Vik Muniz on

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Vik Muniz makes art from pretty much anything, be it shredded paper, wire, clouds or diamonds. Here he describes the thinking behind his work and takes us on a tour of his incredible images.

[ted id=32]

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I was asked to come here and speak about creation. And I only have 15 minutes, I see they’re counting already. And I can- In 15 minutes I think I can touch only a very rather janitorial branch of creation, which I call creativity. Creativity is how we cope with creation. While creation sometimes seems a bit un-graspable, or even pointless, creativity is always meaningful. See, for instance, in this picture:

(photo of a dog standing at a man’s feet, markings on his hindquarters look like a chicken in profile)

You know, creation is what put that dog in that picture, and creativity is what make us see a chicken on his hindquarters.

When you think about, you know, creativity has a lot to do with causality too. You know, when I was a teenager, I was a creator. I just did things. Then I became an adult and started knowing who I was, and tried to maintain that persona, I became creative. Wasn’t until I actually did a book, and a retrospective exhibition, that I could track exactly- looks like all the craziest things that I had done, all my drinking, all my parties- they followed a straight line that brings me to the point that actually I’m talking to you at this moment. Though it’s actually true, you know, the reason I’m talking to you right now is because I was born in Brazil. If I was born in Monterey, probably won’t be in Brazil.

You know, I was born in Brazil and grew up in the 70’s, under a climate of political distress, and I was forced to learn to communicate in a very specific way- In a sort of a semiotic black market. You couldn’t really say what you wanted to say, you have to invent ways of doing it. You didn’t trust information very much. That led me to another step, of why I’m here today, is because I really liked media of all kinds. I was a media junkie. And eventually, got involved with advertising. My first job in Brazil was actually to develop a way to improve the readability of billboards, and based on speed, angle of approach, and actually blocks of text. It was very- actually, it was a very good study, and got me a job in an ad agency. And they also decided that I had to- to give me a very ugly plexiglas trophy for it.

And another point- why I’m here- is that the day I went to pick up the plexiglas trophy, I rented a tuxedo for the first time in my life, picked the thing- didn’t have any friends. On my way out, I had to break a fight apart. Somebody was hitting somebody else with brass knuckles. They were in tuxedos, and fighting. It was very ugly. And also- advertising people do that all the time- (laughter)- and I- well, what happened is when I went back, it was on the way back to my car, the guy who got hit decided to grab a gun- I don’t know why he had a gun- and shoot the first person he decided to be his aggressor. The first person was wearing a black tie, a tuxedo. It was me. Luckily, it wasn’t fatal, as you can all see. And, even more luckily, the guy said that he was sorry and I bribed him for compensation money, otherwise I press charges. And that’s how- with this money I paid a ticket to come to United States in 1983, and that’s very- the basic reason I’m talking to you here today. Because I got shot. (laughter and applause)

Well- When I started working with my own work, I decided that I shouldn’t do images. You know, I became- I took this very iconoclastic approach. Because when I decided to go into advertising, I wanted to do- I wanted to airbrush naked people on ice, for whiskey commercials, that’s what I really wanted to do. But I- they didn’t let me do it, so I just- you know- they would only let me do other things. But I wasn’t into selling whiskey, I was into selling ice. The first works were actually objects. It was kind of a mixture of found object, product design, and advertising. And I called them relics. They were displayed first at Stux Gallery in 1983.

(photo of skull with bony white clown nose)

This is the clown skull. Is a remnant of a race of- a very evolved race of entertainers. They lived in Brazil, long time ago. (laughter) This is the Ashanti joystick.

(photo of Ashanti totem as the handle of a video game joystick)

Unfortunately, it has become obsolete because it was designed for Atari platform. A Playstation II is in the works, maybe for the next TED I’ll bring it.

(photo of Olympic style podium with rocking chair runners for a base)

The rocking podium. This is the pre-Columbian coffee maker.

(photo of Incan or Mayan vase with filled coffee filter stuck in the top)

Actually, the idea came out of an argument that I had at Starbuck’s that I insisted that I wasn’t having Columbian coffee, the coffee was actually pre-Columbian.

(photo of Bonsai tree shaped like a table)

The Bonsai table.

(photo of hugely thick book)

The entire Encyclopedia Britannica bound in a single volume, for travel purposes.

(photo of half of a headstone in a graveyard)

And the half tombstone, for people who are not dead yet.

I wanted to take that into the realm of images. And I decided to make things that had the same identity conflicts. So I decided to do work with clouds.

