Material man

Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz opens up about his signature style, collaborating with kids and why art is a powerful tool.

'Aftermath’ series, Vic Muniz (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Aftermath’ series, Vic Muniz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Like any artist Vic Muniz wants us to view the world, and life itself, from a new perspective. But the 52-yearold New York-resident Brazilian photographer takes the presentation of his creations a step or two further.
Muniz’s new exhibition, Pictures of Anything, opened at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on March 28 and will run until August 2. It is the Brazilian’s first show in this country and offers Israelis a plethora of esthetic, textural, intellectual, social and political angles to view and ponder.
Today, Muniz works largely from his New York studio, as well as from premises in his native country, in Rio de Janeiro. He is now well established and is one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation but, in fact, had it not been for an act of violence he may not have had the wherewithal to get to the Big Apple in the first place.
He was born into a working-class family in Sao Paulo and, as a young man, was shot in the leg while trying to break up a fight. He magnanimously waived charges against the perpetrator, and instead asked for, and received, compensation. He used the payout to fund an initial trip to New York City, where he has primarily lived and worked since the late 1980s.
Muniz hails from a multidisciplinary artistic background, and even the most perfunctory of looks at his work conveys that in crystal clear fashion.
He began his career as a sculptor but gradually became more interested in photographic reproductions of his work, eventually turning his attention exclusively to photography.
He incorporates a disparate selection of materials and objects in his photographic process. Often working in series, Muniz has used dirt, diamonds, sugar, string, chocolate syrup and garbage to create bold, witty and often deceiving images that owe much to the photojournalism and art history ethos. His work has been met with both commercial success and critical acclaim, and has been exhibited worldwide. His solo show at MAM (Museum of Modern Art) in Rio de Janeiro, in 2009, drew enormous crowds, and was second only to a Picasso show in terms of attendance at that institution. MAM hosted his Pictures of Garbage series.
Muniz’s work, and his unorthodox creative process, were exposed to a global audience when he was the subject of the 2010 documentary Waste Land, directed by Lucy Walker. The film centered on Muniz’s work on one of the world’s largest garbage dumps, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The film was nominated for an Oscar Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2010.
The Brazilian takes a down-and-dirty approach to life and his work. He is not looking to gentrify or objectify his subjects. He wants us to see his truth, his whole truth and nothing but his credo, and also wants to get us on board the evolutionary continuum of the items he exhibits. “You can make your work very precisely, but you can still see what it’s made of,” he states.
“That’s a very tricky thing to achieve.”
Muniz feeds off life wherever he goes, constantly availing himself of his cross-disciplinary skills to create new works spawned by some experience or other. His 1996 Sugar Children series, for example, was the result of a vacation he took on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. While on holiday he came across groups of local children and says he was: “captivated by their fresh, sweet demeanor,” but equally affected by “the adults’ weariness and sense of hopelessness, the result of long years of hard labor on sugarcane farms for meager wages.”
Back in his studio in New York Muniz quickly set about replicating photographs he’d taken of some of the children.
He took black paper and carefully sprinkled sugar to create likenesses of the children. The medium he chose had a multi-pronged purpose.
“The sugar crystals allude not only to the centrality of sugar in the children’s lives, but also to the photographic film which is coated with microscopic crystals of silver nitrate,” explains Muniz.
Children he encountered on his travels also formed the basis for Muniz’s Aftermath series which he compiled for the 1998 Biennial of Sao Paulo, the artist’s hometown.
“I was moved by the conditions in which an estimated 5,000 homeless orphans lived in the streets of the city,” notes Muniz. “These children had nothing in common with my young Caribbean friends – they did not shine. Instead, they were mimetically adapted to their environment.
They were the same dusky color as the city, becoming invisible so that people would leave them alone.”
Muniz did not want to leave them alone and, after getting pally with some of the children, he showed them an art history book and asked each one to choose a picture whose pose they wanted to imitate. Muniz then used the detritus of Brazil’s biggest cultural event to produce a series of works of art.
“I photographed the children and used the pictures as the basis for images made from the gritty, colorful trash swept off the street on Ash Wednesday, the day after the Carnival,” he says.
As the name of the current exhibition suggests no subject, or substance, is safe from Muniz’s imaginative mind and skilled hands. For his Pictures of Soil, for example, he spread a layer of soil of a sheet of white Plexiglas placed over a light box. He then removed parts of the soil, using a variety of tools, from a miniature vacuum cleaner to moistened cotton swabs, to create an image betwixt the granules of soil.
Elsewhere in Pictures of Anything, there are recreations of famous works of art – such as Gustav Klimt’s iconic The Kiss and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte – made of jigsaw pieces, and duly photographed, and images taken from newspapers and magnified to the point where the observer can clearly make out the dot pattern of the halftone screen used in newspaper printing.
Muniz has us constantly zooming in and out of life, and examining supposedly mundane situations afresh.
For more information about the Pictures of Anything exhibition: (03) 607- 7020 or