Vik Muniz says the most bizarre things.
“Everybody has a “Mona Lisa” in their pocket,” the 57-year-old Brazilian artist and photographer claims. We’re reclined on a leather couch at his exhibition booth at Art Basel Hong Kong, where a series of photographs of his artworks he collaborated on with Ruinart is displayed. The topic at hand is the prevailing yet problematic notion of originality.
“It leads to a disease in the contemporary culture, called “the new”,” he continues. The world’s perennial pursuit for the new, to Muniz, is convoluted in its thinking process; its dependency on others’ perception. “We see it here, in the art fair,” the artist nonchalantly gestures to the expansive art-teemed space we’re in. “This disease prevails, impregnates everything.”
His work, too, is bizarre in its own way. Muniz himself has long been a pioneering advocate for reappropriation since the ’80s, much ahead of the present day’s renewed interest in it. The multi-disciplinary artist has been known for his obsessive recreation of celebrated masterpieces using the most unlikely and mundane of materials: a double portrait of the “Mona Lisa”, one done in peanut butter, the other in jelly; Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” redone in rich dribbles of chocolate syrup; a socio-political series of historical classics assembled from garbage Muniz sieved from the world’s biggest landfill in Rio de Janeiro, of which three-year process became the main subject to “Waste Land”, an Academy Award-nominated documentary.
The artist is, surprisingly, averse to the phrase. “I find reappropriating very cynical. I consider it copying, like how the Romans did it,” he clarifies. Muniz is referring to a time in history when the Romans copied Greek sculptures, using the original moulds to replicate them in marble or bronze. Back then, they weren’t called copies. They were valued as schemata. “It was a way for people to learn about the past and improve on it with the tools of their contemporaries.”
It’s how Muniz perceives his work, too. As much as it may sound like it, his work isn’t meant to be a gimmick. Muniz is a low-tech illusionist — a writer coined the term for Muniz and he has since identified himself with it — and his work is never without depth. It’s perhaps best described as the visual equivalent of double entendres, where, as a simulacrum for something that has already preceded it, it’s precariously perched on the cusp of not being an illusion altogether.
Muniz likens it to bad actors. “The good actor gives you the perfect character. The bad actor gives you theatre — that back and forth between becoming himself and the actor. Crossing that threshold of illusion is something quite sublime,” he pinpoints. To him, the aim is not to fool viewers into believing what they’re seeing is a reality or an immaculate remake, like what high-tech technology such as VR intends to achieve. Rather, Muniz goes for the other end of the spectrum. “I work with the worst possible illusion. Very, very poor illusions.”
The purpose? He wants to stimulate and challenge perception; the way people see things. He would like his art to move its viewers, literally: peering up close, quizzical as to what his work is made of, and then stepping back, to see the bigger picture and subliminally negotiate what it is in their minds. Art, for Muniz, is the evolution of the interface between mind and matter, consciousness and phenomena, the external and internal. It’s the in-between. “After we’ve learned how to tell the truth through images,” the pedagogical artist says, noting the advent of photography as its purest form, “now we learn how to lie through them. We don’t realise that the way we see the world right now is deeply conditioned by the way technology allows us to see it.”
There’s no surprise then that Muniz’s latest work, his grapevine-inspired series for Ruinart, stemmed from Muniz’s curious predilection for trees, one of nature’s prevailing ancient organism. He regards them as auspicious, often scheduling trips to different parts of the world to visit specific trees he deems remarkable. Naturally, as Ruinart’s artist-in-residence, Muniz flew to Reims during the champagne house’s 2018 harvest season to witness and experience the full grapevine blossom. There at the vineyard, he befriended Frédéric Panaïotis, the cellar master.
“Frédéric explained that the bark is actually saying something about the terrain, the air — and that the plant didn’t necessarily look like how it does now in the beginning. It’s shaped like that after thousands of years of interaction with the human hand, since the beginning of agriculture. It’s a slow dance between people and nature,” says Muniz. Working with a mixed medium of objects he found in the vineyard — leaves, shoots, bunches, blackened wood, charcoal — the series depicts that exact connection (above, a slide show of behind-the-scenes photographs of the process).
The next tree Muniz intends to visit (or revisit, he was there just last February) is smack dab in the middle of Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camp in Katupalong. Originally a dense forest inhabited by elephants and tigers, trees had to be cut down to make space for the 1.2 million refugees who inundated the area. “There’s only that one tree left. That’s mighty. Tell me how that’s not auspicious,” he chuckles.
Muniz is currently in the midst of working with the refugees on a mammoth project. “I’m making pictures with people,” he says. “When you have a picture made of people, you have a big picture of all these little worlds. All these intimate amounts of consciousness that’s actually inside every one of them. It’s fascinating.”
I ask if there will be an underlying political message behind it.
“I don’t value my opinion above anyone else’s. I make art, I make images. I think it’s political enough that you’re working towards improving the interface between how people see things,” the illusionist says. “If people develop a visual ecology, they see better and make better decisions — political or otherwise — for themselves.”
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