Vik Muniz Picks It All Up

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Published October 28, 2010

VIK PHOTOGRAPHS TIAO AS MARATCOURTESY OF VIK MUNIZ STUDIO

Chocolate syrup. Diamonds. Sugar. Toy soldiers. Cotton. Wire. Thread. Jelly. Peanut butter. These are just some of the materials Vik Muniz has used over the years to create (or recreate) the iconography he uses for his inimitable photographs. Materials are the real objects of his affection. “I’m always dealing with preconceived ideas you have of the value of materials, so the point of departure is familiarity. Then it’s easy for you to transcend to something else,” says Muniz in the offices of Arthouse Films, which produced the Lucy Walker-directed documentary Waste Land (out tomorrow) about his latest material obsession: garbage. The point of transcendence for Muniz arrived shortly after meeting the Countdown To Zero director in 2007 and discussing their mutual interest in the subject. Once they learned that the 300-plus acre dump in Muniz’s native Brazil, Jardim Gramacho, was the largest garbage in the world, there was no turning back.

“In this case, I departed from the image and it went into genre. The images were of work,” says Muniz, who met and befriended various catadores (or pickers)—from Irma, a restaurant-trained cook who is the Gramacho chef to Tião, the president of the picker’s co-op Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG)—posed them in various depictions of work by Picasso, Millet, or David’s Marat, and had the pickers help him to reassemble the images with the recyclable materials they collected at Gramacho for the final works that comprised his 2008 series, “Pictures of Garbage.” With over 300 hours of footage Walker captured the process (and the proud-if-devastating lives of the catadores) from the project’s humble beginnings to the comedown after it traveled around the world—from China to P.S. 1—and drew a million visitors when it was shown in five cities across Brazil.

“It’s a funny thing,” says Muniz, who raised over $300,000 ($276,000 for the co-op and $50,000 for the catadores featured in the film) for the cause. “You make a work that’s very selfish and all of a sudden that takes on a form that you don’t imagine. Tião was telling me, ‘There’s somebody here and they want me to talk about art.’ And I said, ‘Screw you, Tião, there’s a lot of people calling me here wanting me to talk about garbage. And I don’t know shit about garbage. You know, you have to come up with something. You’re on your own man.’ He’s like, ‘I have no idea.’ I said, ‘Well, you have to study.’ I’m doing my homework with the garbage thing and it becomes addictive.” So addictive, in fact, that the Brooklyn-based Muniz has become a diplomat of sorts in Rio since the project took flight. Fresh off a tour of Japan, he talked about the film, garbage, and his new hyphenate.READ THE FULL INTERVIEW.WASTE LAND OPENS TOMORROW AT THE ANGELIKA IN NEW YORK, AND NOVEMBER 5 AT THE LANDMARK NUART IN LOS ANGELES.