Articles by Vik

The I by Vik Muniz

The end of the art-object articulated as an object coincides with the reign of objects of values. The individualized and individualizing object, when submitted to a process of patterned repetition in an endless series, is entirely dependent on factors which are of a technical and sensorial order, inscribed into the social, intellectual and material characteristics of a society. The object will always be a distinct element in the context of the real, and the regression of the object to thing acting as an indistinct condition reduces space to the notion of ambient.

G.C. Argan, L’art moderna

When the capacity for industrial production surpassed the social capacity for consumption, competition among manufacturers of goods forced them to invest the product increasingly with an alter image, a brand, an identity — something that would make their products seem different from the others. The advent of mass production also thought about a wholesale organization of the system of objects into large, generalized classes of things. Cups would be cups, regardless of their shape and ultimate use. In the universe of mass produced things the need for an idealized representation triggered a process in which the things themselves became less important than their images. Consumer culture faced the task of systematically minimizing the organic complexities of material things by divesting them of symbolic volume, by flattening their substance into the unassuming transparency of signs, by narrowing the gap that separates the object from its archetype. Making it universal in its perceived form and yet unique in its character and relationship to the user. By transforming food and other essential goods into objects of culture, man continuously reinvent the order that binds objects to their images; a young kid will call an LP record a bid “CD,” while a Frenchman will call a pickle a small cornichon.

There is a great little cheese shop down on First Avenue, and I go there often enough to notice that the person behind the counter never displays a cheese without first cutting off one eighth of it. When I asked why he did that, he answered with absolute conviction, “It’s obvious….otherwise it won’t look like cheese.”

The organization of the things according to their respective archetypes seems entirely logical in view of our approach to the development of interpretative tools. In much the same way that young birds are able to distinguish among shadows hovering over their heads, recognizing immediately the presence of their parents or the specter of a predator, humans are born with a basic set of semantic templates designed to ensure survival. The function of a logo is to explore linguistic patterns at this primary level of perception.

Photography came to symbolize families of objects not by virtue of its simplicity but because of its presumed transparency. With rarefied syntax, the photographic image crosses the threshold of visual judgment, transforming itself into pure subjectivity once it is stored in the viewer’s memory. If you are asked to recall the photograph of the Challenger explosion, for instance, you are likely to imagine the swirling trace of smoke in the sky as if it were above your own head but never the paper object in which this image was first encountered. If photographs have such a powerful effect at the personal level, what impact does the photographic image have upon collective perception of things and how, consequently, does it affect language itself?

Through the image, the object transcends its own life span, its perishable self. We know from experience that everything decays and changes, yet we fail to recognize this in images. Their fading or tarnishing does not seem to affect the subjects they portray. The damage is often perceived as simply superficial. In a brownish, decayed and cracked still life by Roger Fenton the fruit is always fresh, edible and undeniably delicious.

I remember seeing the fabulous Greek sculpture the Kritios Boy at the Metropolitan Museum and wondering about the time that had passed between its carving, its mutilation, the long period of burial beneath the sand like an amorphous stone and the triumph of its discovery, restoration and display in that museum. Shortly after seeing the actual piece, I ran across an anonymous photograph of the same sculpture taken immediately after its exhumation from the Acropolis in 1865. Unlike the real thing, the object in the picture produced in my mind no feelings about time, memory or oblivion; no history emanated from the picture, only a sense of form, youthful form, perfect in detail and texture. Although photographs are capable of revealing information about the form and substance of the object portrayed, I was bound to see the stone surface of the young body as the skin and flesh of a live object. The sculpture no longer looked fragmented (it lacks a head and forearms) in the photograph. It looked whole and integrated into the context of its original environment.

Perhaps the photograph of the Kritios Boy was better than its prototype, because it could be perceived in a way more appropriate to its origin in Pericle’s Greece, where the factual was often disregarded in face of the ideal. However, while the photograph narrows the spatial perception of the object, it paradoxically enhances its potential to stimulate wonder. It creates a side of the object that will always remain impenetrable to the human gaze; what lies behind the object, its occult aspect, will be forever hidden from the viewer’s eyes.

The photograph does not stand for the object itself but only for a particular perspective view of it, and the best possible view is often the one that comes closest to the archetype.

During my stay in Florence in 1993 I had finally a chance to see Lorenzo Ghibeti’s Gates of Paradise. The Renaissance masterpiece had a lasting effect on me. Here we find an exquisite command of three-point perspective combined with high relief; two anachronistic modes of representation, one numerically designed to operate within two-dimensional space and the other sculptural and analogous to the three dimensional vision. Ghiberti achieved a scale for compensation enabling one mode of representation to blend gracefully into another, creating form over a totally uncharted space.
The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born.

The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media.

To photograph a drawing is to forge a link between parallel forms of representation, to contextualize its synthetic message within the complexities of time and space.
To photograph an object is to transform it into mental substance, to map its regress into a state that predates its own existence, its return to an archetypal stage.
To photograph an archetype is to reverse the order of symbolic exchange, to retrace the trajectory of its interpretation from the image phase to the point at which it became an object.

Vik Muniz text Originally published in Das Mass der Dinge (exhibition catalogue), Ursula Blicke Stiftung, Kraichtal, Germany, July 1998