Brazilian Photographer, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist
São Paulo, Brazil
Summary of Vik Muniz
Art photography has been around since the early 19th century as a viable way to see behind the eyes and into the mind of an artist. Yet contemporary artist Vik Muniz has managed to repurpose its traditional uses beyond presenting images at face value by treating photographs as source material, building block, and inspiration for more complex works. Verging on mixed media, and with a conceptual spin, Muniz's art asks us to question our relationship with illusion and perception, going deeper into the familiar to uncover layers of added meaning.
With his recycling and manipulation of imagery, Muniz's work questions the idea that artistic creativity involves coming up with a completely original idea and champions the idea of expounding upon the existent. Historical artworks, scenes from popular culture, iconic people from our communal consciousness, and cross sections of contemporary, global life highlighting lesser known social issues and marginalized communities are all prey to Muniz's investigations into how we are affected by, and find meaning within, what we see.
- In addition to his reworking of the age-old medium of photography, Muniz is noted for using a variety of eclectic and found materials such as chocolate, jelly, tomato sauce, diamonds, toys, and trash to recreate his or others' original imagery. The materials forward connections between what he is visually presenting and the underlying messages he wishes to convey about his subject matter.
- Multi step process defines much of Muniz's work. Whether drawing, then photographing his own drawings for presentation; taking pictures that are then recreated using non-photographic materials on varying scales; or creating manufactured instances to photograph as reality, the steps involved in the artist's finished work catapults him beyond the realms of mere photography into the annals of Conceptual Art.
- By photographing the "simulated real," Muniz destabilizes the concept of photography itself and instigates viewers to look beyond the surface. Described as both a "provocateur" and a "prankster," the artist questions the notion of reality and representation. In doing so, he touches on a variety of issues like "the reconnection of art with its public; art's relation to figuration and with the social-historical; and the demystifying of the false quarrel between photography and painting," as writer Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna maintains.
- Muniz has said that he does not believe in originals, but rather believes in individuality. And indeed, in his photo manipulation and methodology, he truly creates signature works that repurpose and showcase themes in different lights for his viewers. He sees photography as having "freed painting from its responsibility to depict the world as fact."
Biography of Vik Muniz
Muniz decided to become an artist when he discovered Jeff Koons’s enigmatic vacuum cleaner and basketball sculptures. Muniz said: “I realized that I could be an artist too. He was speaking my language.”
Important Art by Vik Muniz
At first sight, Clown Skull looks like an actual human skull with a strange, protruding round nose that is the same color and texture as bone. However, it is made of plastic and other materials.
Muniz's artistic practice started after his move to New York City, where he rented a studio. His earliest art consisted of sculptures, which according to the artist, was a concrete way to use a separate creative muscle than he had for his commercial work in the advertising industry. Ironically though, many of the themes he explored through this medium would appear later when he primarily used photography as his chosen form.
Clown Skull comes from the Relics series, which drew upon the definition of relic as referring to an idolized or valued object from the past. Muniz's relics, though, also contained a dark sense of humor, showcasing not only the relic but turning it into a contemporary object of multiple interpretations. For instance, the skull makes references to both the European tradition of skulls and skeletons serving as reminders of death in memento mori still life paintings and popular culture's tendency to interpret clowns as frightening (Stephen King's It, John Wayne Gacy, etc.) Other Relics included a pre-Columbian pot stuffed with a coffee filter like a modern day breakfast appliance, and an Ashanti sculpture artifact turned into a video game joystick. What results is a humorous commentary on the nature of representation and how objects from the past circulate in the present.
The Relics works introduced Muniz's themes of representation, appropriation, and history, which would become more important in his later photographic work. They also represented a personal milestone, marked by (as the artist said) a "comprehension of the object as an image and, provoked by this comprehension, a kind of identity crisis of the object itself, a discrepancy between what is expected from the material and what it offers."
After a professional photographer took photos of these works for a gallery, Muniz decided to photograph the objects himself. According to him, the professional pictures "seemed to go against the three-dimensional nature and dynamics" that he had sought to imbue in his objects. This episode ended up inspiring him and soon after that he began making two-dimensional things solely to photograph them.
Memory Rendering of Kiss at Times Square appropriates one of the most famous works of photojournalism by the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt in Life magazine. The image celebrates the end of World War II, in which a sailor in the US Navy grabbed a nurse and kissed her upon learning that Japan had surrendered.
