Chocolate syrup. Diamonds. Sugar. Toy soldiers. Cotton. Wire. Thread. Jelly. Peanut butter. These are just some of the materials Vik Muniz has used over the years to create (or recreate) the iconography he uses for his inimitable photographs. Materials are the real objects of his affection. "I'm always dealing with preconceived ideas you have of the value of materials, so the point of departure is familiarity. Then it's easy for you to transcend to something else," says Muniz in the offices of Arthouse Films, which produced the Lucy Walker-directed documentary Waste Land (out tomorrow) about his latest material obsession: garbage. The point of transcendence for Muniz arrived shortly after meeting the Countdown To Zero director in 2007 and discussing their mutual interest in the subject. Once they learned that the 300-plus acre dump in Muniz's native Brazil, Jardim Gramacho, was the largest garbage heap in the world, there was no turning back.
VIK PHOTOGRAPHS TIAO AS MARAT. COURTESY OF VIK MUNIZ STUDIO.
"In this case, I departed from the image and it went into genre. The images were of work," says Muniz, who met and befriended various catadores (or pickers)—from Irma, a restaurant trained cook who is the Gramacho chef to Tião, the president of the picker's co-op Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG)—posed them in various depictions of work by Picasso, Millet, or David's Marat, and had the pickers help him to reassemble the images with the recyclable materials they collected at Gramacho for the final works that comprised his 2008 series, "Pictures of Garbage." With over 300 hours of footage Walker captured the process (and the proud-if-devastating lives of the catadores) from the project's humble beginnings to the comedown after it traveled around the world—from China to P.S. 1—and drew a million visitors when it was shown in five cities across Brazil.
"It's a funny thing," says Muniz, who raised over $300,000 ($276,000 for the co-op and $50,000 for the catadores featured in the film) for the cause. "You make a work that's very selfish and all of a sudden that takes on a form that you don't imagine. Tião was telling me, ‘There's somebody here and they want me to talk about art.' And I said, ‘Screw you, Tião, there's a lot of people calling me here wanting me to talk about garbage. And I don't know shit about garbage. You know, you have to come up with something. You're on your own man.' He's like, "I have no idea." I said, ‘Well, you have to study.' I'm doing my homework with the garbage thing and it becomes addictive." So addictive in fact, that the Brooklyn-based Muniz has become a diplomat of sorts in Rio since the project took flight. Fresh off a tour of Japan he talked about the film, garbage, and his new hyphenate.
MICHAEL SLENSKE: What were you doing in Japan?
VIK MUNIZ I was in Tokyo. Every place I'm working for a project they have a screening of the film. They had one in London, then in Japan. And I had to go and talk. It was cool though to watch it with Japanese people.
SLENSKE: What did the audience think?
MUNIZ: It's very similar, the reaction, because it sort of touches everybody. I thought language would be a barrier, but they had subtitles. I didn't think it was going to be like that, because artist documentaries are usually really boring. But it's a crowd-pleaser. People really get into it and they get very emotional about it.
SLENSKE: When you started thinking about this project did you think of it as a documentary?
MUNIZ: Yes, and I think it's because I wanted to work with garbage for a long time.
SLENSKE: Well, you had used garbage previously...
MUNIZ: I had, but not garbage-garbage, so when I met with Lucy I thought, "Now I have a good excuse" to do that body of work.
SLENSKE: She pushed you to do it?
MUNIZ: No, because we decided to do a documentary about a specific body of work instead of doing an artist documentary.
SLENSKE: That was the talk originally, right?
MUNIZ: [Producer] Angus [Aynsley] had wanted to do this and 10 years before I had done one. I thought it would be too early to do another one. But the idea to go over a single body of work seemed more interesting. And it put me in a position to do the body of work. Sometimes I need the encouragement to do things.
MUNIZ AT JARDIM GRAMACHO. PHOTO BY FABIO GHIVEIDER, COURTESY VIK MUNIZ STUDIO.
SLENSKE: Were you tentative when you first got to Gramacho?
