A Profile of VIK MUNIZ

Famous for his frequently disturbing photographic experiments with allusion and contextual re-adaptation, Muniz is almost boyish in person. Short and energetic, he brims with ingenious charm. We meet in his large, bright Clinton Hill studio in Brooklyn where he spends most of his time when he’s not in Rio. It’s so uncluttered and efficient it could be taken for a corporate office somewhere in midtown. In contrast to the sparseness of his environment, Muniz’s conversation is dense and rich.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Like his work, his manner of speech is a journey of free-association. Moving from personal reminiscences to unexpected implications, his references are sensual, his insights evocative. Unfolding like a poem from one allusion to another his stories, metaphors, and associations are seamlessly connected through the echoes of his personal experience.

We begin with “The Sower.” It’s his reconstructed photograph of “The Sower,” an early Van Gogh painting with the same title, which has been recreated in dried flowers and assembled inside a cathedral in the south of France by students from the local high school. The floral “painting” was so huge it had to be photographed from a platform near the vault of the ceiling. For Muniz “the cathedral became a potpourri. The smell was the best part. It’s the smell of Avignon. It goes all the way down to the Mediterranean.” The farmer of flowers is a portrait of Provence.

When I ask him about his relationship to sound, he talks about his obsession with an Edward Weston photograph of Italian actress and activist Tina Modotti reciting a poem. Weston has captured her with her mouth half-open, mid-speech. “But it’s just not a mouth that’s open,” he says, “it’s a sound coming out of it, she’s saying something you will never hear. Then when you look at the picture, you try to imagine her voice. The beauty of looking at the picture is the sound one can’t hear.” Muniz used to sometimes D.J. at Area, where he loved to play corny old Brazilian records. The club was full of drag queens; often, Warhol was there. “It’s a very nice thing when you have a party to be the guy who does the sound,” he says. “You’re the master of the mood.” Music becomes feeling; feeling power.

“The whole idea of originality to me is very unappealing because if you think about it enough, it’s more interesting to think that you’re just part of a continuum of the way in which we look at the world.”

Evoking one sense through another, art activates visceral memory. “If you’re taking a picture of chocolate,” he says, “or if you take a picture of honey, immediately you will sense the material—and once you sense the material, you will sense its activities, its properties, its taste, and you will know it’s haptic. Probably what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years is searching for the largest number of ways to say exactly the same thing, which is ‘look at this.’ When you look at things harder and carefully, immediately they become magical, they inspire that kind of thinking that evokes sound, taste, and scent.” Since, like the farmer in flowers, much of Muniz’s work involves putting other artists’ images into a different medium: chocolate, honey, garbage, diamonds, newsprint, dust. I ask if he thinks he is making translations. “No,” he says. “Translation is authorial.” He continues, “Art creates its own thinking environment. You can do something to add to it but it is a symbol on its own.” Rembrandt might have looked at trees and painted from nature, but his images have a consequential life. They create chains of reaction. Muniz “just copies” with whatever he chooses to have at hand. “Every time you look at that picture from the perspective of seeing it millions of times before—in commercials, on umbrellas in museum shops—you also see it for what it represents symbolically. The farmer represents who he is now as opposed to what he represented when Van Gogh painted it. (Van Gogh, between 1850 to 1870, in fact, had painted numerous copies or work in the manner of Jean Francoise Millet’s “The Sower,” just as Millet had painted several versions, from 1888 to 1889, of a similar theme.) So a copy is a very sincere way to actually point to the original, and the difference of what happened between. When you copy something, you’re adding to the original. When you appropriate, you question its authority.”

 Nonetheless, the appropriative art environment of the 1980s also enabled Muniz’s own attitude towards art. Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger, Mike Bidlo, among others were making work that referenced other people’s work. And “Sherrie Levine was copying Brancusi!”

“I started thinking that I could become an artist,” Muniz says, “when I started seeing art made by people who confused what they saw on television with what they experienced in real life. They started living both worlds in a very tangled, but simultaneous way. And for that reason, I don’t feel the difference, and I don’t really think there’s that much difference in copying an image that exists in the world. The whole idea of originality to me is very unappealing because if you think about it enough, it’s more interesting to think that you’re just part of a continuum of the way in which we look at the world, how we choose to see the world and how that changes with time and technology.” Muniz reads the news, first online, then in the physical paper. He reads newspapers from all over the world: the New York Times, Globo, Le Monde, the Wall Street Journal, the Peninsula Quatar. What bothers him is their similarity. Online or off, they all seem to just cut and paste information from main sources such as CNN and AP. In contrast, his favorite film is Rashomon, in whichthree people witness the same crime. Each of the three has a different relationship to the person who committed the crime. Each has a different memory and interpretation. Their three accounts are vastly dissimilar.

Vik Muniz, “The Sower, after Van Gogh,” 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Online, anything can be altered or re-written. But print is permanent with a different sense of responsibility: the printed paper becomes a document, implying reliability.

This reminds him of the Taj Mahal, which he finds un-photographable. Photographs of the Taj are either details, or too small to create the right effect. There is no good point from which to capture its measure. One must be in it to know it. It’s a vast monument but also human in scale. “You lose the sense of scale inversely. The minarets tower but when you are inside, the building looks smaller than it is.” Some of the columns are striped. Muniz talks about how when he stood 30 meters from a column, his guide asked him if it felt small. He answered: “It feels intimate.” Then the guide asked him, “So which stripe do you think you can touch with your hand?” Muniz answered, “the seventh one.” He could barely touch the third.

So what is realism in art? Gustave Courbet, according to Muniz, dealt with realism in a post-photographic environment and concluded that photography was not realistic. It could be real, it could point to the real, but it had nothing to do with reality. Realism, from an artistic perspective, was the way a person—not an instrument—saw the world at that time.

The current conundrum is that Photoshop uses the same vocabulary of attitudes as digital arts. It’s a vocabulary that is similar to that of painters, Muniz says, “like hues.” Online there is a different dynamic, different material for artists to work with, but the visual notions are very similar; they’re much closer to the painter than the photographer.

Simultaneously, he considers that in life and online we are bombarded by millions of distractions. We live in a dense visual environment. We’re like scavengers trying to figure out which scraps are helpful. Online our mental landscape is disorganized because our other senses can’t help us sort all the visual information we receive. Traditionally, we’ve been dependent on the photographic image, particularly in a newspaper as a conveyor of fact. “But online we make images that have gone beyond our ability to see reality in images. If I say something completely absurd to you in a sentence, you would know that’s a lie because you would know it’s ridiculous. On the Internet, if the visual elements are coherent even though there is something irrational in the image, you tend to believe it because it’s what you see. When we can no longer trust a medium on which we are heavily dependent to formulate a conventional idea of what happened or what is happening, the whole concept of history becomes disturbed.

“I think the artist’s role in the historical continuum is to make you look at images and see them clearly, in their full complexity. You’re supposed to feel them. Experiencing a work of art and understanding it are two distinct things. Art that can be understood is really boring.

 “Going back to Rembrandt, if I look at something as simple as a Rembrandt portrait and think about what it is to make a self-portrait, and then look at the portrait’s eyes, just by looking at how he painted his squint I can intuit the whole era in which he lived.

“My aim in creating a contemporary picture is to make a picture of contemporaneity that is faithful. My art corresponds with the way I look at things.”

Fifteen minutes from the studio, in the car heading back to Manhattan I pass a billboard crammed with a variety of images of the great art of world history: Doric columns, a golden Buddha, a Renaissance horse. The ad copy reads: “Many worlds—one Met.” This strikes me as appropriate. It’s like a found metaphor of Muniz mediating through art.