Upon his arrival in the United States in 1983, Muniz bought the book Best of Life, a collection of photographs published in Life magazine. It presented photographs from historical moments such as the moon landing, the Vietnam War, and the Kent State shootings, and iconic images of pop cultural heroes such as John Lennon. The artist recalls that the book brought him comfort, acting as a kind of family album - "family of humankind." After losing it, Muniz decided to undergo a process of recreation via drawing exercises. For two years, he drew what remained of the photographs from his memory, filling in what he couldn't remember with his imagination. After keeping the drawings in a shoebox for a while, he decided to photograph them somewhat out of focus and print the images with half tone dots (some of them on newsprint). After noticing that no one questioned the photographs' authenticity, Muniz realized that he could leave out many of the original details in his renderings and the spectator would fill in the blanks themselves.
The process involved in creating Muniz's work adds layers of personal meaning to the original. His interference in the image calls attention to the fact that it is a product of the artist's imagination and not a straightforward reproduction. This addresses one of the fundamental questions of photography, including photojournalism: what role does the photographer play in the creation of the image? This work led Muniz to further explore the representational and highly mediated nature of photographs, as well as the idea that documentation can be transformed into an art form.
Memory Rendering illustrates several themes: the obvious use of previous sources as inspiration for further works of art, the relationship of an individual to "the news" and to larger histories, and the imperfections and inconsistencies of memory itself.
The Sugar Children series originated after a trip to the Caribbean, where Muniz played with the children from the island of Saint Kitts for several days on a black sandy beach. After meeting the children's parents, he learned about the harsh conditions of the sugar plantations at which they worked, and was intrigued by the contrast between the happiness of the children and the sadness of their parents. Inspired by a poem from Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar entitled Açúcar (Sugar), Muniz remembers: "It occurred to me that sugar had sapped the sweetness from those people." He returned to New York with Polaroids of the children, reproducing them into temporary images "by sifting various types of sugar onto black paper." He then photographed the images before discarding the sugar into a jar with the original photograph glued outside on the glass. When he exhibited the series for the first time, Muniz placed each corresponding jar next to its final photograph. Although the resulting photographs appear at first glance to belong to the canon of stereotypical tourist photos of happy children in developing countries, the use of sugar simultaneously references the candy and sweetness of youth, its impermanence, and the manual labor awaiting the children once they reach adulthood.
Muniz defines this work as the "founding moment" of his career. After years of drawing photographs, Muniz began to photograph drawings. This idea revolutionized his practice. Instead of using photography to appropriate and document the work of another artist, Muniz made the process of creating a work of art and documenting it into the main focus of his work. Muniz soon began to create ephemeral drawings using perishable, inexpensive, and impermanent materials such as chocolate, soil, dust, peanut butter, jam, wire, and garbage.
Curator and historian Pedro Corrêa do Lago asserts that the series is "a fundamental contribution to the thinking and practice of art at the turn of the century."
Influences and Connections
- Jason Mecier
- Carlos Saldanha
- Fernando Meirelles
- Contemporary Photography
- Public art
Useful Resources on Vik Muniz
- Vik Muniz: Catalogue Raisonné 1987-2015 - Everything So FarOur PickBy Pedro Corrêa do Lago and Vik Muniz
- Vik MunizBy Arthur Ollman
- Reflex: A Vik Muniz PrimerBy Vik Muniz
- Vik Muniz: The Weimar FileBy Vik Muniz
- Vik Muniz: VersoBy Vik Muniz
- Seeing Is BelievingBy Charles Ashley Stainback and Mark Alice Durant
- Vik Muniz: Model PicturesBy Matthew Drutt
- Vik MunizBy Germano Celant
- Vik Muniz: Illusionism beyond Specular AppearanceBy Aracy Amaral / Ver Para Crer exhibition catalog, Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo / June 2001
- Vik Muniz by Mark MagillOur PickBy Mark Magill / Bomb Magazine / Fall 2000
- An Interview with Vik MunizBy Linda Benedict-Jones / The Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh / February 2000
- Smile and Say 'Peanut Butter,' Mona LisaBy Martha Schwendener / New York Times / March 2, 2007
- Where Art Meets Trash and Transforms LifeBy Carol Kino / New York Times / October 21, 2010
- The "Imposter" and the Sugar ChildrenBy Cynthia Garcia / New City Brazil / December 2015