Vik Muniz

Art with wire, sugar, chocolate and string

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I was asked to come here and speak about creation. And I only have 15 minutes, and I see they're counting already. And I can — in 15 minutes, I think I can touch only a very rather janitorial branch of creation, which I call "creativity." Creativity is how we cope with creation. While creation sometimes seems a bit un-graspable, or even pointless, creativity is always meaningful. See, for instance, in this picture. You know, creation is what put that dog in that picture, and creativity is what makes us see a chicken on his hindquarters.


When you think about — you know, creativity has a lot to do with causality too. You know, when I was a teenager, I was a creator. I just did things. Then I became an adult and started knowing who I was, and tried to maintain that persona — I became creative. It wasn't until I actually did a book and a retrospective exhibition, that I could track exactly — looks like all the craziest things that I had done, all my drinking, all my parties — they followed a straight line that brings me to the point that actually I'm talking to you at this moment. Though it's actually true, you know, the reason I'm talking to you right now is because I was born in Brazil. If I was born in Monterey, probably would be in Brazil.


You know, I was born in Brazil and grew up in the '70s under a climate of political distress, and I was forced to learn to communicate in a very specific way — in a sort of a semiotic black market. You couldn't really say what you wanted to say; you had to invent ways of doing it. You didn't trust information very much. That led me to another step of why I'm here today, is because I really liked media of all kinds. I was a media junkie, and eventually got involved with advertising. My first job in Brazil was actually to develop a way to improve the readability of billboards, and based on speed, angle of approach and actually blocks of text. It was very — actually, it was a very good study, and got me a job in an ad agency. And they also decided that I had to — to give me a very ugly Plexiglas trophy for it.


And another point — why I'm here — is that the day I went to pick up the Plexiglas trophy, I rented a tuxedo for the first time in my life, picked the thing — didn't have any friends. On my way out, I had to break a fight apart. Somebody was hitting somebody else with brass knuckles. They were in tuxedos, and fighting. It was very ugly. And also — advertising people do that all the time — (Laughter) — and I — well, what happened is when I went back, it was on the way back to my car, the guy who got hit decided to grab a gun — I don't know why he had a gun — and shoot the first person he decided to be his aggressor. The first person was wearing a black tie, a tuxedo. It was me. Luckily, it wasn't fatal, as you can all see. And, even more luckily, the guy said that he was sorry and I bribed him for compensation money, otherwise I press charges. And that's how — with this money I paid for a ticket to come to the United States in 1983, and that's very — the basic reason I'm talking to you here today: because I got shot. (Laughter) (Applause)


Well, when I started working with my own work, I decided that I shouldn't do images. You know, I became — I took this very iconoclastic approach. Because when I decided to go into advertising, I wanted to do — I wanted to airbrush naked people on ice, for whiskey commercials, that's what I really wanted to do. (Laughter) But I — they didn't let me do it, so I just — you know, they would only let me do other things. But I wasn't into selling whiskey; I was into selling ice. The first works were actually objects. It was kind of a mixture of found object, product design and advertising. And I called them relics. They were displayed first at Stux Gallery in 1983.


This is the clown skull. Is a remnant of a race of — a very evolved race of entertainers. They lived in Brazil, long time ago. (Laughter) This is the Ashanti joystick. Unfortunately, it has become obsolete because it was designed for Atari platform. A Playstation II is in the works, maybe for the next TED I'll bring it. The rocking podium. (Laughter) This is the pre-Columbian coffeemaker. (Laughter) Actually, the idea came out of an argument that I had at Starbucks, that I insisted that I wasn't having Colombian coffee; the coffee was actually pre-Columbian. The Bonsai table. The entire Encyclopedia Britannica bound in a single volume, for travel purposes. And the half tombstone, for people who are not dead yet.


I wanted to take that into the realm of images, and I decided to make things that had the same identity conflicts. So I decided to do work with clouds. Because clouds can mean anything you want. But now I wanted to work in a very low-tech way, so something that would mean at the same time a lump of cotton, a cloud and Durer's praying hands — although this looks a lot more like Mickey Mouse's praying hands. But I was still, you know — this is a kitty cloud. They're called "Equivalents," after Alfred Stieglitz's work. "The Snail." But I was still working with sculpture, and I was really trying to go flatter and flatter. "The Teapot."


I had a chance to go to Florence, in — I think it was '94, and I saw Ghiberti's "Door of Paradise." And he did something that was very tricky. He put together two different media from different periods of time. First, he got an age-old way of making it, which was relief, and he worked this with three-point perspective, which was brand-new technology at the time. And it's totally overkill. And your eye doesn't know which level to read. And you become trapped into this kind of representation. So I decided to make these very simple renderings, that at first they are taken as a line drawing — you know, something that's very — and then I did it with wire. The idea was to — because everybody overlooks white — like pencil drawings, you know? And they would look at it — "Ah, it's a pencil drawing." Then you have this double take and see that it's actually something that existed in time. It had a physicality, and you start going deeper and deeper into sort of narrative that goes this way, towards the image. So this is "Monkey with Leica." "Relaxation." "Fiat Lux."


