Meet the Artist: Vik Muniz Lecture

Joined in conversation by notable author and sociologist Sarah Thornton, Vik Muniz will dive into his distinguished career for this Meet the Artist program, presented in partnership between U.S. Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, best known for creating what he terms “photographic delusions,” began his career as a sculptor but eventually turned his attention exclusively to photography. Working with a variety of unconventional materials—such as chocolate, diamonds, dust, and sugar—the artist forms three-dimensional narratives before recording the final images with his camera. Foregrounding photography’s ability to capture and create, his work is simultaneously humorous and incisively critical. His practice often focuses on art history and its intersections with science and perception, all the while drawing attention to the constant inundation of images in our lives. Muniz, who is also interested in activism, recently starred in the documentary Waste Land (2010), which follows the artist as he aims to depict the lives of the catadores— men and women who resort to picking through the world’s largest landfill just outside of Rio de Janeiro.

Full Transcript

0:14Are you turned on, so to speak?
0:20I’m absolutely delighted to have the opportunity
0:23to interview Vik, because I never have.
0:27And so, when I was last in Rio, I very much
0:30wanted to interview him there, and he was traveling.
0:34So, thank you to Art and Embassies
0:36and the Hirshhorn for giving me this wonderful opportunity.
0:40On screen right now, we have a detail of “Hybrid Forest”,
0:45which is the part of the large mural
0:48that he’s done for the American Embassy in Brazil.
0:51And we will discuss that work at the end of our conversation.
0:56I was going to start with a few historical pieces,
1:00and some basic questions.
1:03Here on the left, we have “Valentina”,
1:06who is the fastest girl in the community of subjects
1:09that you were depicting.
1:11And she is made out of sugar.
1:13And we have “Medusa Marinara”, made out of spaghetti.
1:17And the question to ask might be, tell me about materials.
1:22But I want to start by asking you about representation,
1:25because I think there’s a real joy of representation
1:28in a work.
1:29And often, part of the pleasure is the revelation
1:32of a figure who kind of emerges in an unexpected way.
1:36How do you choose your subject matter?
1:38VIK MUNIZ: Well sometimes the subject matter chooses you,
1:41you know.
1:42I think we’re preconditioned to find forms into forms.
1:47I think in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,”
1:49the first line says that, my soul is bent on finding forms
1:54within forms.
1:55I think this is probably what started
1:57the whole thing about language.
2:02Every kind of symbolic exchange comes from the fact
2:05that one guy one day walked into a cave,
2:08and he saw the cracks on the wall something
2:09that he seemed to have seen before.
2:12He had to have some kind of connection to something
2:16that he had seen before.
2:17Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to see it.
2:19It wasn’t just cracks on the wall,
2:21it was just a form of an animal.
2:23Not any animal, an animal that he elaborated.
2:27He feel that looks like the animal we killed last winter
2:31when we were very hungry.
2:32And all of a sudden, he has all the stories
2:34in his head about the taste of the animal,
2:37the party ensued afterwards, and then
2:40how everybody was happy to have eaten.
2:42And he looked at it again, it was just cracks on the wall.
2:45And he picked something on the floor– some blunt thing–
2:48and completed that form.
2:51And all those images came back again.
2:54This is a story that’s 50,000 years old,
2:57and I think we’re probably at the end of it by now, you know.
3:01And I can explain this a little bit later.
3:03But what we can call the picture project, you know.
3:07The reason that since this first artist, we have continuously
3:16have this place in society for individuals
3:20whose main occupation is to create
3:23tools and instruments that help us mediate our relationship
3:28to the outside world.
3:31So to speak, that we can deal with the reality that’s
3:35around us.
3:36And in our case, and in our time,
3:39is a reality that extends farther
3:44than the reach of our limited senses.
3:50I always think about this first artist
3:55because I feel connected to him somehow.
3:57I’m sort of like advancing this project.
4:06The reason we see things, the world around us,
4:09the way we see today, has to do with the parallel evolution
4:13with this instruments that we artists developed
4:16through history in order for us to be able to do so.
4:21It’s very important occupation, I think.
4:23I like to think of it so.
4:25It sounds very noble, but when you look at a plate of pasta,
4:29it doesn’t really connect.
4:33SARAH THORNTON: Can I ask, because you often
4:35refer to famous works of art.
4:38And the Medusa here, echoes Caravaggio’s Medusa.
4:42And you also have a history of depicting people
4:47from the street who might never have the opportunity
4:50to have their portrait done.
4:51And so there’s a kind of tension perhaps,
4:54between high and low income.
5:01You know, I trained as a British sociologist,
5:03so I’m always sniffing out class wherever I can find it.
5:07Do you think that there’s a kind of theme
5:10of class lingering behind your choice of subject matter?
5:13VIK MUNIZ: I wish I was that organized.
5:15I’m not a sociologist.
5:16I’m an artist, you know.
5:22Usually I’m introduced as the artist who works
5:25with non orthodox materials.
5:27And I find that I am always very concerned about–
5:34I was in the museum watching people look at my work
5:36and they said, oh that’s the chocolate guy.
5:41Come on, I worked for 20 years to be the chocolate guy?
5:47The reason I work with this variety of materials–
5:53and I work indiscriminately if it’s somebody famous,
6:00if it’s an icon, if it’s an unknown–
6:02is because it allows me to do a really wide range
6:06of experimentation.
