Book: Vik Muniz, The Catalogue
Authors: Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, Calif.; Brett Abbott, Donald and Marilyn Keough Family curator of Photography and Head of Collections, the High Museum of Art
Review by: Phil Bolton, publisher of Global Atlanta; Amanda Villa-Lobos, photographer
There is so much to say about the photographic work of the Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz that this review of a catalogue of his work displayed at the High Museum of Art from last February through May can’t even begin to capture it all.
I’m somewhat relieved that Brett Abbott, the former curator and head of collections at the High, and Todd Brandow, executive director of the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, begin with the same feeling of inadequacy in their forward to the book.
“While no single exhibition is truly capable of representing the depth and breath of Muniz’s artistic endeavors, our project represents the most significant and comprehensive attempt to date to weave together the diverse phases of his imaginative career in a museum context,” is their mea culpa.
I hope you didn’t miss the exhibition, but I have to confess that I only got a few glances on a quick passthrough. Consequently – filled with wonder, curiosity and feeling somewhat guilty – I returned and bought the catalogue.
What the catalogue doesn’t do is give you the scale of some of the enormous prints, which can catch the viewer’s attention and then draw him or her to look ever more closely — and then even more closely. The catalogue itself, nevertheless, can capture your attention for hours at a time.
A few quick facts about Muniz: Born into poverty in Sao Paulo in 1961, he begins drawing in his youth, works for an ad agency, comes to the U.S. because he was shot at accidentally by someone who agrees to pay for his plane ticket and as an illegal immigrant starts studying seriously. He is best known for recreating famous imagery from art history and pop culture with unexpected everyday objects, then photographing them.
So let’s drop him into a few places and see what happens. How about the Jardim Gramacho garbage dump, the largest in Rio de Janeiro, which is filled with toxins, violent thugs, drug dealers and their addicts? Instead of passing through just once, grateful to still be alive, he keeps going back, meeting its inhabitants and photographing the junk.
He then creates images using some of the people he has encountered as models. His images replicate classic paintings such as the one on the catalogue’s cover of the French revolutionary leader Marat in his bath by Jacques Louis David in 1793. Look more closely and see all the junk surrounding the bath.
If he had done this series alone, he would have been heralded across the globe. The series even inspired a documentary titled “The Wasteland” that contributed to his fame. But, quite frankly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s drop him into another setting. How about in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this time, where he came across some cell biologists? The resulting series “Colonies” is inspired by the growth patterns of cells. Interesting? Don’t forget that Brazil was a colony of Portugal for centuries, or that formal gardens may replicate some of the same patterns of organic growth.
As if this wasn’t enough, before leaving MIT he started working with a researcher who was repairing microscopic integrated circuits on microchips. All this is unseeable with the human eye, but the equipment being used enabled Muniz to start drawing castles on single grains of sand. A new breed of sand castles — get it?
And there’s so much more. He doesn’t need futuristic equipment to make art. Give him a plate of spaghetti and he’ll come up with the Medusa, as on the catalogue’s back cover. Give him some liquid chocolate and he’ll replicate Jackson Pollock creating some of his “drip paintings,” or thread, and he’ll recreate beautiful, dreamy landscapes.
After going through the catalogue, I’ll never look at a postcard the same way again and if you check out the catalogue you won’t either.
One of my earliest memories is of a photograph that became a postcard of my grandmother atop a camel in front of the Sphinx in Egypt at some time in the early 20th century. Muniz didn’t get his hands on this one, but he’s got boxes full of others, all waiting for their day in the sun or on one of his photographs.
A Note of Thanks
There are a few people I want to thank for propelling me to go back to the High and buy the book. Yes, there’s my grandmother for her interest in travel and finding herself in exotic places to be photographed.
But there’s also the Telles Ribeiro family including Edgar Telles Ribeiro, a Brazilian career diplomat and writer, and his brother Ambassador Hermano Telles Ribeiro, who was based in Atlanta as consul general of Brazil, and Hermano’s daughter Amanda Villa-Lobos who interviewed Muniz on behalf of Global Atlanta (read her interview below).
Other local influencers who introduced me to Brazil include Lucia Jennings, a founder of the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce and its president for many years, Fabiana Di Pietro Xavier, the chamber’s former executive director, and William Stolz, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil and a former trade commissioner at the Canadian Consulate General in Atlanta.
Also, I count as an inspiration Michael Lesy, an elementary school classmate of mine who now is a writer and professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. Lesy, who taught at Emory University for a while, has had books published which combine historical photographs with his own writing including Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), Bearing Witness, A Photographic Chronicle of American Life (1982) and Visible Light (1985), among others;
Nor do I wish to forget S. Lane Faison, one of the Monuments Men, whose memorable art history courses I took in college, for getting me into museums.