And the same way the history of representation evolved from line drawings to shaded drawings. And I wanted to deal with other subjects. I started taking that into the realm of landscape, which is something that's almost a picture of nothing. I made these pictures called "Pictures of Thread," and I named them after the amount of yards that I used to represent each picture. These always end up being a photograph at the end, or more like an etching in this case. So this is a lighthouse. This is "6,500 Yards," after Corot. "9,000 Yards," after Gerhard Richter. And I don't know how many yards, after John Constable.


Departing from the lines, I decided to tackle the idea of points, like which is more similar to the type of representation that we find in photographs themselves. I had met a group of children in the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, and I did work and play with them. I got some photographs from them. Upon my arrival in New York, I decided — they were children of sugar plantation workers. And by manipulating sugar over a black paper, I made portraits of them. These are — (Applause) — Thank you. This is "Valentina, the Fastest." It was just the name of the child, with the little thing you get to know of somebody that you meet very briefly. "Valicia." "Jacynthe."


But another layer of representation was still introduced. Because I was doing this while I was making these pictures, I realized that I could add still another thing I was trying to make a subject — something that would interfere with the themes, so chocolate is very good, because it has — it brings to mind ideas that go from scatology to romance. And so I decided to make these pictures, and they were very large, so you had to walk away from it to be able to see them. So they're called "Pictures of Chocolate." Freud probably could explain chocolate better than I. He was the first subject. And Jackson Pollock also.


Pictures of crowds are particularly interesting, because, you know, you go to that — you try to figure out the threshold with something you can define very easily, like a face, goes into becoming just a texture. "Paparazzi." I used the dust at the Whitney Museum to render some pieces of their collection. And I picked minimalist pieces because they're about specificity. And you render this with the most non-specific material, which is dust itself. Like, you know, you have the skin particles of every single museum visitor. They do a DNA scan of this, they will come up with a great mailing list. This is Richard Serra.


I bought a computer, and [they] told me it had millions of colors in it. You know an artist's first response to this is, who counted it? You know? And I realized that I never worked with color, because I had a hard time controlling the idea of single colors. But once they're applied to numeric structure, then you can feel more comfortable. So the first time I worked with colors was by making these mosaics of Pantone swatches. They end up being very large pictures, and I photographed with a very large camera — an 8x10 camera. So you can see the surface of every single swatch — like in this picture of Chuck Close. And you have to walk very far to be able to see it. Also, the reference to Gerhard Richter's use of color charts — and the idea also entering another realm of representation that's very common to us today, which is the bit map. I ended up narrowing the subject to Monet's "Haystacks."


This is something I used to do as a joke — you know, make — the same like — Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" — and then leaving traces, as if it was done on a tabletop. I tried to prove that he didn't do that thing in the Salt Lake. But then, just doing the models, I was trying to explore the relationship between the model and the original. And I felt that I would have to actually go there and make some earthworks myself. I opt for very simple line drawings — kind of stupid looking.


And at the same time, I was doing these very large constructions, being 150 meters away. Now I would do very small ones, which would be like — but under the same light, and I would show them together, so the viewer would have to really figure it out what one he was looking. I wasn't interested in the very large things, or in the small things. I was more interested in the things in between, you know, because you can leave an enormous range for ambiguity there. This is like you see — the size of a person over there. This is a pipe. A hanger.


And this is another thing that I did — you know working — everybody loves to watch somebody draw, but not many people have a chance to watch somebody draw in — a lot of people at the same time, to evidence a single drawing. And I love this work, because I did these cartoonish clouds over Manhattan for a period of two months. And it was quite wonderful, because I had an interest — an early interest — in theater, that's justified on this thing. In theater, you have the character and the actor in the same place, trying to negotiate each other in front of an audience. And in this, you'd have like a — something that looks like a cloud, and it is a cloud at the same time. So they're like perfect actors.


My interest in acting, especially bad acting, goes a long way. Actually, I once paid like 60 dollars to see a very great actor to do a version of "King Lear," and I felt really robbed, because by the time the actor started being King Lear, he stopped being the great actor that I had paid money to see. On the other hand, you know, I paid like three dollars, I think — and I went to a warehouse in Queens to see a version of "Othello" by an amateur group. And it was quite fascinating, because you know the guy — his name was Joey Grimaldi — he impersonated the Moorish general — you know, for the first three minutes he was really that general, and then he went back into plumber, he worked as a plumber, so — plumber, general, plumber, general — so for three dollars, I saw two tragedies for the price of one.


See, I think it's not really about impression, making people fall for a really perfect illusion, as much as it is to make — I usually work at the lowest threshold of visual illusion. Because it's not about fooling somebody, it's actually giving somebody a measure of their own belief: how much you want to be fooled. That's why we pay to go to magic shows and things like that. Well, I think that's it. My time is nearly up. Thank you very much.

Vik Muniz makes art from pretty much anything, be it shredded paper, wire, clouds or diamonds. Here he describes the thinking behind his work and takes us on a tour of his incredible images.

About the speaker
Vik Muniz · Artist

Vik Muniz delights in subverting a viewer's expectations. He uses unexpected materials to create portraits, landscapes and still lifes, which he then photographs.

Vik Muniz delights in subverting a viewer's expectations. He uses unexpected materials to create portraits, landscapes and still lifes, which he then photographs.