6:07If you work with a pencil and a paper and an eraser,
6:13you’re just going to be doing the same thing every day
6:15of your life.
6:17I have nothing against that.
6:19But the fact that you choose to work with chocolate,
6:24or diamonds, or garbage.
6:25Or having retro diggers do these really huge drawings
6:30in the iron mines, and have helicopters to picture it.
6:34Or work with really state of the art microscopes making pictures
6:39of castles in grains of dust, allows me
6:43to explore different processes.
6:47It’s not the chocolate, it’s just
6:49the way you have to go to come up
6:51with a picture that’s made very fast, in the case of chocolate.
6:55Or takes very long to make.
6:59There’s that marinara that you saw before, that
7:01wasn’t supposed to be a piece.
7:03I was eating.
7:06I was looking at a book by Caravaggio
7:08that was making another work by chocolate.
7:11Then I saw like, I did like that.
7:12I put a little drop of olive oil for the eyes
7:16to make it look really vivid.
7:18I said, oh, that looks good.
7:19I photographed it.
7:21And I remember, then I found out that I
7:24was supposed to have a show about apparitions
7:27that this friend of mine, Leslie Thornton.
7:34Leslie Tonkonow, sorry.
7:35And then I said, oh, I have a piece, I have a piece.
7:38I send it to her, and my plate of food,
7:40like in seven days later, was in the three quarters of the New
7:44York Times.
7:46I was like, wow, this is really magic, you know.
7:51But then you do something that takes three minutes to do,
7:54and then there are works that I–
7:59turn off your phones.
8:02It’s my ex-wife.
8:04SARAH THORNTON: Ha, ha ha!
8:07VIK MUNIZ: OK, sorry about that.
8:12And then you do work that I manipulate with dental tools
8:19grain by grain.
8:20Bits of pigment, you know.
8:22And you end up making, I think it takes like four months
8:25to do it.
8:26To do that, I have to wear a mask, and gloves, and goggles.
8:30Because if I breathe out, all that picture
8:33turns into a cloud of smoke.
8:36Ugly color, too.
8:38And if I breathe in, I die because it’s all poison,
8:41you know.
8:42So, and you do that for six months.
8:44And then when it’s in the gallery, you show that Medusa,
8:48and you have to sell them for the same price.
8:51It’s so unfair, because you charge by each.
9:02You have to understand that.
9:05SARAH THORNTON: I think your choice of materials
9:07is one of the things that makes your work accessible, isn’t it?
9:10In a way, just by using a common material
9:14that everyone can identify with it,
9:16you are kind of bringing Caravaggio
9:18to people who might not otherwise clock the Medusa.
9:22VIK MUNIZ: I try to work with things
9:24that are very known from the iconography,
9:28and from the material.
9:29I think the artists only do half of the work.
9:35The other half is the viewer who does it.
9:37I always think of art happening in the museum,
9:42or in the gallery, and not in the studio walls.
9:45When it’s there, it’s just a personal thing that I do.
9:47But I really don’t go much further.
9:49But when somebody is in front of the art work, or that thing
9:53that you did, then you can really realize for sure
9:56if that’s art or not.
10:01Since the spectator is doing half of the work,
10:04you have to be considerable of what that person is
10:09bringing into the bargain.
10:10What’s the visual baggage?
10:15I hate when I go to a show and I have a feeling
10:18that I feel stupid about it.
10:20You know, that I didn’t understand anything.
10:23So, leaving a gallery with the feeling that you’re dumb.
10:26I prefer to give the other sensations.
10:30When you look at it and you discover
10:31that you know lot more than what you actually thought you did.
10:37Visual culture is something that we
10:39start acquiring when we are like, just a few days old.
10:44The moment we started differentiating
10:45between this blur.
10:50I don’t remember when it was when I was a baby,
10:52but it must have been like an acid trip.
10:54It was crazy, you know?
10:56And then the moment you start thinking, this is light,
10:58this is dark, this is mom, this is me.
11:01Language starts kicking in, and the world
11:03starts becoming departmentalized and broken
11:07into this web of linguistic.
11:09And sort of, in a way, it stands between us and the real world.
11:16That’s why the moment we start acquiring language and start
11:21learning numbers, we stop drawing and stop
11:26having this more direct relationship that children
11:30have to the visual world.
11:32Some people ask me now, when did you start becoming an artist?
11:35I don’t remember when I started, but I
11:37remember when everybody around me stopped being one.
11:40And it was around that time, you know.
11:43I’m dyslexic.
11:45So it took me a long time to learn how to read and write.
11:49And it was exactly the time when people
11:50stopped playing with Play-Doh and drawing.
11:55I couldn’t write, I took dictation in the second year.
12:00The person said car, you know, I couldn’t write it.
12:03I would just draw something.
12:04I could only read in certain fonts.
12:08So I do everything visually.
12:11When I was like eight or nine, my copy books
12:16looked like the Egyptian section of the Metropolitan museum.
12:18It was just like that.
12:19It was like shorthand, you know.
12:22I was the only one who could read those things.
12:27But you know, those things developed gradually
12:30into more accomplished drawings.
12:33And before I knew it, I was the kid who draws.
12:36Every one of you had a kid like this in the class.
12:38The guy who makes the caricatures of the teachers,
12:40pass them around.
12:42And that became my identity.
12:43So I think that’s how things developed.
12:49SARAH THORNTON: And speaking of drawing, we have up here a work
12:53from 1996, and I think the translation is “Dreamer”.
