — it is thought to be Peter — widens his arms in amazement. Peter’s left hand, extending towards the viewer where the light is, is completely in focus; the right hand instead, nearer to the dark background, is slightly out of focus. In this passage from light to darkness, and from what is near to what is distant, Caravaggio studies the phenomenon of focussing the image. When looking at the original painting it is evident that Peter’s hand is out of focus, but this is lost in photographs of the work because of its excessive reduction. If we consider that, for the mind, being out of focus does not exist because it cannot be seen with the naked eye, then it is difficult to understand how Caravaggio managed to represent it. It is thought that, like other artists of the time, he posed his models in a room in such a way as to be able to project the scene, through of a system of mirrors, onto a single mirror placed in the room where he was painting. This method allowed him to see the composition already on a flat surface, delimited by the edges of the mirror, thus making it easier to represent the perception of light and volumes. Caravaggio copied the reproduction of the scene exactly as was to be done with photography from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. David Octavius Hill, Gustave Courbet, ugene Delacroix, Edvard Munch, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas were among the first to relate their images to photography. In the paintings of Degas in particular, the scenes are characterised by decentred images, diagonal views, and a narrow depth of field, and the background gives the effect of being out of focus. The representation, furthermore, also shows accidental elements such as we see in snapshots. All these aspects are typical of photography.
If on the one hand the system of mirrors used by Caravaggio made it possible to see the scene already on a flat surface delimited by the edges of the mirror, on the other it did not permit a vision of the perspectival passage from the foreground plane to the background. This is why we ask ourselves how Caravaggio, in 1600, could have imagined the existence of something being out of focus. To judge by the Supper at Emmaus, his genius must have suggested to him a method (unknown to us) for noting certain perceptive processes unnoticed by his contemporaries.
In more recent times an example of the phenomenology of something out of focus is to be found in the work of Vik Muniz. In his Best of Life (1989-1991) Muniz aimed at verifying what traces of familiar photographs remained in the mind when they were no longer there to be seen. With an empirical procedure he drew from memory copies of well-known photos seen in the newspapers and on TV, like the execution of a Saigon peasant by a pistol shot through the head because he was believed to be a Vietcong (1968), the Vietnamese girl from Tran Bang running naked along the road with her skin burnt by napalm (1972) 1, or the Chinese student in Tian An Mein Square who opposed the government’s tanks with his own body (1989). These are all images that have so moved public opinion as to be impressed on the collective memory. When he thought his drawings had begun to sufficiently resemble the photographic reproductions, Muniz photographed them and obtained a silver-salt print of about 30 x 36cm. In order to make the subject even more recognisable, during the printing process Muniz used the same half-tones that we usually see in newspapers with a wide circulation. Through this procedure the artist was able to make it obvious that, if the object represented is well-known, then the image supplies its own title: there is no need for a caption to explain the situation portrayed. And not just this. From a comparative analysis between the original photos and the copies made from memory, it can also be see that, when remembering an image, the minds operates a synthesis: it concentrates on the main subject, eliminates the secondary ones, and simplifies the background details. And lastly, Muniz’s silver-salt prints cannot be seen either as photographs or as pictures: their nature transcends photographic representation as much as it does a pictorial one.
To go beyond both photographic and pictorial representation is a constant factor in Muniz’s work. At the same time the fact that, despite making his copy of reality by hand, he considers himself to be a photographer, demonstrates that in art there does not exist a representation that can be considered extraneous to photography. The conclusion Muniz leads us to is that the more an image appears technically perfect the more it is distanced from reality, as happens with photo-realism where landscapes seem made of cardboard and the people seem to be dummies. It could not be otherwise: the aim of art never was that of obtaining a perfect copy of nature, but of making the works something so unique and original as to refer, above all to itself.
There is a logical thread linking together the various phases of Muniz’s work. His aim is to show the deceptiveness of the image with regard to his historical memory and to the experience of the viewer. We have learnt from Freud that our personal affairs influence our perception of things, while from Jung we have learnt that there also exists a common archetypal residue better known as the collective subconscious. Muniz is very aware of Freud’s lesson and, in fact, has devoted a portrait to him (Sigmund, 1997). He created it from chocolate laid on a sheet of paper as though it were oil paint or tempera and then photographed it to obtain a colour print. Again using chocolate, Muniz has also made a portrait of Jackson Pollock painting (derived from a famous photo taken by Hans Namuth). As we know, Action Painting was developed from the theories about psychic automatism that the Surrealists had borrowed from Freud. He, though, held that art was an essentially conscious activity, and so gave short shrift to the Surrealists.