(photo: “Pictures of Cotton” superimposed on a fluffy cloud of cotton that looks sort or like praying hands)

‘Cause clouds can mean anything you want. But now I wanted to work in a very low-tech way, so something that would mean at the same time a lump of cotton, a cloud, and Durer’s praying hands. Although this looks a lot more like Mickey Mouse’s praying hands. When I was still- you know- this is a kitty cloud.

(cotton cloud that looks kind of like a cat)

They’re called “Equivalents,” after Alfred Stieglitz’ work.

(cotton cloud that looks like a snail with shell)

The snail. But I was still working with sculpture, and I was really trying to go flatter and flatter.

(video of hands shaping cotton cloud, followed by a cotton cloud that looks like a teapot, followed by a cotton cloud that looks like a man rowing a boat)

The teapot. I had a chance to go to Florence, in I think it was ’94, and I saw Ghiberti’s Door of Paradise. And he did something that was very tricky. He put together two different media from different periods of time. First he got age old way of making it, which was relief, and he worked this with three point perspective, which was brand new technology at the time. And it’s totally overkill. And your eye doesn’t know which level to read. And you become trapped into this kind of representation.

(slide “Pictures of Wire”, followed by b&w video of Muniz holding a wire sculpture, then color video of Muniz working with wire, close up of his hands)

And so I decided to make these very simple renderings, that at first they are taken as a line drawing. You know, something that’s very- and then I did it with wire. The idea was to- because everybody overlook white- like pencil drawings, you know? And they would look at it- Ah, it’s a pencil drawing. Then you have this double take and see that it’s actually something that existed in time.

(video continues, showing Muniz bending wire into flower shapes and then putting them over white backdrop so they look like drawings, followed by detailed close-ups of the wire sculpture, finally Muniz standing in profile holding the flowers)

It had a physicality, and you start going deeper and deeper into sort of narrative that goes this way, towards the image.

(wire rendering of monkey with camera)

So this is Monkey with Leica.

(wire rendering of a cocktail and an ashtray with a smoking cigarette in it)


(wire rendering of bare lightbulb hanging from a wire)

Fiat Lux.

(video starts, Muniz’s hands working with a pile of black thread, turning it into a landscape with houses- “Pictures of Thread”))

And, the same way the history of representation evolved from line drawings to shaded drawings, and I wanted to deal with other subjects, I started thinking that into the realm of landscape, which is something that’s almost a picture of nothing. I made these pictures called pictures of thread, and I named them after the amount of yards that I used to represent each picture. These always end up being a photograph at the end, or more like an etching in this case. So this is a lighthouse.

(thread rendering of lighthouse landscape, followed by rendering of tree landscape)

This is 6,500 Yards after Corot.

(rendering of trees by a lane)

9,000 Yards, after Gerhard Richter.

(rendering of country scene, bridge over a stream)

And I don’t know how many yards, after John Constable.

(slideshow: “Sugar Children”, rendering in sugar of boy’s face, followed by shots of grains of sugar, then Muniz pouring & working with sugar, intercut with sugar portraits of kids)

Departing from the lines, I decided to tackle the idea of points, like which is more similar to the type of representation that we find in photgraphs themselves. I had met a group of children in the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, and I did work and play with them. I got some photographs from them. Upon my arrival in New York, I decided- they were children to the plantation workers. And by manipulating sugar over a black paper, I made portraits of them. These are -(applause) -Thank you.

(series portraits of children)

This is Valentina, the Fastest. It was just the name of the child, with the little thing you get to know of somebody that you meet very briefly. Valicia. Jacynthe.

But another layer of representation was still introduced. Because I was doing this while I was making these pictures, I realized that I could add still another thing.

(“Pictures of Chocolate”- video, showing Muniz working with chocolate, then picture of bursting water drop rendered in chocolate, followed by photos of The Last Supper done in chocolate)

I was trying to make a subject- something that would interfere with the themes, so chocolate is very good, because it has- brings to mind ideas that go from scatology to romance, and so I decided to make this pictures and they were very large, so you had to walk away from it to be able to see them.

(portrait of Freud in chocolate)

So they’re called pictures of chocolate. Freud, probably, could explain chocolate better than I. Was the first subject.

(portrait of Jackson Pollock making a painting)

And, Jackson Pollock also.

(crowd scene in chocolate, followed by crowd portrait of photographers)

Pictures of crowds are particular interesting, because, you know, you go to that- you try to figure out the threshold with something you can define very easily, like a face, goes into becoming just a texture. Paparazzi.

(“Pictures of Dust,” video)

I used the dust at the Whitney Museum, to render some pieces of their collection. And I picked minimalist pieces because they’re about specificity. And you render this with the most non-specific material, which is dust itself.

