By Naomi Orton, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – The exhibition of the iconoclastic Brazilian artist Vik Muniz has already been seen by more than 26,000 people in Rio was still buzzing with activity last weekend. Featuring 131 photos, it is the biggest exhibition of his work to date and spans three decades of creative output.
Muniz, whose work has been exhibited worldwide, was born in São Paulo in 1961 and grew up under a climate of political oppression in 1970s Brazil. A growing interest in media led to the beginnings of a career in advertising. It was allegedly only as a result of being accidentally shot and bribing his assailant for compensation that Muniz was able to purchase a plane ticket to the US in 1983. There he settled in New York, where he is based today.
It was in the US that he began his own work, at first rejecting images and deciding to work with objects. The resulting series ‘Relics’ was originally exhibited in 1983 and is now on show at MAM Rio. Including the ‘Ashanti joystick’ and ‘the complete encyclopedia Britannica bound together in one volume for travel purposes’ it illustrates both his ingenuity and sense of humor.
Many of his works are renderings of canonical artworks and are undeniably playful, such as his reproduction of ‘The Last Supper’ in Bosco® chocolate syrup. Muniz’s oeuvre is undeniably thought provoking, but his use of real people as his subjects takes this into a different realm. In ‘Garbage’ for example, he uses rubbish to create a series of allegorical images based on people living in the world’s largest landfill site, Jardim Gramacho, RJ and surviving by recycling. Muniz claims that he does not see art as a valid means of conveying a political agenda or instigating change. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to be moved by this series.
He experiments with an infinite panoply of unexpected, often ephemeral materials from wire; sugar; peanut butter and jam to diamonds; dust and caviar. His subversive approach questions our assumptions that a conventional material such as oil paint for example, is superior to pigment alone.
It’s difficult to put him into any kind of category as an artist. Originally trained as a sculptor, he is the accidental photographer who began photographing his sculptures to project the image he really wanted to show. He often works with perishable materials such as tomato sauce, which due to their very transient nature, demand documentation. Muniz photographs the results and destroys the original. However, necessity is not his sole motivation for recording his images in this way.
After losing his copy of the book ‘The Best of Life’, containing iconic photographs from US culture, Muniz began reconstructing his favourite images from memory. Finding the results crude, he photographed them in soft focus. The accuracy of his images was not questioned and Muniz became increasingly interested in the role of memory and individual perception and it’s relationship with photography.
Many of his images are instantly recognizable; few would fail to identify ‘The Mona Lisa’. However, after a moment’s reflection we realize we have been deceived; we move closer, move away again, and struggle to identify the unorthodox materials originally used.
Often compared to a magician, Muniz famously claimed in an interview with Marguerite Feitlowitz, that he tries to create the ‘Worst Possible Illusion’ using the same tricks as those employed in the world of advertising. The viewer is aware that they have been fooled, which he suggests helps us to build a defense mechanism for deceptive images. Muniz’s enigmatic work challenges us to question what we see and not simply be a receiver. His creations are both imaginative and illuminating. Unmissable.
The exhibition has information about the artist and his work displayed in both Portuguese and English.
Museu de Arte Moderna
Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, 85, Parque do Flamengo, Centro, 2240-4944. Tuesday to Friday, 12.00 to 18.00; Saturday, Sunday and public holidays, 12.00 to 19.00. R$ 8,00. Ticket office closes half an hour before. Parking. (R$ 3,00 for one hour). Senior citizens (60+) and students with ID pay R$ 4,00. Free for friends of MAM and children under 12. Family tickets available on Sundays at R$ 8,00 per group. www.mamrio.com.br.