The fluid nature of chocolate alludes to the paint that Pollock was dripping onto the canvas laid on the floor. In its turn this gesture alludes to the Surrealists’ automatism which, in turn, alludes to Freud’s texts on the subconscious. But above all it alludes to childhood, to the period of life in which, according to Freud, our subconscious becomes structured in one way rather than in another, also as a consequence of our earliest sexual impulses. Chocolate, then, can be considered to be the ‘colour of childhood’. At least this is how it seems to be for Muniz who has used chocolate to create subjects with a religious (referring to Christianity) and a sporting character (a Brazilian football team). Another thing to be taken into account is that cocoa, like the confetti the artist uses to create the portraits and the copies of famous pictures that constitute the recent series Pictures of Magazines, reminds us of Brazil – which is where Muniz was born (São Paolo, 1961) and where he grew up, educated in a Christian tradition, halfway between football and the most festive carnival culture in the world.
Muniz moved to New York in 1983, at twenty-two years’ old. His story seems much the same as many European artists who emigrated to the USA in the early part of the nineteenth century (Gorky, Rothko, de Kooning and many others). But differently from these artists who wished to become the expression of American art of the times — so much so as to be indicated by the CIA as artists to be set up in opposition to Socialist Realism 2 — Muniz has proudly kept the spirit of his own origins within his work.
As I have already said, Muniz’s aim is to question the clich we have of images when they are no longer under our eyes. Since the time photography became a tool for popular communication, this clich has been identified in the collective subconscious as the characteristic of culture. Muniz inquires into this idea in order to show that the visualisation of the image depends on the viewer.
In 2001, ten years after the Best of Life, he created Pictures of Color, a series of works referring to copies of famous paintings which he obtained by placing together swatches of coloured card, those usually used as a colour guide for printers. Gathering together over a thousand tones, on each of which is indicated the percentage of pigment that went into its composition, this system can be considered a kind of universal library of colour. Each Pantone colour corresponds to a code or number which gives a precise indication to anyone who wants to reproduce it. In order to make it easier to use the pack of coloured cards it is also possible to detach a stub of the various colours. The principle underlying this system (known as the four-colour process) starts from the knowledge that, by mixing the various percentages of black, yellow, magenta, and cyan through a complex series of filters during the printing stage, it is possible to obtain a reproduction of the image that contains the whole chromatic spectrum.
By keeping the print of a picture as his reference point, Muniz has constructed the image with stubs of colours of various tonalities torn from the Pantone pack. In order to make this process evident he has placed at the lower left corner of each work the four colours constituting the basis of the four-colour system. The image he obtains in this way seems made up from large pixels, as though we were looking at a print that was grainy as a result of its over-enlargement.
Despite the fact that in Pictures of Color the pictures Muniz refers to are perfectly recognisable, the final work is completely new. There is an evident internal visual conflict: the original painting is hidden within the fragments of its deconstruction, the mind, though, recomposes it and allows us to recognise it. Differently to what he does in Best of Life, Muniz here does not reconstruct the image from memory, but his aim though is the same: to undermine the mind’s certainty that it can reconstruct an image.
The subjects of Pictures of Color are famous works by Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Chuck Close, and Gerard Richter. However different they might be both regarding their style and method, these works have a primary role in Muniz’s personal pantheon. Each one represents a different approach to perceiving nature, to the phenomenon of light that makes the image visible, to its reproduction, and to the recognition of the image according to subjective criteria.
Monet and Van Gogh worked with the process of subjective perception of the image by taking colour apart: in particular, Monet did this by placing side by side and superimposing tiny touches of differently hued paint, while Van Gogh used larger brushstrokes. Both were aware of the scientific studies of the chromatic spectrum that were of such interest in the nineteenth century and that, between 1885 and 1915, led art to interest itself in questions about colour division and luminous refraction in relation to the psychology of vision. Pointillisme (and such of its practitioners as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac) was closely linked to optical inquiries, and studied the phenomena of perception in an intellectual manner: instead of putting ready-mixed colours on the canvas, the artist would paint a series of tiny dots of different colours which, from a distance, merged to form a recognisable image. The image deconstructed by Seurat brings to mind an enlarged detail of a four-colour print: the closer you get to it the more the eye sees the pixels that go to make it up, and it discovers that green is the effect of blue placed next to yellow, that by juxtaposing primary to complementary colours the luminosity is intensified, that the intensity of tones is the result of the proportions of the various touches of colour.
