Vik Muniz’s Postmodern Masters



Vik Muniz, the most celebrated artist to come out of Brazil, is feeling a little under the weather when we meet at Ben Brown Fine Arts on the evening before his Hong Kong solo exhibition opens. That’s no surprise, given the gruelling flight from Rio de Janeiro, but he’s also had to get through two days of interviews and a screening of the award-winning documentary Waste Land, which details his work making art out of rubbish at a giant Rio landfill.

Dressed in trainers and a grey suit, he looks much younger than his 51 years and radiates a positivity and a contagious passion. Like his works, he is a wealth of information, revealing layer after layer of anecdote and reference.

Born into a working-class family in São Paulo, Muniz was largely brought up by his grandmother while both his parents worked. “I came from a hard reality; I came from a slum in Brazil,” he says at the start of Waste Land. There were no art books in the house, “only an encyclopedia,” he says, but he always drew as a child. It was a way of getting lost in imagination, but becoming an artist was never on the cards.
Instead, it happened by accident: after graduating from high school in São Paulo, Muniz took a job in advertising, redesigning billboards for easier readability. A few years later, leaving an advertising awards ceremony, he got shot in the leg trying to break up a fight. Compensated for his injury, he used the money to fund a trip to the US in 1983, where he has lived and worked ever since.

“When I went to New York, I wanted to do theatre,” he says. He took theatre and set- design classes but, surrounded by other artists in the city’s East Village, he gradually started experimenting with sculpture, then drawing and photography. Muniz didn’t have any formal training as an artist, but picked up what he could along the way, going to museums and galleries. His background in advertising served him well.

New York in the ’80s was a hotbed of artistic activity. Artists like Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman started making names for themselves with a hi-lo aesthetic, drawing from media, pop culture and art history – something that appealed to Muniz. “When I started seeing Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, these victims of the media environment, I understood that perfectly,” he says. “These people were making art but had the same dilemma I did, which is finding your place in the world and discovering who you are in this media-saturated environment. This became a constant negotiation. When I saw Sherman’s work, nobody had to explain it to me. These were the kind of people that thought like I did.”

Scouring through familiar imagery from art history and photojournalism, Muniz started using a range of innovative materials to remake famous images with the most acute draughtsmanship – and then photographing them. Like the artists he admires, Muniz became a post-modern product of his time.

Muniz’s work plays with tension: between abstraction and representation, the familiar and the unrecognisable, technology and craft, originality and reproduction. Often working in series, he uses ephemeral materials such as soil, sugar, cotton, wine and peanut butter, as well as everything from diamonds to scrap metal to collages of magazine pictures.

There is often a symbolic correlation between the subject and the material. A portrait of Che Guevara is rendered in baked beans, an easy, cheap food with connotations of the working class. A portrait of Elizabeth Taylor is made out of diamonds, referencing the late actress’s love of jewellery. Waste Land, a series of portraits of the catadores or rubbish-pickers of the Jardim Gramacho dump outside Rio, the creation of which forms the plot of the documentary, is made entirely from recyclable materials. “For a portrait of Ben, I would use foie gras,” jokes the artist of his art dealer’s fondness for epicurean delights.

The reproduction of the original image is discarded; all that’s left is a photograph of that reproduction. The materials used, rather than the photograph itself, are of most importance to Muniz. The act of looking becomes the main preoccupation – it’s not what you see but how you see it. The viewer is seduced by the surface of the image, but take a closer look and it’s easy to get lost in the materials, the layers of signification and visual jokes that abound in the work. Muniz plays with our understanding of famous art works and images, raising questions about why we view certain works the way we do, and why we fetishise some over others. His ability to play with ideas and familiar images has made this master of visual pranks an art-world superstar.

For his Hong Kong exhibition, ‘Pictures of Magazines 2’, he recreates masterpieces using collages of magazine images, and photographs the results. The images are indecipherable up close, like a pixellated Chuck Close painting. But each collage is like a ripple of colour or a brush stroke, mimicking the brush strokes and colour palette of the painted original. Sunbeams, after Vilhelm Hammershoi and Summer in the City, after Edward Hopper also demonstrate Muniz’s skill at creating the illusion of light and shadow with whatever materials he has on hand. Stand back a little and a familiar portrait or scene begins to materialise.

'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, after Edouard Manet', 2012
‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, after Edouard Manet’, 2012

“These are images you’ve seen before, on a poster or whatever, so you already have some sort of reference for it,” he says. They include works by Cézanne, Caravaggio, Picasso, George Stubbs, Manet and Annibale Caracci, but Muniz challenges our understanding and perception of them with his pop-cultural materials.
The viewer gets distracted from the bigger picture by the images from which it is made. I found myself staring at ‘Sick Bachhus, after Caravaggio’ for ages, trying to figure out the relevance of each image, getting lost down a rabbit hole of visual information. I spotted a skull, the face from Caravaggio’s work Medusa, some fruit. Was each chosen for symbolic reasons? Is this the work of an obsessive-compulsive madman? “No. It’s a mixture of deliberate and random stuff,” laughs Muniz. “What I’m trying to do is encourage the viewer to have an interactive conversation with the work.

“We are so bombarded with information on a daily basis. We see images filtered through magazines and films, so our understanding of things becomes confused. We’re dealing with a landscape of cross- references. It’s very charged with meaning, very distracted and very chaotic. This is my way of showing the world as I see it.”

As published in Asia Tatler, January 2013