12:59I’m wondering– in that drawing, clearly
13:02you’re a very accomplished colorist.
13:04But it seems to me that drawing is your kind of primary root
13:10Your earlier work seems to rely more
13:12on drawing than your current work.
13:15And it sounds like you did a lot of drawing as a kid.
13:21VIK MUNIZ: When I was talking about that guy 45,
13:2350,000 years ago, he started doing drawing.
13:28The first ways we were able to consolidate images just like
13:32outlines of certain shapes.
13:35And it’s a very primitive rendering,
13:38I find that fascinating because there are people today working
13:44at the very end of that technological spectrum
13:47of creating simulations.
13:50Creating illusions like you know, Spielberg, Dreamworks.
13:58I don’t have that kind of money.
13:59I don’t have that many rich friends.
14:01So I have to work on the other side.
14:03So my deal is to produce the worst possible illusion that’s
14:07still able to fool people.
14:10Because then you’re not fooling people.
14:13You’re actually giving people a measure of their own need
14:16to be fooled.
14:17You know, their own belief.
14:20Every single form of language requires
14:25that you let yourself be fooled temporarily by something else.
14:30Like you are listening to the sound that’s out of my mouth,
14:33and you’re finding meaning in it.
14:36It’s just sound.
14:39Pictures are like this too.
14:42When it comes to drawing, you are dealing
14:43at the very, very end of that–
14:46the worst possible illusion.
14:47If I do like this, you know, and I do this.
14:52I didn’t even draw it, but every one of you saw in this gesture
14:56a picture of the sun.
15:00Well, the sun is a huge ball of fire
15:02that’s hanging eight light minutes from here.
15:04And I brought it to this room only with a gesture.
15:08For people 40,000 years ago, that didn’t have Nintendo,
15:12this was magic.
15:14Believe me, they would go like, whoa.
15:16You know?
15:18It is known that some churches, they
15:21didn’t allow frescoes to be–
15:24in the Renaissance– to be placed at the eye level
15:31because people could just bend their noses against it.
15:34They would believe that perspective is space
15:37and just go into it.
15:39As I said, we developed our relation
15:41to the world based on our relationship to the tools
15:44that we invented to be able to foster that relationship.
15:50The shortest explanation that I have about what art
15:53is, is the evolution of our relationship of the interface
16:01between mind and matter.
16:03The only problem with this definition
16:05that it can be applied to science and religion.
16:09Which at one point were the same thing, you know.
16:14I love to work with scientists, you know.
16:17And I like to talk to religious people.
16:19I like to work with science more than I like
16:22to talk with religious people.
16:27But it’s fascinating how in all these situations
16:34you’re dealing with something very unique to our species,
16:38which is belief.
16:40Every single living thing knows something.
16:44But we are the only species capable of believing something.
16:48Because artists like us, we have created models.
16:59We work in the realm of the irrelevant.
17:02We do things that don’t really apply directly to reality.
17:07We play.
17:08And play, you know, is a very important thing
17:11because you create possibilities for things
17:14that haven’t happened yet.
17:15So you create extensions.
17:17It’s both spatial and temporal.
17:22I cannot emphasize how important my work is.
17:26I mean it’s like a–
17:28SARAH THORNTON: On that note, I’d
17:31like to reinforce the point by asking
17:35you to talk about the kind of social practice
17:38part of your work.
17:41In Rio you did this huge kind of monumental body of work
17:49in this dump in which 70% of Rio de Janeiro’s trash ended up.
17:56And made work with recyclables along with the workers
18:00who picked through the dump to find recyclable material.
18:04And also it featured in this documentary.
18:08I’m really fascinated by the way you engage people
18:11and how you don’t just transform materials, you actually
18:15transform lives.
18:17And I wondered if you saw kind of,
18:20human beings as one of your many materials?
18:25VIK MUNIZ: Well, that’s a scary thought.
18:29But I think it goes a little bit beyond that.
18:33I have been working for over 25 years doing this.
18:38And when you’re a young artist you’re
18:42only doing art because you want to be an artist.
18:45So you make art to be an artist.
18:48No, you’re not an artist to make art.
18:50And after I don’t know, 20 years,
18:54you don’t have that excuse anymore.
18:56Oh, I want to be an artist.
18:57You’ve been paying your bills for a long time.
19:00You have been in these shows.
19:02You’re doing retrospectives.
19:04You even get a catalog resume of your work.
19:08So, why do you do this?
19:11What is that that you’re doing?
19:13And it’s important not just to be reminded.
19:17I’m an only child, so I talk to myself all the time.
19:23Now the car and the cell phones are
19:24great because where they have in cars.
19:26Now I can talk to myself when I’m driving.
19:27People think I’m talking on the phone.
19:29It’s really good.
19:30But I cannot convince myself of this importance unless if I do
19:40I had just done a retrospective and a really thick book
19:43of my work, so you go back to everything you’ve done.
19:46And then I said like, well, what is it, you know.
19:51So I invited a group of people who
19:53have absolutely no relationship to art whatsoever.
19:56They had no relationship with images of themselves.
20:01For the most part, they only see themselves in the mirror
20:03or in tiny little pictures from cell phones
20:07they found in the garbage dump.
20:09They had obviously, from the environment or the kind of work
20:14that they perform.
20:16Varied issues in really trying in a way
20:19to show the self-esteem, their role in society, and so on.