Muniz’s reference to Monet’s Haystacks and to the art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is not accidental. As Muniz says, ‘I’m interested in Impressionism for the idea of syntax. You make a photograph, and you blow up the little dots in making it. They can be popsicles, they can be patches of cloth. I like things that are made out of things’ 3. He goes on to say, ‘If a person is required to make art at the end of the twentieth century, perhaps it is necessary to take two steps back in order to continue the project of art in general. I’ve always been fond of 19th century art. In the nineteenth century photography was invented; in the nineteenth century machines and the whole spectrum of social life, the reconfiguration of the family came into being. Even though I was born in the twentieth century, everything that has ruled and structured my life and my knowledge of society has been based upon ideas that were primarily developed during the previous century’ 4.
The Haystacks were painted between 1890 and 1891. Monet considered that landscape in itself did not exist because it changes from moment to moment under the influence of the air and of light. Interested in capturing the way in which the sun’s rays hit the object and was broken up by shadows, he began his canvases in the open but finished them in the studio. He put concepts to one side in order to concentrate literally on the most superficial level of the painting, on its appearance. We might say much the same thing about Muniz who does not aim at understanding how the image deceives the eye. But to get back to Monet. His interest was the envelopment, the term used by critics in the second half of the nineteenth century to indicate the way the way in which colour changes with the alteration of the light. So, then, Monet painted the envelope. What makes these canvases differ from each other is not the perspective view or the visual field of the landscape, but the changes in light according to the changes of the hour, day, and season, in other words to the passing of time. Monet held that the Haystacks should be seen all together in order to appreciate the temporal differences between them. Muniz does not have the problem of the envelope, at least not in the way that animated Monet’s paintings. If we consider, though, that the envelope is the equivalent of a moment made visible, its subjective perception, then we can extend its meaning to Muniz in whose work we find the same attempt to make realism and subjectivity coincide as Monet did. Muniz is quite clear about this. When he says he loves the art of the nineteenth century and that in order to push ahead the project of art in general ‘Perhaps it is necessary to take two steps back, he gets right to the heart of the question: having taken the envelope he reproduces it and, by working on the reproduction of the reproduction, he tackles the problem of cultural conditioning in the perception of an image. It is as well to repeat this: the aim of Muniz is to show that the mind often sees what it is predisposed to see. And in this sense Muniz has taken two steps back (and begun again from Monet) in order to take two steps forward with regard to his contemporaries.
When an artist entrusts his inquiries to a method, he inevitably finds himself making many individual works that form a single great body of work. The Haystacks series by Monet is an example, but we could mention many others. The first to come to mind in a modernist context is the one through which, in about 1910, Piet Mondrian transformed a series of trees (and its branches) into pure abstraction. With a process we also find an aim and a strategy: in this case the aim was to transform naturalistic form into abstraction; the strategy was to shift the individual feeling in the work into a collective feeling through the use of a neutral form. Mondrian discovered this neutrality in the rectangle, a flat geometrical plane, freed from the ambiguity of curved lines, and in which the angles balance the contrasting forces of the vertical and horizontal lines. Colour was also reduced to its basics and had a cool tonality, unemotional and non-violent. Another example of this process can be found in the eleven lithographic studies by Picasso (1946) based on the figure of a bull. Starting from rounded, volumetric (and in a certain sense classical) representations of the bull, Picasso amalgamated the lines and forms that made up the image, until he could outline it with just a few simple marks, scanty but sufficient for us to recognise the subject. Another example of this process is to be found in Verkunding nach Tizian (Annunciation after Titian, 1973), a series of five canvases by Gerhard Richter. Beginning with a copy of Titian’s Annunciation painted as though it were the reproduction of a slightly out of focus photo, Richter deconstructed the image until it became totally abstract. Despite the fact that in the fifth canvas the original subject is no longer recognisable, if we compare it to Titian’s Annunciation we note that the painterly masses and the colours show the same balance. And again, an example of the process involving the construction and perception of the image is to be seen in Keith/Six drawings Series by Chuck Close: six different versions of the same portrait, carried out with ink and pencil marks imprinted on the paper with different techniques. Each portrait has its own autonomy; however, a correct perception of the process must begin with a vision of the whole work and take into account the progressive order of its creation. The same thing can be said for the works by Muniz which, because they are all indissolubly bound to the process leading to their creation, inevitably allude to each other. Let’s, for example, think of Individuals (1992-93), sixty photos of small-scale plasticine sculptures. When we look at the silver-salt prints we see that each sculpture is different from the others, and this is so despite the fact that they were made from the same lump of plasticine, moulded each time to take on a new form after the previous one had been photographed. By showing sixty prints of the same thing in various disguises, Muniz returns to one of the themes underlying his work: the relationship between the identity of what we see and its actual nature.
