Finding beauty in a world of waste

Artist Vik Muniz explores the visible and the hidden in an unusual mix of materials


“If we live in a creative universe, we are constantly pushing the chaos out of the way to protect ourselves from the nonlogical — the natural,” muses Vik Muniz at an interview late last year at Tokyo Wonder Site. “Even when you think, you create waste. But everything is made in a way to conceal the waste.”

The New York-based artist isn’t afraid to step into that chaos. One of his latest projects, currently on show at Tokyo Wonder Site’s Shibuya galleries, was realized in the biggest garbage dump in the world, Jardim Gramacho, north of Rio de Janeiro.

There, he worked with the people who scavenge the recyclable refuse of the city — catadores in Portuguese — to make a living. Muniz, who grew up in Brazil, works in unexpected mediums, taking photographs of drawings he does out of sugar, chocolate, dust. But he had always wanted to do something with trash.

“The beautiful thing about garbage is that it’s negative; it’s something that you don’t use anymore; it’s what you don’t want to see,” says Muniz in a movie made about the project with British documentary director Lucy Walker and Brazilian director Joa~o Jardim (tentatively titled “Extraordinary Garbage” or “The Art of Garbage”). “So, if you are a visual artist, it becomes a very interesting material to work with because it’s the most nonvisual of materials. You are working with something that you usually try to hide.”

The artist believes that the catadores too are invisible within the class system of Brazil. An estimated 3,000-5,000 people live in the dump, 15,000 derive their income from activities related to it, and some that Muniz met in Jardim Gramacho come from families that had been working there for three generations.

“These people are at the other end of consumer culture,” he says. “I was expecting to see people who were beaten and broken, but they were survivors.”

His aim — besides the creative challenge — was to see not only if the experience of creating art could change people, but, to answer the question, “can you change people; can this be done?”

Muniz selected a number of the catadores to collaborate with him to make their own portraits, including Irma~, a cook who sells food in the dump; Zumbi, the resident intellectual who has held onto every book he’s scavenged; and 18-year-old Suelem, who first arrived there when she was 7. He rented 4 tons of junk and a warehouse, and together they arranged the trash on the ground to replicate photographs of themselves that Muniz had taken earlier. Then they would climb up to the ceiling and take photos of the compositions from 22 meters high.

The portraits of the people are made out of empty spaces, out of what wasn’t garbage. Shown themselves in this light, the trash collectors were astonished. Two have since left the dumps; another, Tia~o, is using $64,097 from the project — money Muniz raised in an auction at Phillipe de Pury in London by selling the portrait he did of the politically active young catadore — for the Garbage Pickers Association of Jardim Gramacho.

“Ask them what they need, and they usually say ‘nothing.’ They live in a very civilized, honest way,” observes Muniz. “People at the margins, including artists, we don’t have power, but we have freedom.”

Titled “The Beautiful Earth,” Muniz’s exhibition at Wonder Site includes three more of his photographic series. “Pictures of Pigments” features copies of famous paintings. Painstakingly, the Brazilian artist replicated the images in his New York studio with piles of pigments that lack the binding agent that holds paint together. There are no lofty concepts about appropriation behind stealing the subjects and compositions of late, great artists (Muniz admits he is simply copying them). He just wants viewers to be able see the paintings — such as Matisse’s “Harmony in Red” (1908) — once again free from their reputations. Looking at them, you first see the replications, then you realize they’re photographs, and finally, that they’re photographs of pigments.

“I am aiming for more of a ‘Hey, look at this!’ moment, because when your preconceptions fail you, then you can enter into a dialogue with the work, you can actually study it,” Muniz says.

Much of his work delves into this strange disconnect between what is portrayed and how it is portrayed, as in the portraits of trash collectors. Another series upstairs in the Shibuya galleries, “Pictures of Earthworks,” feature monumental Land Art-slash-Pop Art hybrids. The two 1960s movements are big inspirations for the artist.

“I am influenced by Land Art and Pop because in both, the audience is anyone. Both were a reaction to the spirituality of abstract expressionism,” he says.

While Pop Art reached a mass audience through Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyns, Land Art, in which artists produced compositions out of raw earth — most famously Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) in Utah’s Great Salt Lake — were available for anyone who passed by.

During their heyday, the two movements were very different in practice, but Muniz has brought them together in the “Earthworks” series. Working at a Brazilian mine for months, the artist orchestrated huge excavations to produce Pop-like images that can only be seen from the sky: a pair of dice, a set of footprints, an electric socket.

The series works on a number of levels: There is the subject, a simple Pop representation that even children immediately recognize; there is the presentation, the baffling work it must have taken to produce such images in the sides of mountains; which, in the photographs, leads to the “What the heck?” moment that Muniz is aiming for.

“If you are sincere and doing something without cynicism,” he says, “then there is room to work with it.”

This attitude is most playfully seen in his “Picture of Clouds” series. In an ongoing project, Muniz photographs cartoon clouds that he has a plane skywrite over a city. The public is thus confronted with an icon of a cloud, but one that’s actually suspended — like a real cloud — in the sky above them.

With projects like these, and the others at Wonder Site, Muniz is more involved with exploring the parameters of the real world than the art world.

“I just want to show the world as I see it,” he says near the end of the interview. “I don’t really have opinions as an artist, and I don’t really believe in ideas.”

Given the depths that can be teased out of his images, that’s an overstatement. But it’s a humble one.

“Vik Muniz: The Beautiful Earth” is at Tokyo Wonder Site, Shibuya, till March 1 (closed Jan. 1-5 & Mon.). For more information, call (03) 3463-0603 or visit