Monday, May 19, 2008

Vik Muniz: From Commonplace to In-Your-Face

Contemporary artist Vik Muniz was born in São Paulo, Brazil in 1961. In the late 1980’s he left Brazil, moved to New York and began his career as an artist. When his interest in art first began, he was fascinated by sculptures and therefore, had ambitions to become a sculptor. However, as time went on, he began to transition to photography. He would photograph his art and sculptures, and before long, he turned his back on sculpture and focused solely on his photographs (“Vik Muniz.” Museum of Contemporary Photography.) During this time, he also worked in the advertising industry. In an interview in Verona in 1998 with Charles Stainback, Muniz remarked that “[working in] advertising made me aware of the dichotomy between an object and its images. This sort of tension has always been part of my work” (Stainback). Through working in advertising, he truly gained a new perspective in respect to art and modern icons.
According his biography from the Museum of Contemporary Photography, in the last 12-15 years, Muniz has been most widely known for his creative mediums, which consist of unusual, yet common, items, ranging from thread, to chocolate, to garbage, to dust. These pieces of art, however, are not completely of original origin; they are recreations of masterpieces that already exist or other pieces of art that a different artist has created. He arranges these various objects and substances in the shape of these previously-existing works, which range from “Narcissus” by Caravaggio to “Venus and Cupid” by Correggio. He also manipulates photographs by delaying the exposure long enough to create abnormal images within the photo, such as clouds in the sky created by the emissions of an airplane in the collection “Pictures of Clouds” from 2001 (Gallery.
In 1997, Muniz ventured back to Brazil for a special reason. He volunteered his time and services to a newly-founded school called Axe. There, Brazilian educators create a safe and friendly environment to keep children and teens off the streets and in school. In an interview with Bomb Magazine, Muniz commented that “children for me are very important. They are in the same class as people who understand power, like magicians and con men,” (Magill). With this inspiration from the Axe school, he returned to his New York studio to create the collection “Aftermath” in 1998, which depicts the children he saw there created out of garbage.
In 2000, Muniz traveled to the town of Clayton, Pennsylvania to recreate images from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. In the collection entitled “Clayton Days,” Muniz catches a glimpse of life in America at the turn of the century. It profoundly impacted him in that he truly got to experience the lives of these people and expand himself as an artist (Feitlowitz).
Currently, Muniz lives and works in New York City. His most recent collection, created in 2008, is the “Gordian Puzzles” series, which consist of famous icons and symbols created out of puzzle pieces. He continues to thrive and generate art, claiming that he has tried many different mediums that have not worked, but will try anything once. His work has been displayed in museums and galleries all over the world. His first exhibition was at Wortlaut: Konzepte Zwischen Visueller Poesie & Fluxus Galerie in Schuppenhauer, Cologne, West Germany in 1989. Since then, he has exhibited in his work in Spain, Italy, the United States, Holland, France, his native Brazil, and most recently, in 2008, Japan. He has been granted three awards in his career so far, including the “Líderes Latino Americanos para el Nuevo Milenio” [Latin American Leaders for the New Millennium] from CNN in 1995, “Ayutamiento de Madrid: Premio Villa de Madrid de Fotografía” [Advancement of Madrid, Award of Photography in Madrid] from Kaulak in 2005, and “National Artist Award” granted by the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen, Colorado in 2005 (“Biography”).
Overall, Muniz is very deliberate in his choice of medium, even though it may not seem so. By creating these replications of well-known images with common mediums, Muniz calls his viewers to reconsider these pieces in a different light, from a truly different perspective. “Marilyn Monroe” from the Gordian Puzzle series, “Small Change” from the Monads series, and “Socrates” from The Aftermath series all utilize this strategy; “Marilyn Monroe” is made of puzzle pieces, “Small Change” is made from pennies, and “Socrates” is made of pieces of garbage. Because the viewer recognizes items they see frequently in his art, he or she becomes more receptive to the image and ideas that it stands for. In creating this feeling in his viewers, Muniz allows the viewer to generate a new perspective on an idea or theme that has always been held as commonplace.
Artists like Muniz often draw inspiration for their theories regarding art from many different sources, both past and present. In his essay “The Unbearable Likeness of Being,” Muniz acknowledges the philosopher Aristotle and his beliefs about art. Muniz writes that “Aristotle (perhaps out of annoyance) considered that form could only be known through its content and content through its form” (Muniz). Muniz’s art is founded in these principles in that he places an emphasis on the materials that he uses and what they come to represent. Furthermore, Aristotle defined art as “the realization in external form of a true idea, and is traced back to that natural love of imitation which characterizes humans and the pleasure which we feel in recognizing likeness” (“Art.” Aristotle.). This is also characteristic of Muniz’s style because he chooses works of art to reproduce based upon their familiarity with his viewers. The final aspect of Aristotle’s definition of art is that it should “portray events which excite fear and pity in the mind of the observer to purify or purge these feelings and extend and regulate their sympathy” (“Art.” Aristotle.). Art, therefore, is heavily tied to playing on the emotions of the viewer by using a subject that will arouse sympathy or pity. This is a major foundation of Muniz’s piece entitled “Marilyn Monroe” from the 2008 Gordian Puzzle series.
Marilyn Monroe is easily one of the most recognized faces in America. In 1999, she was acknowledged by Time Magazine as one of “The Time 100 Most Important People of the Century.” According this article that chronicles her life, rise to fame, and tragic downfall, “there have been more than 300 biographies, learned essays…tattoos, and Warhol silk screens,” (Rudnick) of her. “She has gone from actress to icon,” Rudnick concludes. Therefore, Muniz uses such a readily recognized face in order to create an emotional connection to the viewer and exemplify the complexity and intricacy that surrounds the image. “I favor images that are mainstream,” remarked Muniz in an interview, “easy to know. Or images that people don’t feel threatened by,” (Feitlowitz 6) he added. Monroe is one such image. Her face is so popular to viewers young and old that she can convey a message to anyone, “not just [in] a private world of the artist,” (Rosenberg 181).
The original photograph of “Marilyn Monroe” was taken on May 6, 1957 in New York City by the photographer Avedon. Upon first glance from far away, the new image that Muniz created from puzzle pieces looks so real that it is hard to tell that the pieces are even there. However, closer up, the pieces become more evident. They are lined up so meticulously that the lines between colors and shapes are not blurry, but perfectly straight. The use of puzzle pieces as a medium for an image of Monroe implies that there is a complexity and depth to her; there are many different ‘pieces’ that make up who she was. These many facets include the fact that she “died a suicide at 36, after starring in only a handful of movies” (Rudnick). The viewer, therefore, relates to the piece because he/she feels empathy at the tragedy that surrounded Monroe’s life. As for the puzzle pieces, they also reflect the theme of they are not arranged so that they fit together in the typical fashion. They are layered in multiple directions so that the defined shape of each piece is more prominent. They almost appear to be thrown haphazardly onto a board and then painted. The picture, however, contains all three dimensions of her figure, as compared to some older style portraits that seem very flat.
The background is varied shades of grey, with the lightest grey accenting around her body and face. It is darker, almost black, toward the edges of the photograph. Her skin is very pale in contrast to her dress and the background, but her lips are the darkest feature on her face. Her eyes are also very much defined in contrast to her light, flawless complexion. Her hair is textured in curls that frame her face, while her dark, halter-style dress is low-plunging with sparkles on the top. The dress is somewhat revealing for the time it was taken. Monroe’s expression is vague, as if she is distraught or confused. However, this longing stare is very common in her images that can be seen all around the world. According an essay about the emergence of the Pop Art movement, which featured Monroe as a highlight of Andy Warhol’s silk screens, “the sense of hidden meaning is enhanced by public tragedy. There is the gay, familiar, open-mouthed face. Surely lurking somewhere behind it is some cue, some information communicating a private agony,” (Antin, 288). This look is meant to draw the viewer into her world of tragedy through a new set of eyes in order to understand the complexity of her life.
Overall, Muniz thrives on the fame of Monroe to embellish the intricacy of her life and the downfall of a Hollywood starlet. When it comes to “popular culture imaging and its highest-performing icons,” (Benitez Duenas 148) which is a prime focus of many of Muniz’s works, Monroe is a strong example of this. As author Roland Barthes concludes in his essay “That Old Thing…Art,” “nothing is more identifiable than Marilyn,” (Barthes 371). And that’s exactly what Muniz was looking for in his quest to create a strong connection with the viewer and create a likeness to an image that would trigger a viewer to take a deeper look from a new perspective.
The theme of a change of perspective is not only prevalent in the Monroe piece, but in Muniz’s other collections, as well as his life. He draws a large amount of influence from the tale of Metamorphosis by Ovid. “I read it everyday,” (Feitlowitz 6) he remarked in an interview. Ovid drew his inspiration from the changing rule in Rome and Europe. In a lecture on Ovid, Professor Ian Johnston clarified that “Rome’s very success led ultimately to the city’s downfall. The northern Germanic tribes, once Christianized, moved in to establish medieval Europe out of the remnants,” (Johnston). Therefore, in a time of political chaos, Ovid made his feelings known about the changes that he was experiencing living in Europe. However, it is the first line that grabs Muniz the most. “‘My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms,”’ said Muniz, “What a perfect way to start a work of art!” (Feitlowitz 6). This philosophy of change is evident in Muniz’s art in that he desires to change an existing piece of art from its original form into something new so that it can take on new meaning of its own.
To carry on the sense of “change” both literally and figuratively, “Small Change” which was created in 2003, is representative of Muniz’s critical view of change in society. The picture shows the figure of a quarter. The interesting catch, however, is that it is composed of different types of change, namely the penny. Because the large coin is made up of a quantity of small pennies, Muniz suggests that like the Monroe piece, there are multiple components that make up an image, and in turn, satirizes the plummeting value of American money.
The coin has all the trademark symbols, words, and images of a real quarter. Across the top of the enormous circle is the “United Sates of America” with the image of the profile of George Washington located in the center of the circle. It also has the trademarks “In God We Trust” and “Liberty.” Most of the design is made up of copper pennies, but there are some places that reflect silver, whether they are from dimes, nickels, or quarters. Since its inception, “the penny has been known as the cent, the pence, and minor (for minor or insignificant coin),” (Geer). This is quite appropriate as there are countless pennies that make up the one major image. Also, due to the composition of the piece, Muniz is punning on the value of money and the penny in American society. The composition of the penny was “pure copper from 1793 to 1837,” then to “97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper” (“A Brief History of the Penny.” USA Today.) in 1982. Overall, “the penny has gone through six different compositions since 1793,” (“A Brief History of the Penny.” USA Today.). Because a less expensive metal, zinc, has taken over the original composition of copper, it represents the change that both Muniz and Ovid sensed in society. In recent years, the value of the penny has dropped significantly. It now costs more to make a penny than a penny is worth. A penny costs “1.32 cents” (Geer) to manufacture. Consequently, an innumerable amount of pennies make up this one larger coin, reminding the viewer that something that is so common in everyday life like the penny is still changing and evolving with society.
The details of the coin appear to be in proportion to one another as compared to the realistic version of the coin. The background is completely white so that the places that are left blank for the words and image can be seen brightly and clearly. There are only two dimensions to the image, as it does not appear as a three dimensional coin. It is simply a flat, circular shape. Also, there are two lines left open around the outside of the coin to show where the texture of the metal changes on a quarter. Unlike the Marilyn Monroe, the lines are not as exact and distinct, given that coins are round, but they are fairly accurate. There is a thicker white outline on the left side of the quarter to give Washington a slightly raised effect, but overall, it still looks flat and two dimensional.
Author Marshall McLuhan explains money in the best way that shows Muniz’s take on society, as he writes that “money, like language, a store of work and experience, acts also as a translator and transmitter,” (McLuhan 131). Muniz therefore uses something universal, like money, that appeals to everyone, seeing as money is essential to survival. It is also easily recognized, as the penny can be found anywhere as one of the most common coins. McLuhan concludes with a line from A Treatise on Money by J.M. Keynes, which explains that “gold has ceased to be a coin, a hoard, a tangible claim to wealth, of which the value cannot slip away so long as the hand of the individual clutches the material stuff,” (McLuhun 131). This is clearly indicative of Muniz’s view on money because in this piece, a penny is no longer a coin, but a part of something larger: a new image that surpasses it in value and significance.
