It is not unusual for artists in Brazil to claim they are better known internationally than locally. But is such a contention even remotely plausible today, when most information is no more than a few clicks away? Case in point: Vik Muniz. As recently as 2003, when Muniz had an exhibition at Paço Imperial, one of Rio de Janeiro’s best contemporary art venues, there were no crowds or media hype, though he was already a major star in the artistic firmament, more likely to be seen at MoMA, New York, or the Venice Biennale than in his native São Paulo.
Muniz’ celebrity finally made its way home this past year, with a major retrospective that started in 2009 at the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, and travelled to the São Paulo Museum of Art, before moving to Curitiba (it is touring to Fortaleza). As the ultimate token of recognition, his work has come to be somewhat disparaged; unfazed, the artist’s most recent offering is a 700-page encyclopaedia of his labours (Vik Muniz: Obra completa, 1987–2009). Should we now expect him to slip into early retirement, dividing his time between a beachfront existence and so many worthy committee meetings? Or, alternatively, is this present taking of stock a plea from the artist to move beyond his celebrity status and look at the work? Is Muniz more than peanut-butter-and-jam pictures of Mona Lisa, or is this a lot of fuss about nothing? Perhaps a clue is the knowing title of the 1999 work that made him famous, After Warhol – as Andy might have said, you can hardly blame an artist for making it big.
So, does the work hold up? The answer, upon visiting this exhibition, is a diffident yes. The variety and scope of Muniz’ oeuvre is impressive. There are several hundred photographic prints, mostly large, glossy and gorgeous: a cross-section of his work from the 1989 ‘Best of Life’ series – magazine photos sketched from memory and re-photographed – to the deceptively figurative ‘Pictures of Garbage’ (2005–9), representations composed from scrap metal, meticulously arranged in larger-than-life compositions and photographed from above. Time and again, there is a fastidious procedure of forging pictures of things – sugar, caviar, pigment, toys, rubbish, plants – made to look like what they are not: bits of visual information gleaned from the repertoire of popular culture or the history of art.
If any substantive critique is to be made of Muniz as an artist, it must necessarily come to terms with his engagement with visual delight. How do images breach the gap between representation and substance? Why do we continue to suspend disbelief? The series ‘Pictures of Magazines’ (2003) consists of celebrity portraits puzzled together from paper dots punched out of the very periodicals that showcase celebrities. From a distance, they are Lula or Pelé or a self-portrait of the artist; up close, they are a jumble of chromatic confetti that evokes the colour separation of offset printing. A photograph of a Jacob van Ruisdael landscape laid out in thousands of yards of thread is neither the landscape itself nor a bunch of thread – much less is it an Old Master painting. Yet, 20,000 Yards (The Castle at Bentheim) (1999) partakes of all of these, and more. There are echoes of René Magritte’s treachery of images, updated for these latter days of digital manipulation.
Muniz continues to define himself primarily as a photographer. Least of all, however, can his complicated visual constructions be written off as simply photographs. If nothing else, the work is a continual challenge to the manner in which photography is still commonly perceived as a record of visual fact (many of his works predate Photoshop). They take their early cue from Warhol’s accident scenes: to be caught looking, and made to think about what that means, may still be the best antidote to the ‘spectacularization’ of society which, 40 years on from Guy Debord, has become the sea in which we swim.