Thursday, September 13, 2007

Vik Muniz: Thinking Artist

The Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly...well, jam, really

I just picked up a book I bought at an exhibition of Vik Munoz's work at PS-1 in Brooklyn back in February, during an ill-fated trip to NYC (I got appendicitis the second day, had to have surgery, and then stayed four extra days over my originally planned three - this during a heavy snowfall and the Jet Blue debacle). You can imagine, the trip being ill-fated and all, that I haven't really had a chance to look at this book much. But for the first time I actually read what Mr. Munoz had to say about his life and work, and it's really fascinating.

Mr. Munoz's work could be construed as gimmicky, if one stood back and only looked at pictures in books and online. But up close, in the scale that he works, they are not: instead, humor and attention to detail make for a surprisingly fun, and often very beautiful, effect. His ability to take disparate...well, stuff, and make it into images is amazing, as if he can actually see in a different way than the rest of us. Like he is doing jigsaws backwards, making the puzzle pieces form a picture rather than watching the picture emerge from the puzzle pieces.

Liz Taylor made out of diamonds: the artist had to work in the bank vault, with a guard standing by; he was not allowed to take them home.

A photographer by training, he works in odd materials: chocolate syrup, sugar, plastic toys, the dots from hole-punchers, junk, dust, and detritis from a Brazilian street after Carnivale - nearly always sticking to one material for each series. He then photographs the images he's made. When you see one of his shows you find yourself looking at very large-scale photographs (life size to the materials). The detail of it, and the "close-up, far-away" combination makes for an amazing, confusing, exhilarating experience. Funny, too, as in his Medusa Marinara, which I unfortunately couldn't find a picture of. And unfortunately, reproductions just don't convey the intensity of what I'm talking about. If you get a chance to see a show, do.

The artist and some others in front of the above image, made out of toy soldiers: you get a sense of the scale.

Here is what he says, in his book Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer about that confusion of looking:

"My idea was to take a picture of something that represented something else, and I wanted the two readings to be incongruous with one another. I wanted to work with photography and drawing, but I was thinking about relief...If I were to draw a perfect likeness on the street, no matter how good the rendering was, I wouldn't get more than maybe fifteen dollars and a pat on the back for it. But if I were to draw the same person with molasses, and have a trail of ants walking on the picture, all of a sudden it would seem miraculous..."

He goes on to explain why having something glaring and awkward can really improve one's experience of art:

"In 1986, I paid a great sum of money to see Anthony Hopkins incarnate the role of King Lear. Five minutes of the performance was enough time for me to realize that I had wasted my money...his craft was so convincing that he disappeared entirely...I'd paid to see Anthony Hopkins, and all I got was a dying king! On the other hand, I once spent three dollars and a couple of bus tickets to an abandoned firehouse in Queens to watch an amateur production of Othello. The main role was to be played by a man of short stature with a beer belly. [He] worked full-time as a plumber, he was married with two children, and he rehearsed with the theatre group as a hobby on weekends. In the first moments of the play...[he] carried on with the full demeanor of the Moorish the performance developed, however, [he] could no longer hold on to the general as an alter ego and started to slip into his identity as a plumber again. Throughout the rest of the play, he kept alternating personas - plumber, general, plumber, general -indefinitely. So for three dollars, I got to see two tragedies...the bad actor provided a richer experience of theater itself."

So by playing with recognizable materials (not ordinarily thought of as "art materials"), and making us bounce back and forth between, for example, chocolate syrup and Freud, he can make the examination of pictures more playful and interesting.

A Rembrandt beggar in pins, nails, and paper clips

Mr. Muniz became well-known via the series he called Sugar children. In 1995, he exchanged an art piece for a travel package to the Caribbean - St. Kitts, to be exact. During his stay there, he befriended a group of children who would come down to the beach where he swam. One day, they invited him home to meet their parents: "In contrast to the fresh, sweet demeanor of the children, their parents seemed weary and bitter, the inevitable result of an unfair exchange: long, backbreaking hours of labor at the sugar-cane plantation" for a meager salary.

Back in New York, he kept looking at his pictures of the children and thinking of their inevitable, sad metamorphosis, and how the agent of that change, that "mysterious, poisonous potion [which] would transform those bright-eyed island children", was sugar. He quotes the Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar: "It is with the bitter lives of bitter people that I sweeten my coffee on this beautiful morning in Ipanema."

So he copied the snapshots in sugar on black paper, and took pictures of them. As he finished each one, he put the sugar into a jar with the original snapshot on it, like a label. The pictures are so lovely, and so fascinating, they became the turning-point for his career as an artist - and copies of them hang, thanks to the artist, in the school that the actual children attended in St. Kitts.

As for his experience trying to photograph homeless children on the streets of Sao Paulo, I will leave you to read about that yourself. Suffice to say it was a much more dangerous and miserable version of the above story (imagine seven-year-old crack addicts), but ultimately became an exercise in momentary transcendence. It's a really interesting story, as are all his other stories. Highly recommended, both in book and in person, and definitely fun and odd enough to be a Wonder.

A hole punch of talent: still life a la Cezanne


theskyfullofdust said...

Now this is art I can appreciate. And I think I will point it out to some of the students here, as an alternative to essays & work on Banksy and other 'done-to-death' artisits.

Thanks for sharing, as always.


TinyDinosaurs said...

Just saw his works on display for the first time in San Diego a couple weeks ago. Really amazing when you see them in person, no?

-Pat over at

P.S. I enjoy your blog very much.

Anonymous said...

I heard about the peanut butter Mona Lisa on the BBC’, went looking for an image of