abril 9, 2010
Vik Muniz por Rafael Cardoso
Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil
It is not unusual for artists in Brazil to claim they are better known internationally than locally. This not so subtle ploy occasionally succeeds in wresting attention from journalists cowed by fear of being the last to know. But, is such a contention even remotely plausible in this day and age, when information of most sorts is no more than a few clicks away? Case in point: Vik Muniz. As recently as 2003, when Muniz did a show at Paço Imperial, one of Rio de Janeiro’s premier venues for contemporary art, there were no crowds and no media hype, though he was already a major star in the artistic firmament, more likely to be seen at MoMA, New York, or the Venice Biennale than in his native São Paulo.
The fact of Muniz’s celebrity finally made its way home this past year, with a major retrospective starting out at the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, and travelling to the São Paulo Museum of Art, in 2009, currently showing in Curitiba and soon to be seen in Fortaleza. Vik Muniz is now big news in Brazil His picture is in the society columns, and his exhibitions are packed with the kind of public that usually can’t be bothered with contemporary art. As the ultimate token of recognition, his work has come to be disparaged by the better class of art critics, who make a point of pooh-poohing the present exhibition as tawdry media spectacle. Unfazed, the artist’s most recent offering is a 700-page encyclopaedia of his labours, succinctly titled Vik Muniz: Obra completa, 1987-2009.
A career retrospective and a catalogue raisonné at the ripe old age of 48? Are we getting a sense that Muniz has achieved all he set out to do? If so, what next? Shall we expect to watch him slip into an early retirement, dividing his time between a beachfront existence in Rio and so many worthy committee meetings throughout the art world? Or, alternatively, is the present taking of stock a plea from the artist to move beyond his celebrity status and look at the work? Is Muniz more than pictures of Mona Lisa in peanut-butter-and-jelly, or is it really just so much ado, After Warhol, the knowing title of the 1999 piece that made him famous? As Andy might have said, you can hardly blame an artist for making it big.
So, does the work hold up? The answer, upon visiting the current exhibition, is a diffident yes. First off, the variety and scope of Muniz’s oeuvre is impressive. Although most everyone has seen something or other, nothing online quite prepares you for the range of accomplishment presented in the 30-odd series of works contained in the show. These are several hundred photographic prints, mostly large, glossy and gorgeous: a cross-section of his work from the 1989 Best of Life series – consisting of magazine photos, roughly sketched from memory and re-photographed, grainy and out of focus – to the deceptively figurative Pictures of Garbage (2005-2009), representations composed out of scrap metal, meticulously arranged in larger-than-life compositions and photographed from on high. Time and again, the fastidious procedure of forging pictures of things – mostly not pictorial in themselves, such as sugar, caviar, pigment, toys, rubbish, plants – made to look like what they are not: bits of visual information gleaned from the repertoire of popular culture or the history of art. The sheer virtuosity of his achievement as a maker of images is daunting; and, certainly, it is the eye-pleasing quality of the licked picture surface that keeps the general public streaming in and breathlessly whispering to one another: now, this is art.
If any substantive critique is to be made of Muniz as an artist, it must necessarily come to terms with his engagement with visual delight. Of course, this is precisely the issue he has sought to address in his work, with striking single-mindedness. How do images breach the gap between representation and substance? Why do we continue to suspend disbelief? The series Pictures of Magazines (2003) consists of celebrity portraits puzzled together from paper dots punched out of the very periodicals that showcase celebrities. From a distance, they are Lula or Pelé or a self-portrait of the artist; up close, they are a jumble of chromatic confetti that inevitably evokes the colour separation of offset printing. A photograph of a Ruysdael landscape laid out in thousands of yards of thread is neither the landscape itself nor a mere bunch of thread, much less is it an Old Master painting. Yet, 20,000 Yards (The Castle at Bentheim) (1999) partakes of all of these, and more. Echoes of Magritte’s treachery of images, updated for these latter days of digital manipulation.
To his credit, Muniz continues to define himself primarily as a photographer. Least of all, however, can his complicated visual constructions be written off as simple photographs. If nothing else, the work is a continual challenge to the facile manner in which photography is still widely perceived as a record of visual fact. Pretty obvious stuff, some might say, but it must be remembered that his efforts predate the current flood of Photoshop, taking their early cue from Warhol’s accident scenes. To be caught looking, and made to think about what that means, may still be the best antidote to the ‘spectacularization’ of society which, 40 years on from Debord, has become the sea in which we swim. Anyone foolish enough to look at Muniz’s photograph of a photograph of a crowd of gawking spectators, rendered in chocolate syrup, and still want to take a picture should definitely have their camera taken away.