The Princeton University Art Museum will present a Zoom talk with artist Vik Muniz on Thursday, November 12, at 5:30 p.m.
An artist and photographer known for his recreations of familiar artworks blended with common place objects and realized in various approaches, Muniz is also the creator of the “Postcard from Nowhere” series.
A book version published by the noted nonprofit Aperture, a foundation for advancing photography, is currently being released.
The program, which is part of PUAM’s Late Thursdays, will be introduced by museum director James Steward.
Muniz previously shared some of his thoughts on his art and approach in interviews with Linda Benedict-Jones, director of the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh, and television writer/producer Mark Magill for the online arts magazine Bomb.
Here are some excerpted comments that can serve as a preview of the Muniz’s upcoming talk:
Process enters my work as a form of narrative. When people look at one of my pictures, I don’t want them to actually see something represented. I prefer for them to see how something gets to represent something else.
Sometimes it starts with a subject and then I search to find the most suitable process to make that subject and then, sometimes, I just go backwards from there.
Other times, I find a different process for making an image and I go looking for subjects, but either choice is based on the relationship between one another. Starting with the subject or ending up with a subject is pretty irrelevant.
I’m more interested in how pictures get conveyed. What’s the language of the thing I’m photographing and how do I learn about it? How does a photograph bring to mind somebody, and how can I photograph them? I’m interested in the linguistics of an image. I want to see where the verb is, and the subject. Is there an article? What’s the object? It’s like when you go to have your picture taken and the photographer says, ‘Smile.’ You know, you are not really smiling. You are just answering to a command of some sort.
I try to break images down like that and analyze them. So, in a way, it’s a very analytical approach, but I try to make it seamless. I don’t want the images to look conceptual because the moment it looks like I’m trying to come up with some idea or some intellectual scheme, it will scare people away and they’ll become defensive.
I want the pictures to be beautiful and I want them to be easy to look at and have a residual effect. I also want them to be intelligent. I want to keep that edge to them, but I don’t want people to know that.
As images become more eloquent than words — because they are much more powerful than words — words seem to be just an excuse to have a very powerful image. As you are reading something underneath an image, you are being totally overtaken by what you are looking at without knowing it.
My Brazilian education is more of an education of the senses, not names and biographical and historical elements — not that they are not there — it’s just that I go beyond their names. It all becomes kind of a sensual thing.
I am a Brazilian person rather than a Brazilian artist. I grew up in the ’70s in Brazil and that has had a profound impact on what I do, and it has had a profound impact on the art that I really like. Music that was done during the ’70s was done under a climate of extreme repression by the government. Artists resorted to metaphors because, although they had things to say, they couldn’t just say them. You became aware that there were many ways to say the same thing — that there are many techniques and mechanisms and that these contraptions are inside every single image, every single statement, every single song.
Instead of screaming some kind of truth, somebody comes and just sings a beautiful song, but that song tells you things on a secondary level, and it is much more effective. That’s why I don’t like shocking images. I prefer images to be like love songs, to be easy, you know, so you open yourself to them.
Art is just as important as science because it completes it; one is about phenomenon while the other is about mind. One thing is totally dependent on the other; that’s why I am very drawn to cognitive science. How many artists spend their entire lives making visual objects and never pick up a book to study how the eye works?
Vision is a form of intelligence, even more so than hearing. Our human eyes are not nearly as good as birds’ eyes or many other animals’. Instead, we have a huge visual cortex devoted just to analyzing visual stimuli. That is our true eye.
Plato thought the eyes sent out a beam and sort of hit something. Platonic vision is interesting; it’s not the way it physically happens, but it’s the way it mentally happens. You see things the way you want to see them.
Recognition is a kind of comfort. It confirms your capacity for looking at something and analyzing it, but it also reinforces your familiarity. What is good, however, is to be able to produce that warm feeling where you recognize something and at the same time you’re able to subvert that recognition.
Art is primarily a copy. I don’t believe in originality as much as I believe in individuality.
We have improved our copying skills through technologies and it is through these developmental implements that we see how we have evolved; the subject in its aura of originality is just a mere excuse for copying.
We can trace this development because the introduction of a new medium does not destroy the existing ones, it simply forces them to adapt to a new reality. I am a very traditional artist, as a draftsman as well as a photographer, but the unlikely encounter of these two media is what gives my work a contemporary character.
On the whole, I prefer to work on a very low-tech level. There’s something redeeming in using the barest mechanics to produce an image. I don’t want to amaze you with my powers to fool you. I want to make you aware of how much you want to believe in the image — to be conscious of the measure of your own belief, rather than of my capacity to fool you. You see it, but at the same time you see how it works.
A photograph is never the same the second time you look at it. I make photographs to be placed on a wall, because I want people to have a physical relationship to an image that’s not limited by the length of their arms. I’m not an editorial type of artist. I would like people to walk toward a picture, to see how it changes as they walk. Pictures mean different things at different distances.
When photography came about, it released painting from factuality. Artists had to step back to reconfigure the painting project in order for it to continue. Some went to a childlike perception. Some started looking into the images and realizing what those marks were, like the Impressionists. There was a retrograde movement with painting in response to photography.
Now the ghost of painting has come back to haunt photography in the form of digital media. And we’ve liberated photography from factuality. The greatest thing about being a photographer today is that photography is not a believable substance anymore, it doesn’t prove anything. The greatest reason for doing something artistically is that you don’t need to do it in any other way; you do it because you want to. We’re talking about pleasure. Photography no longer holds the claim on reality that it once did; it’s time to stop and try to understand it a little better.
Vik Muniz, Princeton University Art Museum. Thursday, November 12, 5:30 p.m. on Zoom. Free. Register. artmuseum.princeton.edu.