Vik Muniz: Scraps
On ViewSikkema Jenkins & Co.
February 17 – April 9, 2022
You’ve entered a territory not of sight and sound but of mind, a territory located between the image and its physical counterpart, between mentality and matter, perception and phenomenon. There’s the signpost up ahead, and the next stop is not the Twilight Zone; it’s Vik Muniz’s studio.
As the result of a perversely reflexive turn of mind, Muniz has the remarkable ability to make easy things seem difficult and difficult ones almost impossible. This can lead him to produce works that sometimes seem awfully close to Samuel Johnson’s talking dog: we don’t care what the dog says, the fact that it talks at all is what’s astonishing. Some of the better-known encounters with this animal include: Muniz’s versions of Steichen’s Equivalents photographs, made with cotton balls for the symbolic clouds; an imitation Rothko from a photograph of dried pigments; and the iconic image by Hans Namuth of Jackson Pollock at work, reproduced as a photograph of poured chocolate. These have had the paradoxical effect of deflating the pretensions of the modernist originals and leaving in their wake—for this viewer—a sense of unutterable loss.
The large photo collages of Scraps follow in this vein of visual bait and switch: what you think you see is not exactly what you get. But this may be the least ironic work Muniz has ever done, even compared with projects like Waste Land that seemed to show him as a social activist. Everything Muniz does is personal, that is, all his work reflects a distinctive attitude toward images and their production, but Scraps may be as close to a psychic confession as we are likely to get.
The collages in this exhibition evidence the handwork of hundreds, if not thousands of decisions, putting us again in mind of the talking dog. Muniz begins with a foundational image, either one he himself may have taken or one in cultural circulation—the federal building destroyed in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 (most likely based on David Glass’s photograph) to take one example. Muniz then creates a collage of the image from scraps of pictures he has accumulated in his studio over the years, rephotographs that collage, and makes prints that he can cut up into pieces in order to create layers of fragments. These form a chunky cubist version of the “original,” distant from it but recognizable.
That distancing of the source is familiar through the work of Thomas Demand, with his paper models of familiar photographs, and before him through Warhol’s silkscreening of electric chairs, Marilyns, and car crashes. All of these examples involve what is loosely called collective memory, that is, images “shared” via the media, usually having to do with traumatic events. The melancholy character of Scraps is impossible to avoid. The majority of the collages are in black and white, with subjects like the bombed federal building, a hillside of shacks in Jakarta, recyclers sifting through the vast landfill of Rio’s Jardim Gramacho, and an aerial view of Raqqa, much damaged by bombs in the war against ISIS. Despite moments of color and even levity (a version of one of Stephan Shore’s diner photographs), the overall feeling was like being in a room full of Guernicas.
Closer examination only deepened this sense. The collages aren’t simply built up. Parts of the layers are cut out to create holes that can then be filled in by other scraps. The layers interpenetrate, and cut open unexpected voids everywhere. Most of Muniz’s previous work has been issued in resolutely two-dimensional photographs, no matter how or of what they were made. These scraps are their process, in three damaged dimensions.
The artist’s explanation makes these works metaphors for memory itself, with its forgetfulness, diminishing specificity and propensity for recombination. He seems to be saying that these are some of the images that populate his unconscious, and when they are examined, they resemble coins long-carried in a pocket, rubbed so often their faces have worn away. This seems too literary and pat for the effort on display. It’s as if the need to reconstruct these images (and the memorial impulses they represent) is somehow at war with the desire to efface them altogether. The scale of the work is public, but the tensions feel private—petrified but not in any sense resolved. Memory is vulnerable, but it is also stubborn.
This dog talks, and its message is often painful, personal, and unsettling.