At the same time as Individuals, Muniz created Equivalents, another series of photographic prints, this time in platinum, in which we are aware of clouds. In fact they are cotton wads modelled in such a way as to seem recognisable because they are familiar. The mind’s associative processes make us see the cotton as clouds, and clouds as animals or objects: we see what we expect to see. The idea underlying Equivalents, Muniz explains, came to mind after having visited the Stieglitz at Lake George exhibition at MoMA.
Muniz greatly appreciates Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) a mythical figure for American modern art. A photographer devoted to ‘exploring the usual’, at the beginning of the last century Stieglitz fought for the development of art photography in his country. He was also a collector, dealer, and a cultural entrepreneur. On his return to New York after a visit to Europe, where he had studied in Berlin and Paris, he started the magazine Camera Work which he was to direct for fifteen years, from 1903 until 1917. He also opened a gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. This gallery, which used the address as its name, exhibited both young American photographers and European artists, amongst whom Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
By encouraging wide-ranging discussion about modernist thought, Camera Work had an important role in introducing New York to the best European avant-garde art. Stieglitz’s photography had been influenced by Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936), an American doctor who had expatriated to England where he had developed an art theory based on scientific postulates. With reference to such artists as Constable, Turner, and Corot, Doctor Emerson held that ‘the task of art is the imitation of the effects of nature on the eye’ and, in order to get near to a correct perception of nature, he advised putting the image out of focus. 5 This theory was extremely important for the work of Stieglitz’s who was also influenced by the theories of Picabia who had written in an article in Camera Work that, in his pictures, the public should not seek a photographic memory of a visual impression or sensation, but an abstract reality that is more pure than form or colour itself.6 To sum up: like Emerson, Muniz is interested in ‘imitating the effects of nature on the eye’ and, like Stieglitz is an ‘explorer of the usual’, and like Picabia shows images that go far beyond the photographic memory of a visual impression. In all this, what should make us think is not so much the points of contact between Muniz and the many artists in the years of change in the nineteenth and twentieth century, so much as the actuality and the formal differences that, despite their ideas in common, separate him from all those to whom he refers for one reason or another.
Erwin Panofsky has written that the most significant expressions that can be placed under the heading of ‘pictorial subjectivity’ are Dutch seventeenth century painting (though I myself would not limit the argument to this but would also extend it to Italian and Spanish seventeenth century painting) and nineteenth century Impressionism. To paraphrase Panofsky, we might define Muniz as an exponent of ‘photographic subjectivity’. As though to confirm Panofsky’s theory, Muniz pays great attention to seventeenth century art and to nineteenth century Impressionism, but also to Close and Richter whom Panofsky, writing in 1921, obviously could not have known, and who together with Muniz he might well have included among the most significant examples of contemporary ‘subjectivity’. The question is: is Close’s and Richter’s subjectivity ‘pictorial’ or ‘photographic’? To judge from the means these artists use we might well say pictorial; to judge from their relationship with photography and our own knowledge of art we might say that Muniz’s is ‘photographic’.
Muniz admires Close because as a minimalist he constructs images by following a method, because of his manual ability, and because his main aim is to analyse perceptive phenomena. Since 1967 Close has photographed himself and his friends to obtain a print that, having squared up the photo, he then enlarges onto a canvas so large as not to permit him to see the subject fully while he copies it with the traditional oil-on-canvas technique. Close’s aim is not to challenge photography but to understand just how far it is possible to obtain an image close to reality and yet ,at the same time, without having any kind of narrative element. In doing this Close follows in the footsteps of Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted Men (1964), genuine police mug-shots enlarged on canvas using a silkscreen process. These photos, originally shot as a document, like banal passport photos, were well adapted to showing an image without any kind of narrative because there was no kind of relationship between the photographer and the subject. A detainee in fact does not settle into a pose, does not smile at he camera, and neither does the person who takes the shot try to obtain any other kind of result than a mere record. By beginning with the same considerations as Warhol, Close concentrates on the face and eliminates all details that might refer back to the subject’s personal affairs. He has also used his own face and those of other artists who, in turn, have made their own self-portraits.
