Articles by Vik

The Beautiful Earth (Pictures of Pigment, Earthworks and Pictures of Junk)

by Vik Muniz

“Interesting Phenomena occur when two or more rhythmic patterns are combined, and these phenomena illustrate very aptly the enrichment of information that occurs when one description is combined with another”
-Gregory Bateson

I had been working on three very distinct bodies of work for over four years when the need to put together an exhibition of “recent works” forced me to think about what these series had in common. In one of these series I used pure loose pigment to reproduce the images of familiar paintings as Tibetan mandalas gone berserk. In another, I used GPS guides, retro diggers and helicopters to produce and photograph gigantic earthworks that depicted extremely banal objects such as a pair of scissors, a saucepan or an electric outlet. A third group of works dealt with re-creating paintings depicting mythological characters using discarded goods, heaps of junk or garbage.

During my entire career I have always felt the need to work on different scales, methods and scenarios simultaneously to keep my interest alive on what I am doing as a whole. I try to do extremely different and disconnected things at the same time so one activity makes me miss the other paying no attention to the way ideas and concepts developed in one body of work instinctively penetrates another, no mater how it differs in material, scale and subject.

I asked Germano Celant, a great curator, art historian and friend to help me connect these last series into a somehow convincing format trusting his crafty ability to connect concepts and objects rather than believing in the existence of such associations. Germano, on the other hand didn’t have to scratch his head to think of an excuse for them to be together. With his characteristic nonchalant Italian eloquence, he told me, over the course of a bottle of wine, that it would be impossible for an artist, no matter how he tried, to work simultaneously on bodies of work that did not share a main central idea and the idea behind these works, although very general, was being made poignant and unique by the way that I was treating it in such different approaches: I was trying to define my relationship to the earth by the mapping of its borders.

All of a sudden the entire equation made sense to me; yes there was a common denominator, maybe one that unconsciously, I was fighting to deny because of its ubiquitous presence and overuse in popular culture. I was dealing with ecology all along, but with an ecology of the border spaces separating our minds from our immediate environments. In the pigment series, I was trying to point out that every human creation, no matter how fanciful or ideal, comes from the stuff of the earth. The Mona Lisa, the International Space Station, the paper the pen and the piano that helped Mozart communicate the creation of “The Magic Flute”, everything had to be produced from stuff dug from the ground, hence my unswerving need to display material somehow separated from subject. In these series, I was treating the earth as the only possible material, with its inexhaustible simplicity, flexibility and willingness to be shaped according to any human fantasy.

On the Pictures of Earthworks, I use the earth as a canvas, a support, perhaps saying that no matter how we try to distill the materiality that shapes our consciousness into a symbolic, linguistic environment, we are only left with that same primitive material canvas as the unexceptional means of fixing and transmitting our knowledge. If in the Pictures of Pigments, I was saying that every material in every human creation comes from the earth, here I am saying that all the human processes, techniques and languages can ultimately only be reflected on the environment where they were developed. In the pictures of Pigment, the vulgarization of the material, pointed to the possibility of a single primitive source of all materials, in the Pictures of Earthworks my intention is to treat the earth as a single unifying depository for all ideas and concepts; the source of all human activity can only be reflected in the way it leaves traces on its immediate environment. I wanted to bring Plato’s Cave to open air.

Ultimately, the Pictures of Junk and subsequently, the pictures of garbage, are a meditation on the effects of time on human activity. Everything we create, including thinking, produces an amazing amount of waste, and since we no longer have to stick to objects or ideas for a lifetime, we hide the unedited trace of our existences in containers, closets, attics, plastic bags, and hidden empty lots making us a distilled subtraction of what we no longer want to be. Working with garbage involves polluting a clean surface and cleaning it at the same time in order to end up with an image. The garbage here comes to represent the entropic chaos of nature, the loss of order and understanding due to an ungraspable complexity. When a figure or anything distinguishable emerges from this clutter, it is because of the cleaning and the reclaiming of the forged simplicity that lies beneath. All that mankind has accomplished in centuries of civilization was the separation of itself from this primitive chaos and clutter. The entirety of human knowledge was based on this kind of hygiene. What would happen when we can no longer separate ourselves from the waste we produce, when we will have to live with a less than ideal past that is not only a memory or a legacy but also a complex variety of immediate olfactory sensations and visual bewilderments? Until fairly recently, a society was being valued by what it was able to consume and waste. Would producing less rubbish make us less human? I have become fascinated by what we so desperately try not to be and what we are unavoidably becoming.

The earth was a theme, perhaps by then, the only possible theme, the source of all things and the end of all intellectual and material achievement. The only material and place for man to act and leave marks of uneven importance and effect. A scarred earth that is slowly becoming a massive residue of human significance, nevertheless the only reflex of our pale presence in the universe, where we see ourselves great, brave, and eternally beautiful, a beautiful earth.

I was born and raised in São Paulo, a city that not unlike Tokyo, Mumbai or Mexico City, exemplifies the struggle between the human drama and its set. Scarcity turns space and nature into valuable and expensive ideas. As I was finally installing The Beautiful Earth exhibition in Tokyo, I could not imagine a better place for it to be. In over a decade, Japan has placed itself as a great leader on environmental issues and despite of its being at the forefront of technological and industrial development, has kept a logical and productive dialogue with its natural environment. Japanese Culture’s extreme devotion to nature and simplicity has managed to prevail above material concerns in a way no other nation has managed to do it. Tokyo in particular, being the largest urban center in the planet has consistently produced intelligent solutions for waste and pollution management and control. I could not possibly be more grateful to the city of Tokyo and specially the entire staff of Tokyo Wonder Site for its unbounded energy enthusiasm and dedication to this project. I sincerely hope that this catalogue and exhibition will inspire others to think about their own relationship to nature at its most instinctive level. Only when this relationship is clearly defined, our thoughts about this beautiful earth will transcend the subject of mere survival and attain the dimension that will enable our thinking and our hearts to evoke real and lasting change.

Vik Muniz,

Rio de Janeiro, January, 2009.