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Every Photograph Has An Agenda - The Vision Of Vik Muniz

The leading Brazilian artist defies our expectations with photographed installations, challenging a society too apt to consume images rather than examine them.

Vik Muniz in Rio
Vik Muniz in Rio
Mercedes Pérez Bergliaffa
BUENOS AIRES — Nothing is quite what it seems in the art of Vik Muniz.
The Brazilian master likes to recreate familiar images using the most unlikely range of materials: beans, marmalade and spaghetti sauce, plastic toys and computer parts, trash and diamonds.
The result is to create images you think you know, or need only a passing glance until you realize there is something different going on. That is what he wants: For you to carefully examine a picture, at a time and in a culture where images can wield enormous power.
Muniz was recently in Buenos Aires for an exhibition of his works at the MUNTREF art museum. He has become one of the Latin America's best-known artists over the past two decades, currently working from his studio in Rio de Janeiro.
What does he do with his unusual artistic materials? He arranges them into faces, human figures or giant scenes and landscapes. Once the "picture" is created, he takes a photograph, which is what is shown in museums. Seeing the images prompts one to ask: What is this? Is it a photograph, or a painting or an installation?
"That is what I like, the fact that I cannot be categorized," he says, sitting down with Clarín at his exhibition in the Argentine capital.
He said that "when you start to think about an image instead of consuming it, you will start to relate effectively and clearly with the contemporary world (in which the image is very important). There is something ethical in my work, related to the exercise of reflecting more deeply on the image."
CLARIN: Why do you say that reflecting on an image should be an ethical problem?

VIK MUNIZ: Images have specific agendas and a rhetoric we often miss. Very occasionally we think about what we are seeing. And there are economic interests connected with the image. I am not saying this is either bad or good, just the way the world is. It has two image industries: One to do with marketing and the other, with contemporary art. Both generate image consumption.

But they are two different types of image consumers.

Yes absolutely, although the context is what differentiates between a commercial and an artistic image. When a person enters a museum, he seeks an image-related experience, which is why I always try and do work that deepens our knowledge of the image.

You are now a well-known artist, but you grew up poor.

Yes, I grew up in a Sao Paulo slum called Jardín Panamericano. My father worked hard all his life as a waiter and my mother was a phone operator. I have done a thousand different jobs.

You said once that the difference between yourself and other people is that you've had more luck than others. How is that?

Yes I think I have been very lucky. There are people with talent who work hard but still fail to achieve things. I have done all kinds of things: I was a mechanic at a service station once. But whatever I did, I tried to do it as best as I could. I always tried to be the best. Another important thing is that I always considered myself a thinking person: even when doing the most sordid jobs, I kept the world inside me.

What or who took you closer to art for the first time?

I used to draw as a child. I am dyslexic so when I wrote, I would doodle. And that way I began to draw more and more. But when I was 19, I worked in a firm that made road signs, and I designed a poster for which they gave me a prize. The night of the award ceremony, a girl stopped me on the street and asked me to help, saying they were killing her boyfriend. I approached and separated two people who were fighting, and the one who had been mugged went to his car, took out a handgun and fired a shot. He hit me in the leg. He had a lot of money so he gave me a reward so I would not report this to the police. I accepted. With that money I bought a ticket to the United States to learn English. After six months I returned to Brazil, but I first went to New York for a weekend, and well, ended up staying 30 years. For six years I was illegal, until they gave me citizenship.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

When I was in New York, I realized my generation was the one creating things, the structures. So I thought: this is my moment. I was friends with some artists, so I started to think I could start doing some art. First I did sculptures, then things which were to be photographed.

What do you seek in your works?

I want people to say, what is this? What is it made of? What is its real size? Why is it made this way? I want people to think they know what the works are about, until they get nearer and realize, they do not.

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