(representation of Robert Morris’ After Untitled (L-Beams), (Household dust, 2001)”)

Like, you know, you have the skin particles of every single museum visitor. They do a DNA scan of this, they will come up with a great mailing list.

(renderings of Serra pieces)

This is Richard Serra. I bought a computer and told me it had millions of colors in it. You know an artist, first response to this is who counted it? You know?

(“Pictures of Colors”, close up of color grid painting, then grid painting of flowers)

And I realized that I never worked with color, because I had a hard time controlling the idea of single colors. But mostly applied to numeric structure, then you can feel more comfortable. So the first time I worked with colors, was by making these mosaics of Pantone swatches. They end up being very large pictures, and I photographed with a very large camera- An 8X10 camera. So you can see the surface of every single swatch- like in this picture of Chuck Close.

(Pantone swatch portrait of Chuck Close, close up, then far away)

And you have to walk very far to be able to see it.

(close up of color grid, switches to farther view so it’s revealed as a Richter-esque portrait of a woman)

Also, the reference to Gerhard Richter use of color charts- and the idea also entering another realm of representation, it’s very common to us today, which is the bit map.

(photo of bitmap painting of Monet’s haystacks)

I ended up narrowing the subject to Monet haystacks. This is something I used to do as a joke, you know, make- the same like- Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty-

(“Pictures of Earthworks”, representation of Spiral Jetty on tabletop, shot of Muniz making it)

-and then leaving traces- as if it was done on a tabletop. I tried to prove that he didn’t do that thing in the Salt Lake. But then,

(video of construction crew, and Muniz, working on earthworks)

just doing the models, I was trying to explore the relationship between the model and the original. And I felt that I would have to actually go there and make some earthworks myself. I opt for very simple line drawings- kind of stupid looking.

(video shows Muniz boarding helicopter with camera, which then takes off, showing below giant earthworks representing an envelope and a paperclip- cut tp gallery showing a large photo of Muniz’s earthwork, then Muniz making photographs on-site)

And at the same time, I was doing this very large constructions, be 150 meters away. Now I would do very small ones, which would be like- but under the same light- and I would show them together, so the viewer would have to really figure it out what one he was looking.

(video: “Earthwork Scissors (2007)”, giant earthwork scissors, camera pulls back and it’s a photo on a gallery wall, with patrons walking by)

I wasn’t interested in the very large things, or in the small things. I was more interested in the things in between, you know, ’cause you can leave an enormous range for ambiguity there.

(finally one more shot of scissors earthwork itself, with person standing beside it to show scale)

This is like you see if- the size of a person over there.

(shot of earthwork rendering of giant pipe, in the style of Magritte)

This is a pipe.

(earthwork coathanger)


(cut to New York sky-drawing video- various shots of Muniz drawing cartoon clouds from an airplane over the Manhattan skyline- “Pictures of Clouds”)

And this is another thing that I did in a working- Everybody loves to watch somebody draw, but not many people have a chance to watch somebody draw in- a lot of people at the same time to evidence a single drawing. And I love this work, because I did this cartoonish clouds over Manhattan for a period of two months. And it was quite wonderful, because I had an interest- an early interest- in theater, that’s justified on this thing. In theater you have the character and the actor in the same place, trying to negotiate each other in front of an audience. And in this, you’d have like a- something that looks like a cloud, and it is a cloud at the same time. So they’re like perfect actors.

(runs photos of cartoon clouds as he continues, changes to video of Muniz eating spaghetti, and making a portrait in the remains after he gets halfway through the plate)

My interest in acting, especially bad acting, goes a long way. Actually, I once paid like 60 dollars to see a very great actor to do a version of King Lear and I felt really robbed, because by the time the actor started being King Lear, he stopped being the great actor that I had paid money to see. On the other hand, you know, I paid like 3 dollars, I think- and I went to a warehouse in Queens to see a version of Othello by an amateur group. And it was quite fascinating, because, you know- the guy, whose name was Joey (Grimaldi?)- He impersonated the Moorish general- you know, for the first 3 minutes he was really that general, and then he went back into plumber, he worked as a plumber, so- plumber, general, plumbeer, general-

(spaghetti portrait is of Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa now, face nicely drawn by sauce, stands of pasta as hair)

So for 3 dollars, I saw 2 tragedies for the price of one.

See, I think it’s not really about impression, making people fall for a really perfect illusion, as much as it is to make- I usually work at the lowest threshold of visual illusion. Because it’s not about fooling somebody, is actually giving somebody a measure of their own belief how much you want to be fooled- and that’s why we pay to go to magic shows, and things like that. Well, I think that that’s it. My time is nearly up. Thank you very much.