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The Brazilian-born, New York–based photographer Vik Muniz is a complete artist: practical, philosophical, and playful. He is the most mischievous and intellectually rigorous of his contemporaries—James Casebere, Thomas Demand, and Amy Adler, among others—who construct objects, draw pictures, or create scenes specifically for the camera. Muniz’s work is a combination of performance, documentary, and big C Conceptualism, though it is less about process and more an investigation of how perception affects the content and meaning of images—not to mention the dissolution of formal boundaries among various art media. Although the end result is almost always a photograph, Muniz’s work involves drawing and painting (with unconventional materials such as dust, thread, and Play-Doh), sculpture, performance, photo documentation—the list could go on. Natura Pictrix: Interviews and Essays on Photography, which consists of previously published texts from 1993 to 2000, is an excellent place to begin thinking about this photographer’s work.
The term “natura pictrix,” Leon Battista Alberti’s notion of nature as the greatest artist, greatly informs Muniz’s philosophy of art. “We tend to think that art began with cave paintings,” he explains in one interview, “but I believe art started with the ability to recognize the form of one thing in something else.” Hence, to give two examples of Muniz’s creations, the artist can see Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa in a plate of spaghetti and a starry sky in the marble floor tiles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Muniz’s five elegantly written essays are not artist’s statements, polemical manifestos, or art criticism. Rather, these texts are personal insights that reveal general ways of thinking about art, images, and representation. Floating from subject to subject, anecdote to anecdote, the essays are equal parts Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980) and Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977). Unlike the aforementioned theorists, Muniz simply records his fleeting thoughts in bite-sized morsels, easy to savor and digest, choosing not to develop extended arguments in drawn-out chapters—he probably prefers to take a photograph than to write a book.
The book’s first essay, “Mirrors; or, How to Steal a Masterpiece,” begins in the Louvre and reflects briefly on photography taken in the museum, from tourists’ snapshots of the Mona Lisa to the work of Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” ruminates on, among other things, the wonder of seeing images in clouds and stones. “Making It Real,” an essay from the catalogue of an exhibition that Muniz organized in 1997, argues that staged photography is one of two significant trends in postdigital photography (the snapshot aesthetic is the other). Muniz traces a short history of photography that begins with William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s and ends with Muniz, Casebere, Gregory Crewsdon et al. “Surface Tension” quickly looks at the depth of surface images, and “The Impossible Objects” explores how pictures of works of art represent and transform these objects. Interestingly, Muniz does not cite his own work in these essays, but the astute reader can see how these theories are manifest in it.
In the three interviews, with Charles Stainbach, Peter Galassi, and Mark Magill, Muniz happily discusses his former work in advertising, his early sculpture, how he came to photography, his favorite artists (Vija Celmins, Chuck Close), his theories on collective memory, and his teaching practices and working methods. Muniz recognizes that his oeuvre can usually be divided in two: those series of works investigating how one material can represent another (“Pictures of Soil,” “Sugar Children”) and those exploring the nature and effects of representation (“The Best of Life”), that is, how one sees, understands, and remembers an image—though most of his work, I believe, incorporates both notions. He name-drops Plato, Aristotle, Oscar Wilde, Leonardo da Vinci, and Robert Ripley (of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”—US comic strip and franchise), demonstrating how these disparate cultural figures have influenced his art. He also occasionally repeats anecdotes and sometimes gives nearly identical quotes, but one gets the sense that the artist is conveying a core idea rather than rattling off a stock answer.
In “A Dialogue: Vik Muniz and Charles Stainbach,” the longest text in the book, the artist clearly lays out his thoughts on illusion and representation—the crux of his practice. Muniz discusses at length “The Best of Life,” his breakthrough series from 1988–90 in which he drew from memory several well-known photojournalistic images of the twentieth century, photographed them, and printed the photographs as smudgy newspaper halftones. Many viewers believed that they were seeing copies of the original pictures. Muniz says, “I’ve always had an interest in this inbetweeness, the places where logic and common sense collapse, creating room for new experiences.”
In spite of the easy availability of digital image-making in art and entertainment, Muniz says he favors a good card trick over Hollywood special effects: “I want to make the worst possible illusion that will still fool the eye of the average person.” Rather than dazzling audiences with spectacle, his work often strives for a failure of sorts. He explains, “I am more interested in making the viewer confront his own incompetence in resisting an illusion by making them without the use of such effects.”
Muniz’s use of images from history, art history, and popular culture is necessary for his illusions, which involve seeing double, that is to say, when viewing Muniz’s work one identifies first the subject matter (a portrait of Sigmund Freud, a landscape), then the material used (Bosco chocolate syrup, sixteen thousands yards of string), before one can begin to grasp the meaning(s) of the work or the ideas at play.
There is not much to complain of in Natura Pictrix. I do wish that the interviewers had pressed Muniz harder on why he appropriates a lot of imagery from art history and popular culture. Also disappointing is the lack of illustrations in this volume: the only photograph included is a head shot of the artist himself. Readers may want to have in hand the monograph Seeing Is Believing (1998) while reading this book. In all, Muniz’s writings demonstrate the artist’s complexity of thought and enrich our understanding of his art.