Editor's note: The following essay is reprinted September 26, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The essay was written in conjunction with the Academy's Vik Muniz exhibition, Vik Muniz: Remastered. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:


Art History's out-of-body Experience

by Robert Cozzolino


Among the most evocative images Vik Muniz has conjured is that of a miraculously regenerating body. It belongs to Santa Donata, a martyred child whose bones form the structure of her wax effigy, encased in a glass casket and on display in the Parish Church of Santa Cecilia in São Paulo, Brazil (figure 1). Her remains were authenticated and presented to the church in 1909 by Pope Pius X. These relics, buried within her recreated body, have attracted the faithful and skeptical because of their supernatural aura. Santa Donata's life-like effigy wears a fancy gown. Her face and hands are polychromed to suggest a child's warm, soft flesh. Legend contends that the effigy's hair and fingernails grow as though the saint has returned to inhabit and animate the image. "The priest of this parish once confided to my grandmother," Muniz recalls, "that every two or three years, they had to open the glass casket...to trim her hair and fingernails." [1]

Muniz's reverie over this uncanny apparition leads readers into a 1996 essay he contributed to Parkett magazine. Ostensibly written in homage to the artist Richard Artschwager, the essay neither mentions Artschwager nor describes Muniz's own visual art. Instead, Muniz allows several evocative scenarios to represent the relationship between his work and its audience, and by analogy, his charmed response to Artschwager. "In the 1930s," Muniz marvels, "[Santa Donata's body] had to be encased in glass because skeptical visitors...would poke at the relic to see if it would bleed...I have often pictured those skeptics' faces as they watched the dark blood ooze from the frail body of the saint, not sure if what they were witnessing could qualify as a miracle." [2]

Vik Muniz's art enables that breathless interpretive moment in which we teeter between two states of being: ecstatic conversion, believing we have witnessed a miracle, or cold suspicion, prepared to probe through the skin to demystify the spectacle. In that clean pause it seems we have left the body while the unburdened shadow of childhood slips into our empty shell, filling us with trembling wonder. This sensation is embodied in his, Khyber Pass, Self-Portrait as an Oriental (after Rembrandt) from the "Pictures of Junk" series (2005; front cover). Muniz's visage materializes from discarded detritus that includes innumerable plastic toys, appliances in miniature, even miniature refuse, including tiny crushed aluminum cans. Are these really miniscule playthings or are they ordinary objects photographed from a great distance? Has Muniz digitally recombined the "junk" to transform its scale? What brought this specter into sight?

Muniz's choice of subject is significant since it embodies a central theme of his work ­ possessing and being possessed by art's history. He inhabits the guise of the artist Rembrandt representing himself role playing as a Middle Eastern man in "oriental" dress. Here Muniz haunts the body of the dead artist ­ or perhaps Rembrandt has astrally-projected himself into Muniz, whose identity is fragmented into an array of abandoned objects. How do we account for this miraculous apparition of Muniz channeling the ghosts of the past through junk arranged on the studio floor? Had this fleeting figment from art history managed an out-of-body experience, only to become trapped in-between the camera's click? Muniz peers out at the viewer. He is a morose materialization whose disparate parts will be brushed into a bin after being captured on film.

Vik Muniz (born 1961) has been making and photographing illusionistic drawings, sculptures, and arrangements since 1988. Using materials such as caviar, chocolate syrup, dust, thread, wire, nails, rubber insects, soil, or tiny discs punched out of glossy magazines, he aspires to, "make the worst possible illusion that will still fool the eyes of the average person."[3] Muniz emphasizes the action that led to his multifarious subjects. "I think of my photographs as very short plays," he notes, "sometimes a fraction of a second long, in which a bad actor, say, soil, thread, or chocolate, performs the role of an object, a person, or a landscape only for the lens of the camera." [4] Photographs of these studio actions are all that remains: works in sugar, toys, pooled ink, peanut butter and jelly are wiped away or collected after shooting.

Muniz recognizes the absurdity of selecting ephemeral and uncooperative substances. He says, "I usually choose to work with perishable or unstable materials because I want to emphasize the temporal element in every picture."[5] Such "bad actors" force the artist to work quickly on drawings and arrangements that require time and patience. They wobble out of place, run beneath hot lamps, swell and spread, or change shape. Part of the pleasure of experiencing his terrible illusions is simultaneously apprehending the means and result of the staged trompe l'oeil. Abstraction and representation fuse in one compressed image that emphatically asserts as it unifies surface and depth (back cover).

Muniz aspires to achieve heightened tactility in his illusions. He wants you to feel what is shown, enter into the image, grasp it in your palm, brush it with your fingertips, and draw its aroma into your body. "I don't want people to simply see a representation of something," he explains. "I want them to feel how it happens. The moment of that embodiment is what I consider a spiritual experience." [6]

In Action Photo (After Hans Namuth) from the "Pictures of Chocolate" series (1997; figure 2) Muniz has reinterpreted Namuth's photograph of Jackson Pollock working on the painting that will become Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 (1950; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Muniz's work, humorously but appropriately, required pouring, dripping and drizzling Bosco chocolate syrup as he carefully fashioned Pollock embedded in painting and his method. While the painter is a convincingly-crafted chocolate body in space, the illusion dissolves ­ or melts ­ in the sticky web that is Muniz's version of Autumn Rhythm. The wet chocolate beads up on the surface, puddles merge into adjacent spills, and the entire lower third resembles a dessert topped with hot fudge. Its verism resides in the realm of the senses rather than in representation. It begs to be caressed with a finger and the sweet syrup promptly licked-off.

In Muniz's best-known and most challenging trompe l'oeil images he reinterprets famous works of art. Many of his contemporaries have turned to art history to critique, pay homage to, or demystify iconic images and their makers. [7] Tadahiko Ogawa's unusual transmutation of Jean-François Millet's The Gleaners (1857, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) meaningfully integrates new form with its model (1984; figure 3). Ogawa systematically toasted sixty slices of bread to match Millet's composition. [8] This politicized image of peasant women collecting the scattered remains of a harvest gains new meaning as it is seared into that which would stave off their hunger.

Although commonly associated with postmodernism, the intellectual roots of appropriation ­ borrowing details or whole compositions from other artists ­ has its intellectual roots in the sixteenth-century maniera of copying and redeploying Renaissance masters' figures. [9] In the burgeoning American republic, artists unable to study abroad or limited by few opportunities for formal training learned to draw by copying engravings. Popular engravings made from renowned paintings by artists such as Benjamin West were themselves the subject of manual reproduction.

Edward Savage's copy, after John Hall's engraving, after West's imaginative staging of William Penn's meeting with the Lenni Lenape tribe, is a prominent example of this reproductive feedback (ca. 1800; figure 4). Other artists participated in the apotheosis of artistic production, imagining maestros in their studios making images that brought fame. Carl Schmolze's Washington Sitting for his Portrait to Gilbert Stuart (1858; figure 5) imagines the 1796 studio scene in which Stuart conceived his famous Athenaeum portrait of George Washington. Schmolze's painting shows a replica before its model had been made. His portrait of Washington posing is based on Stuart's finished painting, which is not yet developed on the easel. Stuart himself made approximately seventy-five replicas of the Athenaeum portrait. Schmolze's desire to capture the moment of conception suggests a Romantic obsession with artistic identity, theatricality, and the drama of invention. Perhaps Schmolze was utterly compelled to exorcise Stuart's ubiquitous Washington by interrupting its origins in the studio.


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