20:24And I invited these people to come to my studio
20:28and work on their own self-portraits.
20:30But in a huge scale, you know.
20:32Just in the way I’ve always been working.
20:36So the portraits are kind of–
20:38you don’t see them when you’re working on them.
20:40They are anamorphic and they are elongated and trapezoidal
20:45like this.
20:45But when you go up to a tower 20 meters high,
20:49all of a sudden you see yourself.
20:51Huge, it’s two times this auditorium or more,
20:55and you see a picture of yourself.
20:58But I didn’t want to add anything.
20:59I didn’t want to give them materials
21:01that were foreign to them.
21:02I wanted to take the portraits with the materials
21:05that they work with every day, which is basically
21:08recyclables and garbage.
21:11And at the end of this process–
21:13which it took three years–
21:15I had not only changed my convictions about what I did,
21:19but also I realized the importance of this
21:21to these people.
21:23They were different people.
21:24Completely different people.
21:26For those of you who haven’t seen the documentary,
21:29it’s a really good– and not because I did it, OK–
21:32it’s a good documentary.
21:33SARAH THORNTON: It really is.
21:34VIK MUNIZ: It was indicated for the Oscar
21:36and it was a huge injustice they didn’t give it to us.
21:39I wanted to get it.
21:40Oprah announced, and I was so disappointed.
21:43″Inside Job” won.
21:45Remember that film about Wall Street?
21:46So we made a film about how to turn garbage into money,
21:50and they gave the Oscar to a film
21:52about how to turn money into garbage.
21:59I think “Wasteland” was really a process of trying to understand
22:07what is this that I did.
22:14It also set me into being more open to do projects like this.
22:21I’m very happy to share what I do with people.
22:25And as I said to you, I make things
22:28so I can see people looking at them.
22:30I don’t make work for myself.
22:32Artists say that.
22:34They’re lying.
22:35There’s a very, very famous artist which I admire a lot.
22:42I love her work.
22:43I’m not going to say who it is.
22:44But once I went to a lecture, and she said that, I only
22:48make work for myself.
22:49And I raised my hand.
22:51And I said, what do you make editions then?
22:54And then she never spoke to me again until she died.
23:02But this time I was not sharing the results
23:06of what I was doing, I was sharing the process.
23:10You know, if you think looking at art
23:11is something very important, making art or being
23:15in the process of creating something it’s exhilarating.
23:18When it goes well, especially.
23:20When it doesn’t go well– because you
23:22know when you have this these books, these retrospectives,
23:25we only show things that work.
23:27We never show the things that don’t work.
23:30But failure is a major asset because things don’t work here,
23:34you will use it somewhere else.
23:36Like this thread piece that was before–
23:39now it takes about a week to make one.
23:42And then–
23:43SARAH THORNTON: This one.
23:43VIK MUNIZ: Yeah, that one.
23:44And then you make it, and then you photograph it.
23:49It’s interesting because when look at it,
23:50you have two kinds of pictures sort of fighting.
23:53There’s one has a pictorial perspective,
23:57and the other has like a textural perspective
23:59or it’s topographic.
24:02I’d had just finished one of these pieces.
24:05I named these pieces by the number of yards of thread
24:09that I used.
24:10But this is like, it’s called “The Dreamer”
24:12but it’s got like 16,000 yards of thread.
24:16It’s funny that Meg knows that if I
24:21make one that’s 10,000 yards of thread and it’s very beautiful,
24:24and I make one that’s 21 yards of thread that’s not that good.
24:27People will want the one that has more thread in it.
24:30You know, the collectors do.
24:35I had just made one of these and I said,
24:37well, I’m going to have lunch and then I
24:39come back and shoot it.
24:41I had a cat.
24:46That cat is no longer with us.
24:49I came back, the cat collaborated
24:51and he made an abstraction out of my 19th century copy.
24:58Once I spent like one month and a half
25:01making a piece with pigment, you know.
25:06The ones that I described before.
25:08And then by the time I was about to shoot the piece,
25:11it was done.
25:13I shoot with an eight by 10 camera.
25:14The lenses are sort of placed in this latch
25:18that holds the lenses to the bellows of the camera.
25:22When I put it down– when I picked up the shutter,
25:26it did this.
25:27My sleeve caught the latch, and the lenses
25:29fell right on top of it.
25:31And I was like–
25:35I had to sit for like 20 minutes just looking at that.
25:39You know when your legs are like, they get all numb.
25:43That, obviously, is not in my retrospective.
25:48SARAH THORNTON: So, just so you know
25:49before I move to the next slide, “Wasteland”,
25:51you can see it on iTunes or Amazon.
25:54VIK MUNIZ: Oh it’s for free on YouTube too.
25:59SARAH THORNTON: And I paid $3.99 so, you know.
26:04Now we have this term public art which begs the question,
26:08what do we call all the art that’s not public?
26:10Private art?
26:11Collector art?
26:12Elite art?
26:12Art world insider art?
26:14Studio art?
26:15How do you define the public?
26:17VIK MUNIZ: Yeah.
26:19I didn’t think about it, but you’re right.
26:21I mean, it depends on somebody looking at it.
26:25It has to be public to be art I think.
26:28It’s just about the different venues that we find.
26:34We are used to have images coming at us, you know.
26:37They’re projected through TV screens, telephones,
26:40outdoor billboards, point of sale, product packaging,
26:46and these are images that are everywhere.
26:49They’re ominous.