Despite their photographic impact, Close’s paintings do not respect the laws of photography: there are details put into focus that should not be so, and vice versa. But when all is said and done the eye is deceived and the painted image seems equally truthful. This underlines how perception of the image changes in relation to its dimensions, an aspect that also touches on the work of Muniz who, in his photographic prints, at times alters the dimensions according to the aim he has in mind. In this sense Muniz has an advantage over Close because first of all he makes a copy by hand of the object, which has the value of a photo, and then re-photographs it with a camera. At this point he keeps the print and throws away the hand-drawn original, often done with perishable or unstable materials such as chocolate, dust collected from museums, cod liver oil, sugar, jam, hair, or confetti. The choice of perishable materials further underlines how each image is destined to change in time.
I think that at this point it is obvious that the final work of Muniz is not the photo in itself, but the whole process. Each passage during this process helps him to find an answer to his questions, rather as Leonardo did when, convinced that man had the necessary force and ability to emulate birds in flight, he copied the bone-structure of the wing of a bird and dissected it while noting its structure and the dynamics of its movements. When Leonardo invented bird-copters propelled by humans his aim was not a bird-copter as such, but the possibility for flight. Muniz has said, ‘I once had a car that had the most incredibly stupid design and as a consequence, nothing worked. I had to repair to every other day. That car did not take me anywhere but taught me all I know about car repairs’ 7. This metaphor shows how error and awareness of a defect can teach a lot.
Close and Richter paint using a photo as their starting point but they use different methods for tackling the process of constructing and perceiving the image. Among the processes for constructing an image the best known is that of drawing a grid over the subject, numbering each square and then copying it in proportion onto a larger grid. Close has made this method (and all its implications) the subject of his work. He has also shown that for an artist the method can be more important than technical ability. A look at his personal history can help us to understand better the importance the process had in the construction of his works.
In December 1988 Close was found to be suffering from a form of paraplegia. Everyone thought that, as Close was also concerned with technical ability, his only choice would have been to stop painting. But, thanks to his usual method, Close experimented with new techniques that allowed him to create new and beautiful works. Judd (1982) was created by superimposing pieces of differently coloured paper, Robert II, 2001, by a texture of dots and geometrical forms that, superimposed and juxtaposed, become a mixture of sober elegance and grainy pixels. Muniz’s works are quite different from those of Close, and yet they remind us strongly of them. It is method that they have in common: not the same method, but the belief that a work can be created by developing a personal method. Whatever image he constructs and photographs, whatever the materials he uses, through his method Muniz has arrived at a style that allows us to distinguish his works from those of others.
But to get back to Close. As I have said, in order to construct his paintings Close uses a method of transferring. The first to make an empirical science of the theory of proportions, using the setsquare and compass to reproduce the human body while taking into account its three-dimensionality, were Leon Battista Alberti and, above all, Leonardo da Vinci. Panofsky has pointed out that ‘Alberti tried to reach the aim common to both by perfecting the method, Leonardo by expanding and elaborating the material’ 8.
Since the fifteenth century art has never stopped moving in tandem with science. Muniz’s statement that ‘Basically, I am trying to compound an epistemology of flattened visual forms’ 9 allows us understand that he is working in a tradition that includes, among others, Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo, Caravaggio, and Vermeer.
Within the work of art in the eighteenth century, science and concept coexisted thanks to the deductive method which was at the time the way of perceiving reality. Later, in the nineteenth century, when artists wished to go beyond intuition and searched for corroboration of their ideas in scientific research and experimentation, there was a passage to an inductive-deductive method. It is obvious that Muniz, using an inductive-deductive method for his own work, says that he recognises his affinities with the tradition of the nineteenth century, which was also the century in which the invention of the photographic camera changed the cultural connotations of images. Photography as such had been invented by artists centuries earlier. It is already present in the system of mirrors used by Caravaggio and his contemporaries, and it is also to be found in the paintings by Jan Vermeer in which reality seems filtered by the lens. But then, if photography is a process through which, in one way or another, the image can be recorded — it is not by chance that we talk about the photographic process – why couldn’t the human mind have invented a process for visual perception different, though analogous, to that which made possible the invention of the photographic camera?
The nineteenth century was that of mechanics, industry and of photography in the modern sense. There were the first Daguerreotype portraits, then technology made exposure times shorter, then there were photos of landscape and of urban scenes. And it was in the area of the mechanical reproduction of the image that art lost its supremacy over science. Inevitably the artist asked himself what sense it had to represent by hand what a machine could pin down in a faster and more truthful manner. The definite turning point came in 1895 when the invention of cinema, by introducing the concept of the documentary, changed the idea of communications. And so we arrive at the twentieth century, which is our own age – despite the fact that we are now in the twenty-first century – the age of the triumph of photography. It is at this point that we no longer considered significant the fact that, as Muniz says, ‘Things look like things, they are encapsulated in the transience of their respective meanings’ 10.
In his recent Pictures of Magazins (2003) and Still Life (2004-2005) Muniz has reconstructed famous faces and pictures by superimposing and juxtaposing round pieces of paper the size of confetti taken, with a hole-puncher, from various kinds of magazines, some of which he directly photographed himself. Since each image has a cultural connotation, and since in Pictures of Magazines and in Still Life the image is obtained by putting together these small round forms, we can recognise Seurat in them. Seurat in a Pop guise. The heart of the matter is in recognising a person whose photo has been published frequently in the newspapers or on TV. As in Best of Life, the main protagonist here is the relationship with the media. Being based on the recognition of a media image, and given that we are dealing with the deconstruction of an image that is already deconstructed by the four-colour printing process of books and magazines, in Pictures of Magazines and Still Life the spirit of Warhol is echoed. And yet the two artists are completely different both in their ideas and in their formal aspects.
The similarity to Warhol and the other artists I have mentioned comes from the fact that the twentieth century, whatever might be said by those still nostalgic for the avant-garde at all costs, has been characterised by a strong linguistic unity. Certainly, the twentieth century was the century of strong conflicts, everyone opposed everyone else. But that was only a ploy for affirming one’s own identity. The substance of the work is something else indeed. And the facts demonstrate it. Muniz demonstrates it.
Pictures of Magazines and Still Life pose, among other things, two basic questions: the choice of subject and the negation of narrative within the contemporary work of art. Close and Richter, as also is the case from Cézanne and Monet onwards — including the Impressionists, the Cubists, the Abstractionists, Pop artists, Conceptualists, and the so-called post-Modernists — all, without exception, have stated that, given they were all concentrated on language, the subject was only a pretext. From this derives the absence of narration in a large part of modern and contemporary art. When, for example, between 1971 and 1972 Richter painted 48 Portraits of people from the worlds of art and science in the second half of the nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth century, he said that these were typically neutral images, the kind you find in encyclopedias: ‘That made them modern and absolutely contemporary.’ 11. More recently Richter has, though, slightly changed course. In answer to the interviewer who asked his criteria for choosing a photo to reproduce in his iconography, he answered that one of them was certainly that of its content even though he had denied this in the past because he had to make a show of indifference when copying a photo 12. Now, however impossible it might seem, criticism really did believe that it was possible for an artist to leave his choice of subject to chance. And just think: it is now quite some time since we have known about the existence of the subconscious, that we have known how it conditions our choices by following a precise logic. But such was the need to give a primary role to language and its analysis that it was preferred to think that it really was possible to separate language from its content. Muniz too has said he is interested in ‘the linguistics of an image’, adding further, ‘I want to see where the verb is, and the subject. Is there an article? What’s the object? It’s like when you go to have your picture taken and the photographer says ‘smile’. You know, you are not really smiling. You are just answering a command of some sort’ 13.
By making another slight shift, in Pictures of Magazines Muniz declares his intention of referring to the recent history of his home country: the faces are those of his heroes, well-known people in Brazil or even simply friends. His attention here is completely concentrated on those who have affected him by their human characteristics, by the symbolic meaning of their actions, or by their way of being. Tonica Chagas has written, ‘With Pictures of Magazines, Vik selected a pantheon of people he cherishes as his own personal heroes. They encompass both faces well known by Brazilians — such as the writer Joo Ubaldo Ribiero, the carnavalesco Joosinhom Trinta, and the soccer icon Pelé — and ordinary people the artist cares for. Among these is Francesco, an elderly man who sells flowers in Rio de Janeiro restaurants who adds with finesse and thoughtfulness a branch of arruda (a weed for good fortune) as a treat for his customers, and the manicurist Luciana, who has to face 30 miles of commute twice daily to go to work but always displays good humor’ 14.
So humanity too comes into play. Not that there is no humanity in Close or Richter: besides being giants as artists they are also two splendid people. But within the context of modernist dynamics they have considered the narrative dimension in their own work as an obstacle to linguistic analysis. Picture of Magazines and Still Life have a strange linguistic assonance with the collages of the Czech artist Jir Kolr (Protvin, southern Bohemia, 1914; Prague, 2002) who should merit a place of honour in Muniz’s pantheon of personal portraits. A refugee from the communist regime, first in Berlin and then in Paris, Kolr deeply felt the problem of communicating in his own language, so much so that he wanted to speak only in Czechoslovakian for the whole of his life: an interpreter translated everything back into his own language.
