Friday, January 28, 2011

Vik Muniz's Waste Land

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Vik Muniz in the Jardim Gramacho

Last night I saw Waste Land, the documentary about artist Vik Muniz spending two years in the Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill (the place where Rio de Janeiro's trash goes). He worked with a group of garbage pickers for an art project. When I think of Vik Muniz, I think of a guy who draws pictures with really unusual pigments. Chocolate syrup, for example.

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Vik Muniz, cover of Tribalistas, 2002

This was the cover of an album by a Brazilian supergroup, Tribalistas (Marisa Monte, Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown). I'm listening to it right now to get in the mood to write this.

Vik Muniz has never been my favorite Brazilian artist. (That honor belongs to Ernesto Neto.) There is something kind of gimmicky about his work. Look, not only can I draw pretty good, but I can do it in chocolate! I call this kind of art "stunt art."

Despite my judgment, Muniz is about the most successful Brazilian artist in the world. But he was feeling a bit alienated from his success. A guy from a lower middle class background who manage by a combination of luck, hard work, and talent to become a rich, successful artist--you start to think about the people left behind. The people who didn't have your luck or your talent. So he decided to work with the garbage pickers, to see if he could create a project that would help them in some way.

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Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos (aka Tiaõ) posing as David's Marat in a bathtub picked out of the garbage

Among the people he chose for his project was Tiaõ (in my experience, virtually every Brazilian I have ever known has some nickname. Tiaõ's real name is Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos). He runs an association of garbage pickers that negotiates prices with recyclers. Garbage picking is a disgusting job, but it is an actual job--these guys are going through and picking up recyclable materials, removing tons of garbage every day. Tiaõ is a self-made politician--he set up the Association of Recycling Pickers at Jardim Gramacho from scratch. The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula), started out in a similar way, so who knows where Tiaõ will end up. I think Muniz probably figured that the best way to help the pickers was to help someone who was already doing a lot to help them. Using his "Marat" photograph of Tiaõ, Muniz created an enormous portrait made of garbage and dirt.


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Vik Muniz, looking down on Tiaõ as Marat


(This is, of course, based on David's 1793 painting, The Death of Marat.)


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Jacques Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793


Muniz also worked with other pickers and made a whole series of garbage portraits.


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portrait of Magna in progress


Once he was done making each portrait (with the help of the pickers, who he hired to be assistants), he would take enormous Polaroid prints of them. Some of these he sold at auction in London. He brought Tiaõ along. There is a funny scene where he is discussing it with his staff, whether he should bring Tiaõ. Their main argument seems to be "How you gonna keep them on the farm once they've seen Paree?" Muniz brutally slaps down the self-evident elitism of that argument. Still, Tiaõ is overwhelmed and weeps uncontrollably when his portrait sells for 45,000 pounds (which he gets and plows back into the picker's association).


Waste Land is a moving, powerful movie. I still think Muniz is kind of a stunt artist, but this project was incredible. 


Waste Land was nominated for an Oscar, as was Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop. I wonder how often visual art documentaries have been nominated before, much less two in one year?



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