26:51And then you have museums.
26:54It’s an inversion.
26:56Museums are like these places where
26:58you can ritualize your relationship to images
27:00because you walk towards an image, you know.
27:02You wake up.
27:03You take a shower.
27:05You put on nice clothes–
27:07black clothes to go to the museum.
27:10And then you take a bus, and you pay to get in.
27:14Or it’s for free and you just walk.
27:15And you walk towards that picture.
27:19It’s something that I always like to do.
27:21There’s a picture that you want to see.
27:24It’s a landscape.
27:26And you walk towards that picture,
27:28and you stop there as if there’s an X on the floor.
27:30And you do this like–
27:34VIK MUNIZ: You know?
27:35The reason you do this is, by the time you stopped
27:38is because that picture filled your visual field comfortably.
27:43And you can be inside the landscape if you do this,
27:45and you can be back in the museum if you do this.
27:49And when you do this, you’re looking
27:51at a picture that’s something that
27:52comes from the mind of an artist,
27:54it’s something idealized.
27:55It’s part of somebody’s imagination.
27:57Or a negotiation with some nature.
27:59But it’s literally an idea.
28:02When you go like this, you see material.
28:03You see what that idea is made of.
28:06And you go back and forth between idea and material, idea
28:12and material.
28:12Because the experience of art does not
28:15reside in either end of the bargain,
28:17but exactly on the moment you cross that threshold.
28:20It’s when you feel the relationship between what’s
28:22here and what’s out around you.
28:25This is the really thick wall that
28:28separates our consciousness into everything
28:31that’s happening outside.
28:33We have the impression that we have full control of that,
28:36because we are given very powerful tools
28:39to deal with that.
28:40That beyond this theater there is a museum,
28:44and there is a city, and we can think
28:47of everything that’s happening outside in our planet.
28:51And even beyond, in our universe.
28:53But in fact, these are just the realities
28:59that we create for ourselves.
29:01But we can’t quite feel them, you know.
29:05I am a wall artist.
29:07I make objects.
29:08And my works require physical presence for them to exist,
29:14for them to work.
29:16I think this is a handicap of the artwork,
29:19because you need to go there to see it.
29:22To feel the transformation.
29:24Every image has some cinematic feel that as you approach it,
29:27it changes.
29:29But you have to be there.
29:31So I don’t post my work on my Instagram account,
29:34because I don’t want to trivialize the experience
29:37of looking at it.
29:38I post cats, food, and sunsets.
29:47VIK MUNIZ: Public art, you know–
29:49I forgot the question, it was public art.
29:55SARAH THORNTON: I wonder–
29:56you know, I think that the physicality of art,
29:59I like to think of it, not as a handicap,
30:01but as the thing that will remind us
30:03that we have these bodies.
30:05Because you know, everything seems to be digitizable.
30:09But wonderfully, art, we still want
30:12to experience at scale with its textures
30:15and all that kind of thing, and communally too.
30:18I mean, the number one reason people
30:21go to museums is to socialize.
30:23Number two, is to learn something.
30:25VIK MUNIZ: It’s like movies, yeah.
30:27I go to museums so I can get shushed.
30:31I go to movies so people shh!
30:33Because they keep commenting.
30:36If you don’t talk about it, what’s
30:37the point of watching it with other people.
30:40I’ve never understood that.
30:44I think what is there too–
30:46I was saying about when you ritualize
30:51you experience with things–
30:54see, I come from a very poor family in Brazil.
30:58My parents, the first time they set foot in a museum
31:01or in a gallery was to see one of my shows.
31:04And the reason they never did it,
31:06is because they didn’t know what they would find inside.
31:08They were not familiar with that.
31:11It is a well-known fact that people
31:13who go around public art, they have less of a problem
31:18to walk inside a museum or to participate in a discussion.
31:23Because they feel familiarized.
31:24Even popular culture, you know, I had a show in Mexico City.
31:28And it was a huge crowd coming in.
31:30And these people, they are immersed in like folk art.
31:35And they had the really best reactions to the work.
31:39Completely different.
31:40And that’s why we show the work for different cultures–
31:44to see how it fares, or how people see it differently.
31:54I’m very happy that it doesn’t change much.
31:57You know, I still make work for my mother, actually.
32:01I make work that has a sort of a universal appeal.
32:06It’s very easy to impress very intelligent people only.
32:10And when I make an exhibition, I love
32:13when the museum director or the curator is there
32:17and it’s, oh, i really think it’s good.
32:18And they are enjoying the show, and then
32:22the guard comes to you, I like that one over there.
32:27Or the maintenance people, they come
32:29and they have a genuine reaction to what you’re doing.
32:34But this is in a museum as, I said.
32:36It’s just like you go there and you
32:37know what you’re going to find.
32:38Or even if you don’t, you know that you are going
32:40to be tricked or surprised.
32:42That’s the controlled environment.
32:43The gallery is the same thing.
32:45But when you’re walking on the street
32:47and you bump into something unexpectedly, you know–
32:51I remember I lived in New York during the time
32:56Richard Serra did that “Tilted Arc” in the downtown.
33:02And it was a very huge polemic because the people wanted
33:05the sculpture to be removed.
33:08And it was a commissioned work of art.
33:10But I had to cross that place all the time.
33:12Going around that thing was very, very annoying, you know.
33:15I mean, Richard Serra is my favorite sculptor.
33:20But he could make a little door in the middle.