Differently from Muniz, Kolr was not a photographer but, like Muniz, he had perfected a series of processes that allowed him to deal with the mechanisms of perception and their implications. His starting point was always a series of printed images, and he considered anything was permissible. From reproductions in books and magazines, to postcards and bad off-prints picked up from the floor of printing shops. He perfected some 108 different techniques, among which Rollage, in which, by cutting a print into four equal parts and gluing them together in a precise order, he extended the reproduction of an art work in length and breadth, or he made them sinuous. Another technique of his was intercalage (literally ‘putting into’) which consisted in giving the form of a famous subject from the history of art to the subject of another equally famous picture. The backgrounds of Pictures of Magazines, made by Muniz from confetti, remind me of the backgrounds of Kolr who, though, because he created collages made to last in time, only used paper intended for bookmaking. If the subject was religious he would cut up pages from religious books, if instead the subject was the work by an artist, he used texts by that artist or ones that referred to him. Since Muniz’s aim is to reproduce reproductions, he does not have the problem of conserving in time his handmade photo, the one, that is, that he will photograph, so he uses the perishable but shiny paper from magazines. These details, that might seem rather insignificant, underline the cultural connotations that distinguish one artist from another and, furthermore, show how the personal history of an artist plays a determining role in his work.
Each tiny linguistic or procedural shift has a correspondence both in the technique and in the form: Close and Richter start with a photo to obtain a picture, Kolr starts from the reproduction of a picture in order to obtain the reproduction of superimposed pictures, Muniz starts from a picture in order to obtain the ‘photo of a photo’.
Muniz has used everything in order to construct (or deconstruct) the subjects that interest him: for Beggars the lines that draw the subject are differently sized nails; for Prisons after Piranesi (2002) the thinner lines are made from threads of cotton. As often happens in his work, we can recognize the materials they are made from. In Monadic Works Muniz puts the image into focus through the use of tiny, different units, i.e. he plays on the different nature of the materials assembled and also on the fact that this is already in itself sufficient for itself. If he uses numerous plastic soldiers, all different in form and colour, each one, though quite self-sufficient, becomes in the general context something other than itself. In this case Muniz makes an explicit reference to the monads of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), the minimum and indivisible unit of the spiritual substance of which all things are made, the final and indivisible element that mirrors, each in its own way, the whole of reality in a harmonious concatenation of perceptions. The concept of the monad is, then, linked to psychic activity that, both consciously and unconsciously, perceives and attracts.
As with the pieces of a mosaic, in the Monadic Works each element that goes to make up the image is self-sufficient, it does not communicate with the other elements, and sees the world from its own point of view. However the overall reality of the image includes them all. This indicates that the work is a unity with multiple contents, because it contains the external world in the form of a representation.
In all Muniz’s work there is an entrance image (the one we begin with) and an exit one (the definitive one that the artist puts in a frame). The various phases of this process of transformation remind us of chemical reactions between two or three compounds. If you mix together hydrochloric acid and sodium hydrate, despite the fact that the elements in the test tube, in themselves, are the same both before and after the reaction – their valence or quantity does not change — you obtain two different compounds to those you started with: sodium chloride and water. And so, as in a chemical reaction, the elements that go to make up an image by Muniz remain unchanged both in their details and as a whole. However, once photographed and transferred onto emulsified paper, the perception of the image changes radically. Just as happened with the paintings of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists.
The Monadic Works remind me of the sculptures from the early eighties by Tony Cragg, those made up from pieces of plastic picked up from the beach or from rubbish bins and then assembled on the wall in such a way as to create a recognisable figure. Cragg’s aim was to give waste material the same function that a line or brushstroke have on the canvas, but at the same time he was making, like many young English sculptors at the time, considerations on the amount of waste we produce every day, and also on our perception of the image. Muniz’s Monadic Works are very different from the sculptures by Cragg; however, they allow us to add a new way of interpreting and therefore of seeing them in a new light. For example they allow us to interpret them according to the theories of Leibniz about monads. However much this statement might seem banal — it is part of the logic of the avant-garde to believe that anything we know should not be repeated, with the result of making us lose sight of important reference points — the art of yesterday and that of today are united by a double thread, one helping us to understand the other, by redefining themselves continually in relationship to the spirit of present time. Muniz does not copy the art of the past, nor does he repeat the experiences of others: if anything he studies the processes that generated the art of yesterday in order to give an answer to the questions he asks himself. In order to do this he has worked out his own process. In this sense he is far from being a Conceptualist because his works do not so much justify themselves by the questions they stimulate in the viewer but, rather, by the answers the artist manages to give to himself. However this may be, since in art as in science nothing that can produce a result should be excluded, to copy or to repeat are not processes that diminish the artist’s work. Muniz’s generation has understood this fully. Maurizio Cattelan, a quite different artist from Muniz both as regards culture and education, has, for example, stated that by repeating what already exists you learn a great deal and you also multiply your possibilities. Cattelan has said that content and meaning are constructions at which you arrive through a process; they are never a given fact 15. In fact as Picasso said, ‘a picture is never an end or a result but, rather, a happy chance and an experience’ 16.