Muniz’s work, in light of being a manipulation on an original into something new, has been compared to a substance known as “ruin marble,” (Winston). Ruin marbles are stones that are created by layers of sediment to create “joints, healed joints, and color bonds, which create the ruined character” (Marko et al 243) of the stones. The stones are so similar to Muniz’s work because they “used to be very popular in the manufacture of luxury furniture from Renaissance to succession times,” (Marko et al 241). So, something that looked broken was changed into something new and meaningful, just as in Muniz’s pieces transform commonplace items into reproductions of original masterpieces.
This choice of medium as highlighted by “ruin marble” comes into play most importantly in the third photo is entitled “Socrates” from the collection “Aftermath.” Created in 1998, the piece depicts a young, African-American boy standing in the middle with a vague expression, staring to one side, while holding something in his other hand. The picture is created from countless pieces of “junk” arranged on the floor and then taken a picture. A review of this collection states that “the materials are chosen because the medium has some strategic and critical relation to the concepts of formal problems that concern Muniz, or a social relation to the subject matter,” (Leslie 154). With respect to “Socrates,” it is more likely a social relation because Muniz is highlighting an actual experience that he had. He volunteered his time at a school in Brazil called Axe, which helped children stay off the streets by engaging them in activities ranging from art, to sports, to games. It was from these school children that Muniz drew his inspiration for the Aftermath series.
The boy in the center of the picture seems to be created out of dust or dirt. It is a very grey color with some darker black lines. There are some places that appear to be shaded, which could have been done easily with dirt or dust. The lines are fairly straight, with a slight bit of shading around the edges and in the folds of his clothing to make it look more three dimensional. Muniz explained the choice of making the children out of dust in an interview, where he clarified that “the children [in the Aftermath series] are the same color as the city. They’re dirty. They literally absorb the atmosphere,” (Feitlowitz 8). This exemplifies the children before the influence of the Axe school, which brought them into the light and away from the “junk” surrounding them. In relationship to the whole image, the boy is the brightest image there, and Muniz acknowledges that as well. He also explained that “people referred to them as the garbage children, and I said no, they are the Light Children. They are made out of light, not garbage,” (Feitlowitz 8). Therefore, the children who have entered the program, like the boy in “Socrates” represent the knowledge and truth that they have come to know. They will be the future of Brazilian society, as they will be pulled away from the remnants of their once broken lives and pulled toward lives of fulfillment and education. Muniz concludes, “Children for me are very important,” and this is evident in this collection.
More specifically in the image, the boy is standing up and his legs are crossed. He seems to be holding some type of pole and container, with the pole stretching around behind his back and out either side. His clothes are too big for him, with a baggy sweatshirt and oversized shorts. He has bare feet with no shoes. He has fairly short black hair, and one of his hands is not visible in the picture, as it is behind his back. There are two black, dark lines across his shirt in the upper right hand corner, which could be smears of dirt. The boy looks weary and tired, as if he is unsure of what he is doing or is exhausted and fatigued. The object that he’s holding is unclear, but it is made of a substance that is a different color from the boy. It is a more orange, light brown, almost clay, color, as compared to the gray on the boy and the pole. The boy, overall, seems to be positioned exactly in the middle of the image. Though this exact image may have only been a photograph before Muniz created it from garbage, the image of an impoverished child is a sight that many people are used to seeing or hearing about, whether it be on the news or on televeision. Muniz reminds in a personal interview that “I am not using the images themselves. I am only using what we know about them as raw material,” (Muniz). From the children, he extracted their innocence, their influences, and their struggle to make it in society, and captured them in the light amongst all the dark.