33:26Something very seamless, you know?
33:31I’m saying that because I think when
33:32you deal with that kind of public art,
33:35you have to be fully conscious of the context in which you
33:39are doing that thing.
33:40And what that is doing to the people around you.
33:42It’s not like just doing something at the gallery.
33:44It will be placed on a different scale to another place.
33:50SARAH THORNTON: Can I ask you, very specifically
33:52about a context?
33:53How about this work that’s in the New York subway?
33:57The new line up the Upper East Side.
34:00Can you tell us a bit about that context?
34:02because I think you talk about infected context.
34:08And I love that term because it’s
34:10those contexts that are kind of much richer in social meaning
34:13than, let’s say, an empty gallery space.
34:15VIK MUNIZ: Yeah because you have a different mindset.
34:19People blank themselves when they go to a gallery
34:22because they’re open to an experience.
34:24When they’re riding the subway, they
34:25have all kinds of concerns, you know.
34:27Time, being on time, or lateness, or too many people.
34:32They’re conscious of the environment they’re around.
34:35You know, I’m going to do a Brazilian politician thing.
34:37I’m going to answer a completely different question here
34:40to finish my point before.
34:45And has to do with this, I promise.
34:49The first public art I ever done,
34:51I did it for Creative Time in 2001.
34:54I asked the plane to draw these cartooney clouds
34:58on the sky over Manhattan.
35:00Because I didn’t want that interference, you know.
35:02That Richard Serra thing that I was saying
35:04like, I didn’t want to make something
35:05that would stay there.
35:06And it was quite interesting, because a cloud is something
35:09that you expect to find in the sky, but never as a drawing.
35:12So the plane would make that drawing,
35:14and also it moves with the wind going like this.
35:16You go, oh, wow.
35:19And it is not selling anything.
35:21It’s just the cloud going like this.
35:22It was really silly, but it’s a very interesting experience.
35:27It makes you awake a little bit.
35:31In this case, it’s the opposite, you know.
35:34Then I said, I don’t want to make things that last too long.
35:38People get tired of it.
35:39Then I think I changed my mind with time,
35:41because time adds a different dimension to the work.
35:47When you make work like the work in the subway,
35:54you have to be conscious that that thing will stay there
35:57for a long time.
35:58But you also have to be fully conscious of what
36:00that is doing.
36:03Initially I had another proposal for the MTA.
36:07I was working with lenticular–
36:09remember those pens that you go like this,
36:13and then when you go like this, the woman that’s
36:15in the pen gets naked?
36:17That technology.
36:18Very, very, very powerful technology.
36:23I made this lenticular print so big,
36:27and they were also anamorphic.
36:30So if you were walking on the train station,
36:33all of a sudden you see a ghost appear and dematerialize.
36:35And you’ll freak out everybody, I promise.
36:39Obviously, it was an idea that was very hard to sell.
36:44They said no.
36:45But they liked the idea that what
36:47I was representing with just people
36:48there inert, just waiting.
36:53The idea of somebody waiting has to do
36:55with like, Egyptian sculpture.
36:56Egyptian sculpture, it’s not going anywhere.
36:59And that’s why most of them are sitting down.
37:02It’s about sharing time with fellow passengers or people.
37:06There’s also this transitional moment, and I ride the trains,
37:11and I kind of enjoyed that.
37:13So they said, can you actually make the people visible.
37:16And for me to make a leap from working
37:19with a photograph to working straight into mosaic,
37:23I had to do a lot of soul searching.
37:24Because is that part of my work?
37:29And then Lester from the MTA said,
37:30you’ve always been a mosaic artist.
37:35Because you always created this tension
37:37between material and image.
37:39Between making something out of something else.
37:42And I said OK, good.
37:44That’s a good explanation.
37:45I’m going to buy it, and I’m going to make it.
37:48And I found this group of people in Munich
37:50that could really do amazing photo realistic glass mosaic.
37:56And we did 40 characters in the entire mezzanine
38:03of the 72nd station of the second avenue line.
38:07And it really works, because what
38:11before it was an apparition, then became a presence.
38:13There are life size.
38:14I made an effigy of myself and I kept putting it on the station,
38:17looking from different angles.
38:20People always think artists are crazy, but they we’re not.
38:26Normally, when you make a representation of yourself–
38:30you’ve seen statues that are done one to one scale
38:32that people look like midgets?
38:35I was afraid of that, so we actually
38:39made the shadows behind using the regular tile
38:43of the station.
38:44That was the hardest part, because to get
38:48the tile of the station and make the shadow, tiles warped.
38:52You’re dealing with temperature.
38:57There’s a great degree of specialization
38:58that the contemporary artists have
39:00to deal with when working with processes and materials
39:04that you would take a lifetime to learn how to master.
39:09So you have to deal with other people.
39:12So then the skills of the artist is basically
39:14communicating very clear ideas and trying
39:16to follow it through.
39:18When you work with somebody who makes glass in Murano,
39:23you don’t know how to blow glass.
39:24But the guy speaks Italian.
39:27Sometimes it’s a tricky little thing, but in this case,
39:34the main deal was to create a really effective line
39:39of communication with the fabricator.
39:41I was very happy with the results.
39:44And when I became a mosaic artist,
39:49the invitation came to do this piece which is
39:54a completely different context.
39:57It’s not a train station.
39:59It’s an embassy.
40:04I had to think about a number of things, of personal issues
40:09even, before I decided to do or not.
