On February 27, Vik Muniz arrived in Istanbul to speak at Dirimart, to mark his first-ever solo show in the largest Turkish metropolis, held from February 2 to 11 March. Originally from Brazil, Muniz left Sao Paulo at a young age before rising to become a successful artist on the front page of the culture scene in New York City. He is best known as a collagist photographer, and among other things, as a designer for New York Magazine covers and as the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Waste Land” by Lucy Walker, in which he makes and sells portraits of garbage pickers from Brazil’s slums and gives the proceeds back to them. On route to Istanbul, he wrote out his thoughts for the following interview with Wall Street International. The conversation was also printed and distributed in Turkish translation for the Istanbul-based magazine Art Unlimited. In it, Muniz discusses his series Metachrome, Pictures of Magazine, Postcards from Nowhere and Repro, as well as his take on the significance of Istanbul as an artist keen to pick up the pieces of the global urbanization into new forms of art.
Personally and professionally, what is the significance of your first solo exhibition in Istanbul?
Istanbul is an amazing place with a rich past and a vibrant contemporary art scene. It is also a cultural hub where many cultures, traditions and socio-political discourses converge. I am very excited and curious to see how the Turkish audience will respond to my work.
Briefly, how did you develop your series, Metachrome, Pictures of Magazine, Pictures from Nowhere and Repro in relation to the varying methods and approaches involved, especially over time as your works were increasingly appreciated in the public eye?
Each series is inspired by previous experimentations with either iconography or material. My work has followed a relatively natural path from the use of simpler, more archetypal sources to complex structures that evolved to follow the ways in which we interact with the world, particularly during the digital revolution. I am interested in the mechanics of how the idea of reality emerges through representation. What we have right now is a complete breakdown in the concept of reality that we have fostered through millennia by an uncompromised reliability on conventional representation. While people of all competencies are dealing mostly with the symptoms of this radical change, I have chosen to focus on its most primitive and visceral cause; perception.
What types of techniques and subjects did you focus on to advance your voice as an artist?
The greatest thing about being an artist is that you can hire and fire yourself on a daily basis without much consequence. I try to keep all possibilities open and shed myself of any kind of prejudice towards certain materials or techniques. I have made pictures out of diamonds and garbage, made land drawings that were over a mile long and worked on machines able to print pictures of castles on grains of dust. I paint, draw, sculpt, photograph, film and write, but an artist is I am always trying to become.
What does it mean for you to be an international artist? By that I mean someone who is not only inspired and drawn to subjects from their own country but to others?
The notion of what an international artist means has changed dramatically after the sudden proliferation of art fairs and Biennials all over the map. Globalization steered contemporary art production towards catering to a rather generic international audience, but not without some serious biases and filters based on what was happening in New York and London. Local art production is generally appreciated in such circles not particularly for its context, but for its adaptability and conformity for this nonspecific discourses. One thing is the artist’s hunger for the world and all its cultural manifestations, the other is, producing a brand of work that is acceptable regardless of context. That goes in the way of how general manufacturing is peddled worldwide by Hermes, Rolex or Nike. That forces the artist with strong cultural identity to be perceived like the parrot or the monkey that although exotic still is able to imitate its audience. I am sorry for artists who only make art for a particular target audience and even more sorry for those who believe that that should be good enough for everyone else.
What is the special attraction you have with Turkish subjects?
I am curious about how my understanding, even if superficial of one particular culture is able to shape an image in my head. Turkish subjectivity has attracted artists from the likes of Rembrandt, to Rubens to Delacroix but, by the moment decent translations of Arabic classics were printed and widespread distributed, the entire west became infatuated with tales of oriental exoticism. By the 19th century, there was hardly any European painter that at least did not feel tempted to use a Turkish palace, a harem’s bath, an odalisque or an intricate Islamic pattern on a work. I cannot deny that my idea of Turkish culture, although updated by great writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak, is still infused with the traditional western fantasy and wonder inspired by it.
Are you influenced by Turkish art and painting?
Yes and no. There’s very little possibility a western artist is not influenced by Turkish or Ottoman culture in one way or another, but most of what the west knows about Turkish contemporary culture comes in the form of literary works. I must confess that I am very ignorant of Turkish contemporary art and I hope this visit to Istanbul will remedy this a bit.
How did you establish a relationship with Dirimart? And what are your thoughts on the curatorial process for the current exhibition? Were compromised made in reference to the pieces chosen for display? Did the curation at Dirimart bring out an attraction to your work that you hadn't seen before?
Since this is my first show in Turkey, we opted to present a small survey of works from different recent series. We thought this would be a good introduction to this new audience and would encourage it to look further into others series and works. Dirimart has a wealth of international contacts and the show was organized through my gallery and my studio in New York.
What if any do you see of cultural and artistic comparisons traditionally and in the contemporary between Brazil, Latin American and Turkey?
I think both Brazil and Turkey are countries with rich cultural traditions that are struggling to adapt to changing socio-political scenarios. As media innovation challenges the perception of reality around us, it generates a feeling of utter insecurity and uncertainty. On the long run, cultures like ours, with great popular manifestations of music, dance, food and craft, because of their natural investment in the improvement of the senses, are far better suited to learn how to navigate through this changing reality cultivated by digital media. Popular culture provides us with this one foot on realty that we need to have before knowing where the next foot is going to go.
How do you see aesthetic connections between urbanization and media culture, specifically with respect to your work to creative reproduce and transform the images of magazines and cities.
There are two types of cities; the cities that exist in the space and those that exist in our mind, as memory, knowledge or simply fantasy. In the series Pictures of Postcards, I make a humble attempt to connect these two notions working within the iconic structure of the postcard and the infinite fragmentation involved in experiencing an urban environment.
How did you feel as the subject of the documentary, Waste Land, in terms of being the subject of a creative medium of portrayal yourself as an artist who explores processes of cultural media representation?
I was a subject as well as a navigator of the Documentary’s direction. I could take it where I wanted it to go, so I did not feel too helpless or vulnerable in the process. The “reality show” nature of the film’s process put me in a place of decision-making. That somehow managed to show how things can change during the course of a project and that adaptability and courage to transform things as you move along are precisely the key ingredients for a successful art project.
Similarly, what are your opinions on art writing (criticism, history) in general and the photography of art and artists?
Social media has atomized criticism. Every single person today is a curator, a critic, an editor and character in his own novel. Quantitative vectors such as price or popularity increasingly influence our values that not so long ago were exclusively based on qualitative conventions. The elites rely on price to define value and the masses rely on numeric bonding to do the same. An image is good as long as it costs a fortune or it gets an insane amount of likes on Instagram, Facebook or Tweeter. Both practices are extremely corrosive to the development of visual culture for we cannot let either marketing tendencies maneuver our appreciation of culture, or let our senses be manipulated by unemotional algorithms. The very best thing that happened to painting was the invention of photography. Digital imaging has created a similar opportunity to view this mechanical medium where we have trusted our personal and collective history for almost two hundred years as another expression of our will and imagination. Let’s just hope that our efforts to redefine photography, in the same way painters did to painting in the wake of photography’s invention, be met by a sincere, sensitive and still responsive public.