Contemporary art sure can be divisive. Every year, the British press fills with angry opinion pieces lambasting the finalists for that nation’s Turner Prize. In the United States and elsewhere, citizens’ groups regularly mobilize against the controversial in art exhibitions — be it Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic nudes or Chris Ofili’s paintings daubed with elephant dung. A lot of people, it is clear, think it very important that everyone should like all the art they see.
Luckily, we have draftsman/photographer Vik Muniz, who, I would suggest, is one of the most likable artists around. The 42-year-old New York City-based Brazilian is a darling of the art world. He is represented by the best galleries, and collectors snap him up. (Muniz also does very well in the secondary market — at Christie’s New York on Nov. 12, his “After Richard Serra,” from an edition of 10, sold for $41,825 — almost double the estimate the auction house had put on the 2000 C-type photograph.)
The authorities like Muniz — he represented Brazil at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. But most importantly, people like Muniz. All kinds of people.
It’s not that he panders to public taste, or is cutesy — and I, for one, don’t like artists who pander or are cutesy. But it was a delight to see “Monads,” the artist’s new exhibition at Gallery Gan, located just off Omotesando in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.
“Monads” comprises seven large C-Type photographic works from Muniz’s new series of the same name. As with his previous work, Muniz uses unorthodox materials and processes to create the image he captures with his camera. For example, “The White Rose” is actually a photograph of thousands of ants, caterpillars and centipedes — the life-size, colorful plastic type you might find in toy or tackle shops. Muniz painstakingly arranged these on a white background to form the shape of a rose, then photographed the ensemble and printed it up at 1:1 scale.
Looking at the piece from a normal viewing distance of a couple of meters, “The White Rose” appears to be just that. When one moves in to inspect the picture up close, however, the rose is no longer visible, all that can be seen is a massive tangle of creepy crawlers. One might think “yuck,” but consider the reality — it is the slimy worms and their ilk who tirelessly work the soil that make it possible for those silky roses to flourish.
Similarly, “Toy Soldier,” an image of a child soldier from the American Civil War, is built up with thousands of the sort of plastic soldiers children use to play war games; while “Small Change,” a 1-meter diameter photograph of what is apparently a 25 cent coin, is actually built up from many piggy banks’ worth of pennies, nickels and dimes.
Vernissage visitors were all smiles: Muniz’s new work succeeds as an elusive amalgam of material and subject. We also have, in effect, two pictures — the far and the near view creating one artwork — yet we are presented with the challenge of visually experiencing both of the pictures simultaneously. The action of looking at Muniz’s pictures is in and of itself enjoyable, an adventure, a source of discovery.
In the past, Muniz has found other original methods, materials and processes for building the images he photographs: He once hired a skywriting airplane to draw pictures of clouds over New York City, he drew from memory a series of iconic American images, such as Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, and he has used sugar to create portraits of the children of sugar plantation workers in the Caribbean.
Muniz can think, draw and is good with a camera. His singular talent and vision were perhaps influenced by his grandmother, who taught him to read at a very young age using a system based not on an understanding of individual letters, but on the memorization of complete words. It has also been suggested that the young Muniz fell under the spell of a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica his bartender father won in a Sao Paulo pool game.
However he came upon his vision, it is one he is able to share with ease, which is both rare and good. With the possible exception of his “Erotica” series — made up of pornographic images from the Internet rendered in children’s Play-Doh — Muniz creates work that people of any age or background can enjoy.
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