Thursday, March 31, 2011

Vik Muniz: Waste Land

Following my exchange with the artist Cynda Valle about the movie "Waiting for Hockney," I came upon another movie about an artist that I think is well worth watching. It's called Waste Land, and it follows the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz as he goes to work in what is supposedly the biggest trash dump in the world, the Jardim Granacho in Rio de Janeiro, documenting the labors of a small army of pickers who eke out a bare living there, sorting through mountains of garbage to glean what they can recycle for cash.

I have known about Vik Muniz and his work for quite some time. He is known world-wide for the images he creates using everything from chocolate syrup and peanut butter to odds and end of string and, yes, even garbage. We have in our possession one of his "Medusa Plates"...

... the Medusa's head created of spaghetti and marinara sauce left-overs. It's one of "Christmas Gift" art projects that Peter Norton (of Norton Utilities fame) and his wife, Gwen, send out to a lucky list of recipients each year. Born and raised in poverty in Sao Paulo, Muniz has succeeded in reaching the pinnacle of contemporary art celebrity with work that capitalizes on poverty itself--the poverty of materials that can serve the artists' goals. His work is smart, unafraid of whimsy, and hopefully a reminder to the socially privileged who admire and buy it that there are vast numbers of people in the world who do not share their privilege or wealth.

"Waste Land" documents Muniz's effort to give back to that community in his home land by creating portraits of the men and women whose lives are spent, literally, in society's trash. That they maintain such an admirable sense of human dignity and mutual compassion in such abject circumstances is at once astonishing and humbling. That they are perhaps even more capable of joy and laughter than many who fare much better in life than they is a tribute to their generous spirit of humanity. We come to know and love these people who live so far below the horizon of social acceptability.

There are moments in the film when we worry that Muniz may be coming uncomfortably close to exploiting his subjects, as when he sets them up for photographs in poses that recall art historical icons like "The Death of Marat" by Jacques-Louis David...

... and transforming these icons into reminders of a world where "fine art" is very far removed from the realities of life:

Once the photography is done, however, the workers are invited to become collaborators in the creation of the images, made in huge scale on a warehouse floor to be photographed from high above and transformed into the final images.

How do they benefit the community of pickers? Certainly, at one level, they give face to the faceless. The footage makes clear how much it means to his subjects simply to be seen, and recognized, and heard. They come to life when the camera's eye is trained on them. And then there's money--the life-blood of the art market. Muniz sends the largest of his images--the one above--for sale at a London auction house, the proceeds to benefit the community. After serious debate about the ethical issues involved in so radically uprooting a man from his cultural environment, he invites Tiao, the president of the pickers union and the subject of the Marat picture, to go with him to the sale, and to watch his portrait being auctioned off for some $50,000.

The total proceeds from the project, turned back into the community, reportedly reached $250,000--in a thought-provoking, neatly ironic redistribution of wealth. With the money, a community center was built, an education center, a library. Lives were transformed, as Muniz's subjects found new inspiration in their lives, and new motivation to move on to better circumstances. The scenes in which, at the end, he brought the gift of his pictures of them into their modest homes were particularly touching; attached to the to the walls, the portraits seemed to radiate with a special, transformative significance as families gathered round them with a kind of awe.

This kind of intervention can, of course, easily become patronizing, raising hopes for a single precious moment, then allowing them to crash. This was a worry, for me, in "Waste Land." But the project was saved from this fate, for me, by the possibilities that seem to have opened up for the participants at the end, as the updates scrolled, informing us of new opportunities seized and families reunited. It was rewarding to know that it's possible for an artist with an activist social conscience to produce work that, in turn, produces actual, consequential changes in the world.

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