40:14And what to do about this, you know.
40:18SARAH THORNTON: And it’s called “Hybrid Forest.”
40:21And it’s both the Everglades, and the Amazon.
40:25Which makes sense for the American Embassy in Brazil,
40:30but also your national identity as a dual citizen.
40:32VIK MUNIZ: Yeah.
40:33SARAH THORNTON: Both Brazilian and American.
40:35And you were an illegal alien for a little while in America?
40:39VIK MUNIZ: Shh!
40:43SARAH THORNTON: Let’s say–
40:45VIK MUNIZ: I were.
40:46I was, I was.
40:47SARAH THORNTON: How did that history
40:48and sense of citizenship affect your choices?
40:51When When the word embassy or consulate, you know,
40:55you’re talking of this kind of ambiguous spaces
41:00that validate your presence in one place or another.
41:05The American citizens here probably don’t feel it,
41:08or maybe you do feel it.
41:09I’m American and I still feel it, but maybe
41:11as a residue of my experience as an immigrant
41:14going through customs, for instance.
41:17And the guy start asking too many questions
41:19and you start going like, ooh.
41:24It’s a tense environment, and it’s
41:30like you’re in between if you’re crossing that threshold.
41:34It is an environment that represents a threshold, a wall.
41:40It’s a wall. .
41:42And how to transform a wall into a bridge?
41:45I think that was the main–
41:48I really love to hear from the entire process of–
41:58the idea to invite artists to work on embassies,
42:02comes because of the fact that after September 11
42:07the increasing amount of security
42:08that was put in place in embassies and consulates
42:12sort of altered the original architecture of most
42:14of these buildings, and sort of like made them
42:16a little bit oppressive and dehumanized.
42:19Bringing art back into this place
42:21was a way to balance a little m these changes.
42:26That was the real appeal.
42:27That’s really interesting, because that’s
42:29how I feel when I’m in of these places.
42:31And one think– I don’t know if you’ve been to Brazil–
42:36and Brazil is a very funny place.
42:37It was designed a couple of guys, you know.
42:42They had some beers and said, let’s do this airplane thing.
42:45And they designed the entire thing in one go.
42:48And it’s like, it it’s not organic.
42:50It doesn’t allow growth.
42:51Everything is already thought, is done.
42:54In a number of ways, it’s dead.
43:00I feel that to make something that is refreshingly
43:05opposite to that.
43:06Something that is out of control.
43:10Forests a start like that.
43:12And I think also, the forest would
43:14convey a feeling that is a common origin for all of us.
43:18We all come from nature.
43:20It’s a place where we bond.
43:21We’re all natural beings.
43:22We’re animals.
43:24And all of a sudden, when we are in front of nature
43:27we don’t know what we’re dealing with.
43:29We’re so illiterate when it comes to nature.
43:32To make a forest, that was a tricky forest,
43:34it’s a sort of a conceptual mosaic.
43:38Because we went through all the species that did not occur.
43:42They were either from the Everglades
43:44and they do not exist in the Amazon, or from the Amazon
43:47and do not exist– and we mixed them up.
43:49And then we create a forest that is an impossible forest.
43:53But nobody noticed that.
43:57To go back to politics, I think obviously,
44:02I have my opinions as a citizen, you know.
44:06And as an artist.
44:07But they’re not better than the opinions
44:09of the policemen, or the baker, or the candlestick maker.
44:19I’m very suspicious of artists that
44:21think they know more about politics than other people.
44:24Actually we live in another planet.
44:27We shouldn’t even be allowed to vote, sometimes, I think.
44:38Every time politics or good intentions
44:41are a premise to make art, I think
44:44you rob yourself of an essential point
44:46that these things come from the possibility of communicating
44:51They don’t precede it.
44:53And if there is anything political about making art,
44:56is the fact that you’re allowing people
44:58to be conscious of their relationship to reality.
45:02Which is very much in peril right now.
45:04I think that we are technology advanced in such pace
45:08that artists and people who think about image
45:11could not really follow.
45:14We’re a little bit falling behind.
45:17We’re losing somehow, our grip to things that are real,
45:21things are true.
45:22Where do we get our doses of reality from?
45:27And it’s symptomatic thing.
45:28It’s everywhere.
45:30It’s here, it’s in Brazil.
45:31And I think it comes from the fact
45:33that we need some serious adjustment.
45:35And I don’t think artists can provide that anymore.
45:39SARAH THORNTON: So can I clarify?
45:40Because you seem to be arguing that artists should not be,
45:46kind of, political illustrators or didacts.
45:51By the same token, I’m assuming that you don’t
45:53think that artists can be–
45:56there’s any stance they could have,
45:58which is entirely apolitical either.
46:00And I’ve actually just put up Jackson Pollock for you
46:03as a side note to this spot.
46:06VIK MUNIZ: He was having fun doing that.
46:09I think art becomes political with the extent
46:15that it connects with reality.
46:17I think when you have art that somehow summarizes
46:24the relationship that you have with things
46:27at that particular time in history–
46:30when you do it effectively, and you make people sense it.
46:34I was talking about this today at the National Gallery.
46:39I have this picture that I made out
46:41of a myriad of little pictures.
46:43I just get them from magazines or art books,
46:45and then I make a picture out of all the pictures.
46:48And the intention there is actually
46:50to make people see an image that’s
46:53very much like the way they produce
46:55images inside their brains.