MUNIZ: The work itself, I knew that I could do it because we've been working on this type of stuff and we have a way of doing it. We have a way of dealing with the distortion, the height, and also dealing with a group of people who aren't trained in art-making. A lot of my staff I work with there in Brazil are young people from the favelas. For 14 years I've been working with them so I hire them on a rotating basis and I try to find employment for them. So I know that can be done. These kids know what art is; they've gone through some programs. The catadores didn't. But they were very able with their hands. The new thing [for me] is to include people that are the subject of the film process.
SLENSKE: Do you want to do more of that going forward?
MUNIZ: I wouldn't mind doing it again, but this was so successful that it would be hard to top it. You're dealing with such extremes. You're dealing with, first of all, people who have no contact with contemporary art at all, whatsoever. Whatever they know about art is from television. And you make the film with the same materials [as you'd make television]; it's an economy of means that's relevant to the experience.
SLENSKE: Essentially that's what a lot of your work is about, adding value or taking it away from things like syrup or diamonds.
MUNIZ: Everyone knows chocolate or sugar, so the materials you're familiar with and the images you're familiar with too. I try to use iconography-poster store iconography-that I love, like James Dean or Charlie Chaplin. Because I love the idea of dealing with exhausted images.
SLENSKE: How did you arrive at these images?
MUNIZ: I must say it was instinctive. But once you're there the theme of work is so present, and I kept thinking about the origins of workforce iconography. You have Russian posters, and earlier than that you have the idea of the noble peasant, but it's interesting that a lot of these images that make work noble, that exalt the idea of work, they come after slavery.
SLENSKE: Is this work that's going at Gramacho a form of slavery?
MUNIZ: It's disguised, because if you're living on sub-human wages you need to be doing something that's very important for everyone, call it what you want. Although there's a lot of dignity in what they do. The pride is something that it's almost a tool for survival for the picker, but it's also infused with a great deal of denial.
SLENSKE: Like when you question whether taking them out of that environment [to see an auction in London] is dangerous or not.
MUNIZ: They all probably would like to be out of there, but when they're there they need to feel what they're doing is meaningful. That's why this type of iconography is so important; its sustenance.
SLENSKE: What's the role of the artist in this situation?
MUNIZ: I guess it's a sign of maturity in my career, which I hate to admit. When you're starting out, you're trying to impress people with your ability to do things; your knowledge of the situation; where you live and how fast; how spontaneous; how relevant you are; and it's all about you. By the time you stop convincing people, you start relaxing a little bit, and then you start listening. And as you start taking in you become aware of the public, which is huge. You only do half of it, the other half of the experience is other people. And once you become aware of your responsibility toward your public, it's where you start making work that is really relevant.
SLENSKE: You mean the public in the art world or the general public?
MUNIZ: Then you have to define your public. You realize you make art for everybody but only the same kind of of people come to see it. And that's when you start asking questions, like, "Is that really real?"
SLENSKE: You know it's funny you say that because I'm interested in what you think of [one of the catadores] JR's photo project in the favelas?
MUNIZ: Oh, that's beautiful. That's a really cool project. I had a show that opened in Rio two years ago; in the film, it's the show we see in Rio. It went to P.S. 1, Canada and Mexico City, but once it went to Brazil I redesigned the entire show. I designed an entire educational program for it; we set up monitors that could engage people in discussions. So we designed an entire exhibition because I said I want an exhibition designed for a much wider public. I don't want to show this just for critics and curators. And it worked. We got a million people that came to see the show in five venues.
SLENSKE: Are any of these catadores doing art now?
MUNIZ: Now, but I joke with Tião, for instance. Tião's like a celebrity in Brazil now and he's at the forefront of the national movement of catadores and he's an advisor for the Coca-Cola Institute for policies on recycling. He's setting up meetings with the future owner of Jardim Gramacho. There's a lot of really cool things that are happening. We're pressing for change of law and the taxation of recycling equipment. We're participating very actively with the movement to oblige all the cities that host the World Cup to compel people to pick up; otherwise the trash all ends up in the same dump. It has to be a part of the education.
Waste Land opens tomorrow at the Angelika in New York and November 5 at the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles.