Vik Muniz: ‘I never wanted to make works for the cultural elite’

Describing himself as a producer of low-tech illusions, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz creates images using ketchup, wire, diamonds, powder, chocolate syrup, plasticine or caviar, and then photographs the result. Well-known works of art and portraits lose their character as a result of the unorthodox choice of components. Muniz’s work not only conveys a childlike mood but also seeks to teach us how to see things in a different fashion. He believes that besides absorbing images it is also important to think about their creation and the message they convey. An exhibition featuring work by Muniz, currently one of the most established photographers around, is now on display at the Xippas Gallery in Athens. For this show, he has put aside the more disparate materials and opted to use color pigments for complete reproductions of some of Pablo Picasso’s best-known paintings. The Brazilian, who has spent decades living in New York City, never ceases in his innovation, but he contends that this is not the objective. «Using color pigments, I wanted to make a statement about the importance of color. Because of it, even reproductions of celebrated works in the history of art can change from one print run to another. If you place the pages side by side, you think that they’re different works. All is relative and dubious in art. Not even the artists themselves know exactly what they’re producing,» Muniz explained in an interview with Kathimerini. «Every time you take a snapshot with a camera, the image you’re immortalizing vanishes for a moment from in front of you. Isn’t that ironical? The history of photography is connected with momentary blindness. For a fraction of a second, the photographer is left in the dark in exchange for the image he will obtain later on, which, however, he or she has not seen yet… In this respect, colors, in painting, end up having an entirely different texture when they’re dry. So, I’d say that painters, also, don’t know about the final result. They must go by faith.» Muniz describes himself as a director of images. He locks himself into his studio and gets lost in the unlikeliest of creative methods, using the oddest of raw materials in the process. Then, when he has photographed the outcome of his efforts – such as, for example, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe – he destroys it and keeps the photograph. «The creation of images in our era is essentially a process of cutting up and mixing. The artist of today is one whose role it is to choose and mix certain elements that make make a image, give it meaning. In photography especially – ever since the advent of photoshop – it’s become far easier and more charming to tell a lie than it is to tell the truth,» said Muniz. «Billions of dollars are spent each year just to update image-manipulating software. By contrast, users don’t keep up with the pace to understand the essence of the change and avoid being fooled.» Muniz’s work is not just a case of putting bright ideas into practice. The process requires old-fashioned ability in painting, sculpture and handicraft to get the desired results. He considers himself to be a conceptual artist. «In the past, the conceptual artist created works of art that didn’t necessarily have a material basis or a predetermined form. Nowadays you can create work that can be called conceptual without it being closely connected with the materials you’re using. My work is a bridge between materials and an idea. An intelligent thought alone can be catastrophic for an artist. It’s best to not use it immediately but rather let it go for a while and allow it to mature, like wine in a barrel. The idea will either become more complete or will be forgotten. So, in this way, things get sorted out well. I don’t like art that’s based totally on smart ideas – or missing the feeling of the material element, body, craft.» Muniz considers it essential, these days, to learn to look with a critical eye. «I construct illusionary images but don’t use high-end technology, just simple means. My objective is to help the viewer think about exactly how the image came to being,» said Muniz. «An artist must respect his or her audience and understand that it is not only composed of critics, art historians, collectors and curators. An artist must create things that even interest a child, an old man, a person without a specialized education who knows nothing about the history of art. The public is not an oligarchy of curators but a heterogeneous group that’s made up democratically. I never wanted to make works for the cultural elite. That’s the reason I use materials that are common to all, from ketchup to wire. The artist is a messenger. The message is conveyed easier when the receiver understands the language you speak.» Until November 24 at the Xippas Gallery (53D Sofocleous St, Athens).