The beautiful thing about garbage is that it’s negative; it’s something that you don’t use anymore; it’s what you don’t want to see. So if you are a visual artist, it becomes a very interesting material to work with because it’s the most nonvisual of materials. You are working with something that you usually try to hide.
- Vik Muniz
Vik Muniz was born into a working-class family in São Paulo, Brazil in 1961. Relocating to the United States in 1983, Muniz has since become one of the most well-known contemporary Brazilian artists working today. Beginning his career as a sculptor in the mid-1980s, Muniz became increasingly interested in photographic reproductions of his work, leading him to turn his attention wholly to photography.
Throughout his career, Muniz has created multiple series of photographs, each prefaced with the phrase “Pictures of” and in which he has used of variety of unconventional materials, including dirt, sugar, chocolate, wire, and garbage. Muniz consciously enacts playful contradictions upon the surfaces of these photographs, as they are at once literally pictures of the materials out of which they are constructed — in this case garbage — as well as pictures of the images formed through the transformation of the materials. Combining three-dimensional elements within a two-dimensional pictorial space to create visually and conceptually loaded images, Muniz creates work that fosters a shift in visual perception as well as cultural preconceptions.
Muniz enlisted the help of young art students from Centre Especial, a nonprofit educational organization that he established in 2005, to create his Pictures of Junk series between 2006 and 2009. Similarly, Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage series, completed in 2008, was the result of a direct collaboration with members of an informal workforce, known as catadores, whose livelihood consists of scavenging recyclable materials from one of the largest landfills in the world, Jardim Gramacho, at the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
Referencing historical and iconic works of art, these massive images were constructed out of discarded materials obtained from Brazilian landfills through a highly labor-intensive process. Muniz directed the activity from scaffolding several stories above as the students and catadores arranged the objects in layers to create visual and physical depth. The final incarnation of each was preserved as a photograph before the arrangement of objects was disassembled.
The exhibition consists of seven large-scale photographs, accompanied by comparative images of the historical works upon which they are based. It includes The Birth of Venus, after Botticelli (Pictures of Junk), 2008, which is a candidate in the Mint’s “Vote for Art” project. It is one of six works by some of the world’s top artists and designers that will be on display throughout the museum. Museum visitors will cast ballots for their three favorite works from the field of candidates, and the museum will acquire the three winning works and add them to its permanent collection. Visitors to the museum during the Democratic National Convention are being offered ballots, from September 1-7; voting for the general public runs October 1 through November 9.
The exhibition also includes a work that was a gift to President Obama. Marat (Sebastião), Pictures of Garbage, 2008, was generously loaned to the exhibition by the State Department Collection of the United States Government. It is modeled after the well-known painting by Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, and named after Sebastião (Tião) Carlos Dos Santos, a man who made his living from the age of 11 by working as a “picker,” recovering recyclables at the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho, outside of Rio de Janeiro.
The viewers’ perceptions of the photographs change as they draw closer to and farther from the surface. Likewise, as the viewer spends more time with each work, it becomes increasingly apparent how much the material out of which the image is constructed informs its meaning. Collectively, this body of work enlightens and urges us to consider how important garbage really is—environmentally, socially, and culturally—and allows us to see how the objects we consider garbage, most often characterized by its very lack of consequence, matter.