The work is an individual experience both for the person who makes it and for the person who looks at it and, since in the mind of man nothing is fixed and changeable, each new experience can generate a conceptual shift that can modify its way of being seen and understood. In his work Muniz demonstrates that it is not the critics who enlarge the interpretative spectrum of art, but art itself which, by returning to the same themes and excavating them in depth, regenerates itself through the work of the new generations. Thanks to artists such as Muniz art remains alive, and museums are not cemeteries but forges for new ideas. Looking at his work we understand that Muniz is a contemporary of Monet and Van Gogh, Seurat and Signac, Close and Richter, and we understand that they (though obviously not just them) are among the artists who most express the present time and its future.
1 These two photos, respectively of Nick Ut and Eddie Adams were awarded the Pulitzer prize
2 Frances Stonor Saunders, La guerra fredda culturale, Fazi editore, Milan 2004, p. 227. See in particular the paragraph Yanqui Doodles, pp 226-249
3 Vik Muniz, The Cunning Artificer, conversation with Alex Katz, in “On Paper”, New York, March-April 1997. Italian translation Lo scarso artefice, catalogue of the show at Macro, Roma, 2003, p. 41.
4 Vik Muniz, conversation with Linda Benedict-Jones, in “Clayton Days”. Interview in 2000 and published in the catalogue of the show, Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburg, 2002, pp. 71-81. Italian translation in the catalogue of the show at Macro, Rome, 2003, p. 149
5 Michela Vanon, introduction to Camera Work, Giulio Einaudi Editore, Turin 1981, p.5.
6 Francis Picabia, Notes on “291”, in “Camera Work”, June 1913, pp. 33-37. Quoted in Michela Vanon, Camera Work, p.28.
7 Vik Muniz, Natura Pictrix, conversation with Peter Galassi, in “Vik Muniz”, catalogue of the show, Centre Nationale de la Photographie, Caisse des Dpts et Consignations, Galerie Xippas, Paris, 1999, pp. 103-108. Italian translation in the catalogue of the show at Macro, Rome, 2003, p.85
8 Erwin Panofsky, Ivi, p.p. 95-98
9 Vik Muniz, Natura Pictrix, conversation with Peter Galassi, in “Vik Muniz”, catalogue of the show, Centre Nationale de la Photographie, Caisse des Dpts et Consignations, Galerie Xippas, Paris, 1999, pp. 103-108. Italian translation in the catalogue of the show at Macro, Rome, 2003, p. 84
10 Vik Muniz, The Umbearable Likeness of Being, in “Parket”” n. 40-41, 1994, Zurich. Italian translation L’insostenibile sembianza dell’esserein the catalogue of the show at Macro, Rome, 2003, p.78
11 Gerard Richter, conversation with Robert Storr, 2001, in the catalogue of the show “Gerard Richter, Forty Years of Painting”, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004.Italian translation Gerard Richter, La pratica quotidiana della pittura, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Postmedia, Milan 2003, p. 227.
12 Gerard Richter, conversation with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 1986, Italian translation Gerard Richter, La pratica quotidiana della pittura, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Postmedia, Milan, 2003, p. 111.
13 Linda Benedict-Jones, in “Clayton Days”. Interview in 2000 and published in the catalogue of the show, Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburg, 2002, pp. 71-81. Italian translation, catalogue of the show at Macro, Rome, 2003, p.151]
14 Tonica Chagas, Un realista contorto, catalogue of the show at Macro, Rome, 2003, p. 219-220.
15 Maurizio Cattelan, We are Too Many, conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, in “Work, Art in progress”, Trento, January-March 2004, p.34.
16 Pablo Picasso, Lettera sull’arte, in “Ogoniok”, Moscow 16 May 1926. Italian translation in Scritti di Picasso, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1973, p.37
Cardi Gallery -Text for Still Life Catalogue-2005