Muniz confronts ‘life of images’

At a WCMA lecture, visual artist Vik Muniz described how an image only comes into being with the collaboration of the viewer.
At a WCMA lecture, visual artist Vik Muniz described how an image only comes into being with the collaboration of the viewer.

Vik Muniz, a Brazilian-born, New York-based contemporary artist, gave the Williams College Museum of Art’s (WCMA) annual Plonsker Family Lecture in Contemporary Art on Thursday at Brooks-Rogers. In his introductory remarks, John Stomberg, the deputy director and chief curator of WCMA said that Muniz’s work addresses “the life of images and how they become a part of our lives.” Lisa Corrin, director of WCMA, emphasized that the annual Plonsker Family Lecture “enables us to bring to campus artists that challenge our assumptions about our world and remind us that there are multiple intelligences” that only the visual arts can provide.

Muniz, whose work incorporates unconventional materials such as chocolate and sugar, spent the evening discussing the timeline of his work, from his “The Best of Life” series to his “Pictures of Chocolate.” Namely, Muniz grapples with the notion of images and representation in life and art. He said that he wanted his art to change what people expect to see and to emphasize that viewers are in control of what they see. That is, an image is not effective without the collaboration of the viewer; the act of looking is a ritual of bringing together an image and the pre-existing knowledge of the viewer.

This concept informs “The Best of Life,” a series of 10 “Memory Renderings” made from 1989 to 2000. In this series, Muniz drew from memory photographs that were published in Best of “Life,” a book of Life magazine’s iconic photographs from 1936 to 1972. Muniz then photographed his drawings, slightly distorting the focus and placing a screen matrix over them to remove any evidence of the artist’s hand. This series was acquired by WCMA in 2007 and was the focus of “Labeltalk 2009: Vik Muniz,” a WCMA exhibition that was on view this year from January through August.

Muniz said that he began this series by asking how people picture events in their head. “These were images that were a part of a visual archive about humanity,” Muniz said. The artist only does “half of the job,” while the viewer completes the other half by what they bring to the experience. “The viewer is able to control which image [they] see,” he said.

Muniz said that a “morphosis” occurs when you view an image; there is a “binding moment” that occurs when our mind connects the image to something in the tangible world. “The invention of representation is the most important thing that has happened in the history of art,” he said.

In “Pictures of Chocolate,” Muniz used chocolate as a medium for portraits in order to “add layers to them,” to add an element that does not exist visually. Chocolate, Muniz said, is a “cultural construct,” much like the subjects of his renderings, such as Jackson Pollock and Sigmund Freud.

In “Pictures of Ink,” Muniz used ink to explore the cultural construct of newspaper and media consumption. He said that the process of reading the newspaper creates the illusion of participation. “We think we are participating in world events, but in reality, we are merely seeing pictures,” Muniz said. In order to see the world clearly, he argued, you have to step away, which Muniz does through his ink renderings of images from news reports.

Muniz’s exhibited work is not the physical product of his material process – his chocolate drawings and sugar children do not actually hang on gallery walls. Rather, Muniz exhibits and sells photographs of the original products. Muniz explained that everything that exists as a photographic “document” is actually something unconnected with the original – the world is seen through lenses that distort and exclude. The photograph is a work of fiction. The history of photography, then, is the history of language; photography is “what we keep for the next generation,” Muniz said.

Muniz ended his lecture with a caution about the future of photography – Photoshop and digital photography marks the “end of the visual document;” the phrase “seeing is believing” is no longer valid. He warned that there is a “widening gap” between people who produce images and people who can understand them. We live in a world where we are “creating [images] through visual ignorance” and “concealing visual information.” With the advent of the Internet and the “image revolution” of online profiles, we “no longer have a place to put our collective history.”