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Vik Muniz - Biography and Legacy

Brazilian Photographer, Sculptor, and Conceptual Artist

Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Modern Photography

Born: December 20, 1961 - São Paulo, Brazil

Vik Muniz Timeline

"Things look like things, they are embedded in the transience of each other's meaning; a thing looks like a thing, which looks like another thing, or another. This eternal ricocheting of meaning throughout the elemental proves representation to be natural and nature to be representational."

Vik Muniz Signature
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Biography of Vik Muniz


Born Vicente José de Oliveira Muniz, the artist grew up in a modest house in downtown São Paulo with his parents, a telephone operator and a waiter, and his maternal grandparents. Because of his dyslexia, Muniz's grandmother would read to him from the Encyclopedia Britannica, the only books they had in the house. At seven years old, Muniz could read but not yet write. Instead, he began drawing compulsively in his notebooks and developed a system of writing that only he could understand. Today, he considers these challenges and his relative lack of formal education as advantages and distinctions in his artistic practice.

In 1975, at age fourteen, Muniz earned money by fixing televisions. At the same time, a professor saw his drawing and recommended his participation in a state-sponsored arts festival held among public schools. Muniz participated and won a partial scholarship to study in an academy of drawing and sculpture. As he recalls, his three years learning to draw and model geometric solids and nudes taught him almost everything about art making, including "how to organize visual information in a hierarchical way," giving him "a more detailed understanding of the mechanisms of representation." Although the academy did not offer courses in contemporary art, Muniz maintained contact with the Brazilian and international arts scene through attending readings, museum visits, and theater performances.

Early Training and Work

In 1979 Muniz enrolled in the Publicity and Advertising course at Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado (FAAP) in São Paulo, and the following year he was hired by a small advertising company. In 1983, after leaving a party, Muniz was accidentally shot in the leg after trying to help a victim of a fight. In order not to press charges, the shooter offered him a substantial amount of money, which Muniz accepted. With it, he bought a ticket to the United States where he lived with his maternal aunt in the suburbs of Chicago. Speaking little English, Muniz helped take care of his cousins and worked in the parking lot of a supermarket. Without many friends, he recalls that reading the newspaper and watching TV were comforting and allowed him to participate in this new environment.

After visiting New York for the first time in 1984, Muniz decided to move to the city. He lived in the East Village and worked various jobs while taking night classes in theater direction and set design. At first, Muniz planned to work in the theater industry, but his work at a frame shop led to a first contact with the New York City art scene. After meeting artists and going to openings, he eventually rented his first studio in the Bronx, where he began to produce sculptures and objects. In 1988 Muniz exhibited his work for the first time at P.S. 122, a performance space at an abandoned school in the East Village. Soon after that he sold his first pieces and began exhibiting frequently in the United States and Europe.

What marked Muniz as different than many of his photographic peers at the time was his methodology. Starting with his The Best of Life series, he eschewed the traditional mode of photography by not simply snapping pictures and presenting them as art, but by using the medium of photography as an element in concocting uniquely composed pieces of art. After drawing from memory the pages of Life magazine, he then photographed his drawings and presented those as art. Subsequently, he would go on to recreate photographs of cultural icons such as the Mona Lisa or Marilyn Monroe using odd materials like chocolate syrup or dust. Photography became an inspiration, a tool, and a systematic step in his overall creative process.

Mature Period

Muniz lived in Paris for a year and a half (due to a growing interest in his work in France), before returning to New York in 1992 with a permanent residency visa. At this point, he decided to focus on photography as the essential medium for his work, revealing his concern for "the logic of perception." In 1993, Muniz and his friend Kim Caputo created and became editors of the contemporary photography magazine Blind Spot.

A turning point in his career that established his reputation in the art world came in 1996, when Muniz created the series Sugar Children. Having grown up under the Brazilian military regime (1964-1985), Muniz was accustomed to censorship and to the fact that people could not speak their minds freely, but rather had to express themselves through double meanings. The concept of double meaning would become a major motif in Sugar Children and all of his future work. Sugar Children consisted of photographic likenesses of children he encountered in the Caribbean drawn with sugar on black paper. The beautiful works evoked deeper reflections into the working conditions of these children whose labor provided the world its highly prized sweet stuff. The project also evolved Muniz's out-of-the-box style, using highly experimental processes and materials to expand his artwork from mere photography into mixed media, adding conceptual layers to the imagery causing viewers to consider more than just visual aesthetics.