And most of all, I’d like to thank Vik Muniz for your wonderful work. Please come back to Atlanta.
Need more? Amanda Villa-Lobos’ interview with Vik Muniz for Global Atlanta follows.
Amanda Villa-Lobos: What inspires you most about Brazil?
Vik Muniz: Most of my artistic influence growing up had nothing to do with art. I was influenced by television and cartoons. The conventional sources of adolescent influence. My father was a waiter who had no access to art except for a very marginal relationship. It was limited to really bad and small illustrations in an Encyclopedia Britannica that his father had won in a pool game.
I did draw a lot. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I started knowing about art history. It became an obsession of mine after that. It started with academic drawing from the masters. Most colleagues at drawing school didn’t even know who Andy Warhol was. Then I didn’t think about contemporary art until I moved to the U.S. in 1983.
Ms. Villa-Lobos: Does most of your work have a humanitarian focus?
Mr. Muniz: No. My work is not based on any political or humanitarian motifs. If you are sincere and your work is to show the world as you see it, it has this honest, realist motivation, you’re making people see the world in a better, more efficient, more clear way, then that’s enough for them to make their own political and social ideas.
As a person, I’ve have this need to be part of a larger context. Artists have to be involved with everything. The world extends far beyond my house, my neighborhood, my city. The more you are involved with your community, or the social context that you live in, the more you have the chance to feel the world you live in and give back creatively. It wouldn’t be ambitious for an artist to limit his experience to his immediate surroundings.
Ms. Villa-Lobos: Do you get involved with social issues in Rio de Janeiro or in Brooklyn where you live now?
Mr. Muniz: Brazil is a complicated country. But the people inspire me. I believe in Brazilians. The problem and beauty of Brazil have the same root. Fortunately we were able to develop a democratic process but our republican process didn’t develop. Maybe that’s because of our educational system and culture or history since we always have had a hierarchical system of power. We didn’t develop the idea that our house extends out from our social context, our house, our car. Sometimes we blame the politicians and you go out on the streets and there are people trying to bribe guards and cutting lines to get ahead. There is a Brazil that is ugly some of the time. I say we cured obesity but we are dying of hunger. It looks like a country of starving people. But Brazil also is fun and beautiful and I find in Brazil a unique ability to care and be affectionate and love that I don’t see in other cultures. I don’t know how much I’d like to change Brazilians because I am Brazilian.
A lot of my work is inspired by European and American art from the 1960s and 70s, but what gives it a special characteristic is the fact that I’m looking at it from a Brazilian perspective…from the side of the ‘ugly hack’ and wrong things. I don’t know. I live in Brazil and I love Brazil, all of it. I like Rio – I think that it is the most beautiful city in the world. It has the beauty of a resort – a place to spend your vacation. But it also is a very complex city of 16 million people.
Sometimes I tell my wife, ‘You know where I want to take my break, in Rio de Janeiro,’ because it is incredible what you have in Brazil and it’s incredible to see what’s happening in the country. So I think that we need to change the way we see power, but also the way we see each other. I think that has to do with education…and education in the home too.
I don’t know how many generations that will take, but I don’t think it’s going to be a short term process.
Half of my life I’ve lived in Brazil and the other half in the U.S. I have a good comparison so I can say that there isn’t such a thing as a perfect place. We will always want something when we are stuck in a certain situation. Sometimes I really miss Brazil. Sometimes I really miss New York. What can you do?
Ms. Villa-Lobos: Were you surprised to find out that there are as many as 30,000 Brazilians in Atlanta? What do you feel about the presence of Brazilians at your shows?
Mr. Muniz: I think it’s great because you have an empathy that is almost unexpected. I had an expo in Quebec and there was a huge group of Brazilians. I had an expo in Moscow and there was a Brazilian group. So it’s interesting. You are communicating with your culture in different places right?
You have talks with people from different cultures. It’s interesting, especially when you talk with someone who has immigrated and is an immigrant. I am an immigrant mainly in the U.S.. I’m happy to talk to people with whom I share the past. I was an illegal immigrant for six years. I was a waiter, I washed dishes so I am the archetype, prototype immigrant. I have this empathy for people who move to another culture to find a better life. I think, yes, we complain about Brazil, but you can always move. I see these things happening in very hard situations so I have empathy for people who do this kind of thing, and go through what I did. So I love to know that my work is for these people. I invite all the immigrants who are here to come and see the exhibition.
Ms. Villa-Lobos: Come and see it guys. It’s really cool and beautiful. Vik is a very caring person that will be glad to receive Brazilians. And I’m proud to be here with you Vik. Thank you.
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