The junk in the background is made up of so many colors that it is hard to differentiate which item is which, but there are a few areas of color that stand out. For example, there seems to be a piece of green hose or tubing running down the right hand side of the image, which looks eerily reminiscent of a snake. There are also some red dots here and there that stand out from the rest, similar to red lights from a stop light or apples straight off a tree. There are many small areas of white, but they are not as noticeable in the primarily dark background as the other colors, including a few lavender points as well. Overall, however, the image has a very dark feeling. In his essay “The Impossible Object,” Muniz defines this dark quality as the following: “We know from experience that everything decays and changes, yet we fail to recognize this in images; their fading or tarnishing does not seem to affect the subjects they portray. The damage is often perceived as simply superficial,” (Muniz 36). By creating the image out of dingy garbage, Muniz brings out this “fading” and “tarnishing” and “decay” of society’s effects on the children in Brazil. They are surrounded by it everyday, just as the boy is in the image, but in the end, they are the light that can pull through and overshadow the darkness.
Muniz drew the name for the piece from a famous philosopher, Socrates. The Greek philosopher “wrote nothing because he felt that knowledge was a living, interactive thing,” (Hooker). In the case of Muniz’s work, the boy represents knowledge because he literally is the living thing that is meant to carry on the knowledge into his future. Socratic thought is also described by “the truth being pursued, rather than discovered,” (Hooker). The child in the image is characteristic of this search for the truth because the child is set on a path to redeeming their life from harsh conditions, not just told how to be. The program allows the child to forge their own path, which is perfectly in line with Socratic thought. Muniz reminds the viewer that “I want to make you aware of how much you want to believe in the image, to be conscious of the measure of your own belief, rather than of my capacity to fool you,” (Muniz). As a result, the image of a child that many viewers would be sympathetic to is supposed to draw a change in perspective. Even though a child is born into tough circumstances, they can still overcome them and develop into their own successful person, and Muniz wants his viewer to see that.
In his essay “Surface Tension,” Muniz divulges that “faith has little to do with pure interpretation. As surfaces emerge, new rituals should follow. The role of the artist is to adapt ritual material to contemporary surfaces,” (Muniz). The new material, garbage, has been regenerated with a new meaning, as a medium for a work of art. He strives for the viewer to place their faith in him to put a new, contemporary twist on conventional thought. Art, therefore, is evolutionary, and changes with the time, just as surfaces do. In “Socrates,” the surface is the key to the piece. After the shock factor has worn off, it provokes many questions in the viewer’s mind, just as Muniz wants.
To justify and defend his purpose, Muniz remarked, “I tend to believe in Gombrich’s theory of schemata,” (Muniz). Schemata is defined as “a continuously active organizer of knowledge structures,” (Lawler), and Gombrich’s specific theory “argues that every existing image is a copy of another image ad infinitum,” (Muniz). Many of Muniz’s critics see his work as no less than mere attempts at mimicking or mocking the masters who originally created them, as purely simple copies, but Muniz’s art takes an image in this way and replicates it with a new twist. Gombrich also believed in “avoiding ideology, plain iconography mere sociology of art,” (Gombrich’s Legacy: Art History as Embodiment of Values). This is very similar to Muniz, who wants to create new meaning through new form, not through simply coping something that already exists.
In conclusion, Muniz relies on familiarity to connect with his audience. He uses images that are easily recognized so that the viewer is more receptive to them and is less likely to shy away from digging in for new meaning. He makes his intentions very plain in an interview about his purpose as an artist, revealing that “when people look at one of my pictures, I don’t want them to see something represented. I prefer for them to see how something gets to represent something else” (Muniz). His medium, therefore, is just as important as the image itself, as the process he took to create the image is the most important. “Change” is a major theme across all of Muniz’s collections, whether it is social, emotional, or physical. The materials used are far different than any other artist, and though his works physically change the original form of the image, he challenges the viewer to take on a new perspective and “change” old ways of thinking.


Meaghan S6 said...

Well this was sufficiently the longest paper on record for me. It was awesome to learn about incorporating and finding evidence that supported my own thesis, so in a way this paper helped me grow in terms of evidence. I'm glad that I turned out to love my artist, and I'm proud I got the chance to push myself to pull out my best work at the end of the year.

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