“The moment one thing transforms to another is the most beautiful moment. That moment is really magical.” Vik Muniz 2008
Since the Olympics are starting in Rio De Janeiro this week, I thought it would be nice to look at Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s work, who uses household materials to create 2-D sculptural pieces based on iconic pictures from art history or pop culture which are then photographed with a large format camera. These household materials, such as chocolate, syrup, cotton threads, sugar, caviar, scrap metals and finally plain old garbage create a kind of tension with the viewer, since, these materials are either edible, delicious, sweet, luxurious or disgusting.
Anyone who has read my other blog posts would know that Muniz is not the first nor only artist to use garbage, or to make an installation garbage-like, so what in the world is so interesting about this?
What I found most interesting from Muniz’s vast body of work is this documentary he did, or starred in, Waste Land (2010) directed by Lucy Walker, which depicts Muniz’s project to work with garbage and people who recycle garbage, who happen to be the lowest class of people in Brazil. The central premise and the purpose of the film is the question: Can contemporary art really change the lives of ordinary people, and by extension, change the world?
To start off, Muniz found that Rio De Janeiro had this central rubbish dump which at hundreds of acres was one of the biggest in the world. Braving danger from rubbish related toxic gases, criminals large and small prowling around the area and physical danger from unstable mountains of rubbish, Muniz found some of the most cheerful people doing this filthy work.
Amidst the mountains of rubbish, some of which are over 40 meters high, Muniz gets to know some of the pickers, the ‘Catadores’, who begin to share their life stories with them, what they did before, how they ended up there, what life is like as a picker. He also meets the charasmatic leader of the Association of the Catadores for this landfill, Sebastiao, and describes the project he has in mind; take a picture of some of the Catadores, project it on the floor of his studio and ‘paint’ it, tracing over the lines and filling the areas with garbage, then taking a final picture of this temporary collage/sculpture ‘painting’ and selling it at an auction house and donating the proceeds to his association.
The pictures Muniz takes are all parodies of famous historical paintings or modern images and provide a 21st century critique of them; Sebastiao mimicks Marat, the French journalist who was killed for his desire for revolution in France, who himself is leading somewhat of a revolution for the rights and welfare of the Catadores in Brazil. Suellen mimicks ‘Madonna’ (Mary) holding the baby Jesus, a sacred painting, as she holds her 2 children born out of wedlock to an absent drug dealing father, on whom she describes she would be ‘screwed if she depended on him’.
What ensues is somewhat of a crash course on how to be an art assistant as the 6 chosen Catadores pose for photo-shoots, and work directly on the projected portraits on the floor of the studio with some of the garbage and dirt that they handle everyday, with Muniz directing them at every step. Soon the cheerfulness encountered initially at the landfill fades, revealing a deep desire; most of them really don’t want to go back to the landfill and would rather work here for less.
Muniz and his team now ponder a critical question, as they even consider bringing some of them to the auction in London: would this social experiment ‘crush’ some of these people in the long run? What if after tasting the ‘good-life’ for a while they had to go back to working at the landfill for the rest of their lives, with no hope for escape, and have only a yearning, a rememberance for what life was like. It might even drive some to suicide (not mentioned in the film, but maybe inferred).
In the end Sebastiao is the only one that goes to London, and weeps after his painting is sold for US$50,000, tearfully describing his dream of starting an association for the rights, welfare and ultimately the dignity of the Catadores, how nobody believed it would work and how he could now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In the Ironing Woman (Isis) (2008) which mimicks Picasso’s Woman Ironing (1904), Isis irons her dress, as she prepares to go with the other Catadores to a Vik Muniz retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio De Janeiro. Many of them have never walked into a museum before.
But all of them in the end, through media coverage of the event and the money ultimately from the proceeds of the sale of their paintings, were able to either leave the landfill and start another life, or in Sebastiao and Zumbi’s case were able to greatly expand the fame and functional capabilities of the pickers association, ultimately gaining enough recognition to have the association integrated with the recycling industry, changing the mindset of the business community in the process. This is in stark contrast to Picasso’s Woman Ironing (1904), the subject of which is actually a fictious woman.
The meaning, intended or not, behind these ‘paintings’ lies in one key concept: social. That these works were done by the pickers themselves is the essence and the key difference compared with the other previously mentioned garbage-themed installations, and is also the theme of one of architect Alejandro Aravena’s 2016 Pritzker Prize winning selected works Quinta Monroy Housing (2004).
The proposal for this low-cost housing in Chile is to build half a house, and let the tenants build the other half according to their needs and priorities as their economic situation improves over time. This is a type of architecture which is not really photogenic, but is ‘socially-conscious’ and solves pressing social problems, like housing 1 million people a week globally due to urbanization. An added benefit, perhaps the one that makes all the difference, is that these properties have tripled in value a year after the tenants build the other half, personalizing the space, creating a sense of belonging in the process, which is the corner stone of healthy communities.
In the final assessment, like Quinta Monroy Housing, which by no means solves all the world’s social problems, but makes a start, an awareness of the problem, Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage didn’t solve problems for all the pickers, but it did elevate their status in society, assuming a role fundamental to the whole recycling chain and changing a whole country’s mindset to this group of people.