46:57When you make those connections, I
46:59think you are doing something political one way or another.
47:02You’re helping.
47:04And sometimes it’s almost impossible
47:10not to go through some narratives that
47:14are political by nature.
47:15Like with the sugar children, for instance,
47:17these are kids that were sons and daughters
47:20from people who worked in sugar cane plantations
47:25in the Caribbean.
47:27So I work with them.
47:28I made the pictures of sugar, but it turns out
47:31that the beginning of the idea wasn’t protest or–
47:39I grew up during a military dictatorship.
47:46I wasn’t a direct victim of the dictatorship,
47:50but I was a product of the cultural environment
47:52that it fostered.
47:53I mean, when you are in that kind of censorship and very
47:59oppressive political environment,
48:02you cannot just say things.
48:05You cannot say what you think.
48:07You have to use metaphors.
48:09You have to really use all the elasticity
48:12the language allows to be able to pass messages through.
48:16And also, when it comes to acquiring information,
48:20especially from official sources,
48:22you become very pragmatic.
48:24So my upbringing during the military dictatorship
48:29made me both cynical, and somebody
48:33very good at metaphors.
48:35Or very aware of the elasticity of language.
48:38How many ways you can say something.
48:47I almost try to avoid political statements,
48:50but I try to work with the mechanisms of what
48:52political statements are made of.
48:55I also have a commercial art background.
48:58I work with advertising.
49:01It’s funny that people in advertising, they
49:03steal all of their ideas from artists.
49:05You go to an ad agency, they have art books
49:07full of Post-its like this.
49:09See, I steal ideas from advertising people.
49:13I just take it back from them, and I think
49:16that there’s no prejudice.
49:20The first, I think, requirement when you–
49:24especially because there are two major industries working
49:29with visual culture at this moment advancing
49:32the idea of visual culture.
49:34One of them has distribution technology and capital,
49:39which is marketing and advertising, lobbying.
49:43And then the other one is contemporary art.
49:46We don’t have any of that, but we have
49:47an enormous amount of freedom.
49:49We don’t have to sell anything.
49:51We sell the thing itself.
49:53We sell ideas, you know.
49:55But I think there’s a symbiosis that these people make
49:58an enormous chunk of our environment.
50:03Just going to the supermarkets, it’s
50:06like you are immersed in marketing.
50:09And that experience should be part of what the landscape
50:12that the artist is trying to explain.
50:15In a number of ways, I mean, I’ve
50:18said that I feel like an easel painter.
50:23People that did that in the Barbizon in the 19th century.
50:27But my landscape is different.
50:29I’m describing a different environment which
50:32is based on these references.
50:35And they’re very, very complex and very powerful.
50:41To be able to mirror that world, one
50:44of the things you have to do, you have to pace yourself.
50:47You have to not to try to do too many ideas at once,
50:50or not to be overly didactic.
50:52I think I have a tendency to be overly didactic.
50:56I’m trying to avoid this right now.
51:01SARAH THORNTON: Well I think we have to move on to questions.
51:07SARAH THORNTON: I mean, I’d love to hear further about what
51:11you think the political impact, or just the emotional impact
51:18of the forest image is for people
51:20standing in that very long line at the American embassy
51:23in Brasilia.
51:23VIK MUNIZ: Yeah.
51:25When you are in the embassy you’re in a constant line,
51:28you have to stand a long time.
51:31Sometimes you’re exposed to weather and everything.
51:34You know also, I keep thinking how would I feel?
51:48I felt if there was a forest there,
51:50I’ll feel much better being there on that line.
51:53So I think that, you know, I thought of flowers.
51:55But flowers would be too camp, and maybe too pretentious.
52:03I don’t know.
52:04They’re too cultural.
52:05Something more chaotic as a forest.
52:08And there’s something quite nice about the mosaic
52:11is that it matches the trees that are behind it.
52:16So it’s somehow somebody creates a fake sense of transparency.
52:21Outside the wall there’s a street.
52:23There are cars.
52:23There are things going on.
52:25But then it just matches the top of the trees there.
52:27And then you’ll feel like there’s a forest that
52:29extends forever there.
52:31It’s two things.
52:33I have nothing against art that’s pleasing, really.
52:36When I say I still make art for my mother, I really mean it.
52:40I like to make art for people who sometimes they
52:45do not expect to see art.
52:46They don’t know anything about it.
52:49There’s a way to build a structure
52:53around art making that, first of all,
52:57you privilege a physical reaction.
52:59Something that’s perceptual, that’s sensorial.
53:02And if you are able to create a connection between the viewer
53:07and the artwork at that level, all the rest is guaranteed.
53:11So you look at thousands of images every day.
53:19If an image then is to go like, hey look at me.
53:22And you do look at it– that’s an enormous achievement.
53:27This thing is, nobody can escape it.
53:29So it’s almost environmental.
53:32But as much as like the pictures in the train station,
53:38when you’re dealing with these environments,
53:42they perform very specific functions.
53:46First of all, I try to put myself
53:49in the position of the viewer and find out
53:54what would they be doing, and how could they
53:56be helping the experience of the people
53:58in that particular place.
54:00SARAH THORNTON: On that wonderful note,
54:02thank you so much, Vik, for being such a great speaker.
54:05VIK MUNIZ: Thank you.
54:09SARAH THORNTON: Thank you.
54:13You were great.
54:14VIK MUNIZ: Thank you.