Vik Muniz: Illusionism Beyond Specular Appearance

by Aracy Amaral

I take great joy in greeting a fine artist, a creative Brazilian artist who is presenting his work for the first time in a museum of his hometown, São Paulo. In fact, a unique artist outside the mainstream and the exhausting platitudes we see in most art shows or countless catalog-invitations, which apparently ignore, to a great extent, the art production of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties. Singularity appears to be an impossibility in our time, a critical situation that currently involves artists and art itself.

Notwithstanding, Vik Muniz is an artist who struggled hard to tread a successful path. There are people who travel to New York, submerge into the local international arena, and succumb before the retrospective shows, overwhelmed by the torrent of multidirectional information. Vik Muniz diligently cleared a trail for himself, which he studied, expanded, and further elaborated, until gleefully setting a distinctive course for his work.

The first time I came across the work of Vik Muniz at Galeria Camargo Vilaça in 1997, I believe, I was immediately hypnotized. It occurred to me that the use of appropriated images, photos or reproductions of other artist’s work, possibly meant a recurrence to resolved compositional issues, which spawned second- or third-generation images (the reconstitution of the appropriated image and its photograph presented as final work). This appropriation also pointed to the partial exhaustion of new forms, or the difficulty to create them. Would this be an additional modality in the manneristic art of our time?

At the group exhibition I curated in Bogota (Colombia), in 1999, one in which Vik Muniz also showed, I asked myself if today’s artists tend to freeze, more frequently than in the past, before the canvas, the blank paper, or even the definition of a space to be occupied with an installation. I also asked myself if, seen from the viewpoints of both, spectator and artist, this did not result from a saturation of images and information from the consumer society in which we live. I assumed that his creative alternative sprang from a provocative manner to interfere in another visual output, whether it be part of art history or a celebrated photo.

Vik Muniz has a few traits, however, that I would like to address. First and foremost, I wish to point out the tonic accent of his production: his endeavor to actually “make” and not merely conceive a work. This “making” involves the artist’s technical skills to carry out an idea. For example, he can start by competently and meticulously reproducing a work of art or a photograph, chosen (as a challenge or out of admiration) among selected artists that include Corot, Courbet, Monet, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rothko, and Morris. In this process, he reproduces in his own manner the work of an “Other”. Let us bear I mind, it has been said that “cultures are propped on the faithful transmission of rituals and behavior patterns. To duplicate cell by cell, word by word, image by image is to make our world known,” a process of knowledge acquisition that also requires humbleness.

The moment we realize that during the seven years in which Watteau worked as an apprentice at the studio of a greater artist he only painted sky scenes, we become aware of the apparent self-sufficiency of today’s postulants to the artistic career who do not regard drawing, painting and modeling as prerequisites for an artist. In other words, they believe artists need not master the artistic vocabulary. The question is, how does one arrive at syntax without knowing the words?

With Vik Muniz, every time I mention the reproduction, in his own manner, of the work of an “Other”, I am referring to materials he employs, which are different from those found in the works he selects. Photo reproductions of images made with sugar or refuse, or yet a Last Supper recreated with chocolate syrup involve a highly creative poetic license. We know that this artist’s procedures are not unprecedented in the history of art. In the 16th century, Arcimboldo resorted to rare inventiveness to create composite portraits of heads made up of fruits, vegetables, and other objects. Likewise, in the 17th century the (Pre-Surrealist?) Spanish painter Sanchez Cotán presented us with instigating still-lifes painted “d’aprés nature.”

In the series created with chocolate syrup, for example, Vik Muniz used a dropper to reconstruct images with inexhaustible, nearly Oriental patience. As part of the same procedure, he quickly photographed the fixed image in a limited number (three) of Cibachrome film prints. This definitely mannerist process reveals an amazing resemblance between original image and reproduction, and the fresh, sparkling shine of the delectable chocolate coloring rendered in these works. In an interview he gave to Charles A. Stainback, Vik Muniz says that “chocolate inspires a multitude of psychological phenomena: it has to do with scatology, desire, sex, addiction, luxury, romance, etc. I have never met anyone who doesn’t like chocolate. Freud could probably explain why everybody loves chocolate.”

