0:13SARAH THORNTON: I’m on.
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,
1:42I 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
1:55I 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
3:36And 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
6:07If 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
7:46I 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,
8:42So, 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.
11:45So 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.
15:18It 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.
17:08And 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
18:17And 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
20:45But 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.
22:35There’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.
23:43SARAH 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?
26:12Art world insider 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.
26:51And 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–
27:33SARAH THORNTON: [LAUGHS]
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
28:12Because 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,
29:29But 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.
29:42SARAH THORNTON: [LAUGHS]
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.
31:40And 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?
36:18Very, 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.
43:24And 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.
45:30It’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.
47:04And 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.
51:05VIK MUNIZ: OK.
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
51:23VIK 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.