Sometime ago, in a phone conversation with Vik Muniz about second- or third-generation images, he mentioned his awareness of the fact that the viewer takes longer to read an artwork made up by superimposed representational layers. This observation seemed pertinent to me, given that nowadays, possibly overwhelmed by the abundant artworks, the viewer prefers to roam about the exhibition venue without bothering to stop and scrutinize individual works. According to Muniz, “ambiguity is also found in the syntax, in the manner in which an object is represented. I believe there is always something that attracts the observer’s gaze. Whenever he/she takes time to examine a piece, a greater permanence of the work in the individual’s mind and emotion takes place.” He adds: “I can speak for myself: when it comes to theater, I give preference to an actor who is less accomplished. The performance of a talented actor is always convincing, it allows the spectator to watch the play, whereas second-rate acting clearly exposes Ôdrama’ itself, which I find to be far more intriguing.”

Could we possibly speculate that his procedure was inherited from the Pop movements in the sixties? Perhaps so, given that coeval artists (whether it be Jasper Johns, or Oldenburg, Warhol, or Lichtenstein, to mention just a few) duplicated newspaper pages and photos of famous personalities ad infinitum, painted over beer cans or designed soup cans, redesigned advertisements and typical environments of the U.S. visual culture of that time, with a lightness and a sense of humor akin to those implicit in Vik Muniz’s art making.

As we know, duplicates and multiples have existed since the advent of machinery. In his work, Vik Muniz resorts to technology to make photography into his final product. For this reason, this draftsman and painter, an artist who utilizes the line or mixed media to finally put out photographic jobs in limited editions, always comes to mind. In doing so, Muniz is, simultaneously and schizophrenically, in step and out of step with his time as he adopts a strictly craft-like, handiwork procedure in his trade. For this same reason, the latent paradox between process and the instigating final product that make up his work are always surprising and intriguing.

This is only one of the facets of Vik Muniz’s art production. As a draftsman, he comes forth drenched in poetry as his linework flows, out of sheer linearity, a simple piece of wire that renders, with the greatest economy, everyday objects such as a swing, a roll of toilet paper, or a light summer dress hanging from a clothesline. These are images created for subsequent rendition into photographs, his final product. In the series shown here, in particular, he demonstrates that a poetics is alive when one exerts technical skills, when an idea inspires a job, when there is a concept to be framed. The poetics also reveals an earnest attempt at fulfillment, notwithstanding everything, even the environment, which on occasion can be hostile to artists coming from Latin America to a macro center such as New York. A city that, nevertheless, respectfully acknowledges the artist who brings a substantial baggage.

Another aspect regarding this artist is that he does not cultivate “copying” as a mere re-reading or apprehension of a process targeted on image composition, as we would ordinarily expect from the development of a young individual, anxious to acquire this type of knowledge. Vik Muniz reaches further. His job does not consist of reproducing famous paintings, like Velásquez’s son-in-law did with his father-in-law’s canvases, for the numerous copy museums scattered throughout the world. He is not interested only in obtaining perfect copies, real pastiches of celebrated works or famous photos. What we can sense, at the same time that we clearly observe this virtuoso and erudite artist, is that a positive diversity of media for his “matrix,” perforated papers, cotton, chocolate syrup, sugar, garbage, wire drawing, dust, caramel, jam, sawdust, sewing pins, pantone system, occurs on the basis of a virtual image, a representation, involving a multiplicity of materials that the artist calmly and painstakingly handle into his works. However, the success that has crowned his achievements also presents a challenge in the excessive demand on the part of both, the market and the institutions. Therefore, long live this success, granted the necessary quality control so that we can remain in awe before the humorous, remarkably playful, divertente, marvelous nature of Vik Muniz’s creative act.

São Paulo, June 2001. This text was originally published in the catalogue that accompanied Vik Muniz solo show “Ver para Crer”at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo, from June 29- August 12, 2001. It will be republished in 2003 in the catalogue that accompanies Vik Muniz solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, It. September 2003 / January 2004