Muniz continued to exhibit frequently, and started to gain visibility in Brazil as well. His first solo exhibition in a major museum took place in 1998 at the International Center for Photography in New York.

Inspired by Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) in his studio, from 2002-2006 Muniz created a series of earthwork photographs consisting of images of mundane objects such as an electrical outlet, a pair of scissors, a key, a clothes hanger, and a pipe. These images were dug into the landscape in northern Brazil using GPS and construction equipment. Dangling from a helicopter, he then photographed the earthworks, recreated the images in sand in his studio and re-photographed them. The resulting works referenced Peruvian Nazca lines, Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images (1929), and the Land Art movement in general.

From the 2000s onwards, Muniz expanded his artistic practice, lecturing at various universities and museums, curating photography exhibitions worldwide, and designing covers for the New York Times Magazine. In 2009, after his widely acclaimed first retrospective exhibition took place at major Brazilian museums in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte, Muniz decided to take up a part-time residence in Rio de Janeiro, reconnecting with his country after having lived abroad for almost thirty years.

Current Practice

In 2010, the documentary film Waste Land detailed the process of creation involved in Muniz's Pictures of Garbage series, which resulted from three years working with the garbage pickers at Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro - one of the world's largest trash dumps. The criticism that the artist had profited from the sale of the Sugar Children photographs, while the subjects themselves continued to live in poverty, inspired him to use this project to improve the lives of his subjects.

The following year, UNESCO nominated Muniz to be a Goodwill Ambassador "in recognition of his contributions to education and social development through his artistic career." His artistic altruism continued in 2015 when he opened the Escola Vidigal, a school of art and technology that aims to introduce the idea of visual literacy to children from an underprivileged community in Rio de Janeiro.

Muniz completed his first permanent public art work in New York City in 2016, a mosaic tile masterpiece called Perfect Strangers, which was located in the new Second Avenue subway at the 72nd Street station.

The artist continues to expand his practice, working with different mediums and contexts. A self-described "low-tech illusionist," Muniz's mission is to urge audiences to reflect on the concepts of illusion and perception embedded in our psyches and to question what lies beneath, or behind, everyday imagery. He continues to challenge by presenting art that contains multiple meanings - both in the immediate response to his visual stimuli and then in the reaction to its underlying message.

The Legacy of Vik Muniz

Muniz's practice expounds upon the idea that photography involves simply pointing the camera at a scene or object and clicking the shutter. For this reason, he becomes an example of both Postmodernism and the art historical tradition of trompe l'oeil, or "fooling the eye." According to curator Matthew Drutt, Muniz's works "challenge audiences to focus more carefully on what they think they see or perceive, setting traps along the way that undermine their self-confidence in those processes."

Although his work has a strong foundation in art history and explores the fundamental question of how the viewer experiences a work of art, Muniz also strives to create work that is appealing to general audiences.

Muniz helped pave the way for a sea of contemporary photographers who also rely on photography as a base tool for which to build their work upon and to help reflect myriad meaning from a single image. Via advanced technology, the digital art world has become flush with artists whose manipulation and repurposing of imagery leads to reflection on what lies beneath as well as offering new and exciting ways to experience visual stimuli.

Most Important Art

Vik Muniz Famous Art

Clown Skull (1990)

At first sight, Clown Skull looks like an actual human skull with a strange, protruding round nose that is the same color and texture as bone. However, it is made of plastic and other materials.

Muniz's artistic practice started after his move to New York City, where he rented a studio. His earliest art consisted of sculptures, which according to the artist, was a concrete way to use a separate creative muscle than he had for his commercial work in the advertising industry. Ironically though, many of the themes he explored through this medium would appear later when he primarily used photography as his chosen form.

Clown Skull comes from the Relics series, which drew upon the definition of relic as referring to an idolized or valued object from the past. Muniz's relics, though, also contained a dark sense of humor, showcasing not only the relic but turning it into a contemporary object of multiple interpretations. For instance, the skull makes references to both the European tradition of skulls and skeletons serving as reminders of death in memento mori still life paintings and popular culture's tendency to interpret clowns as frightening (Stephen King's It, John Wayne Gacy, etc.) Other Relics included a pre Columbian pot stuffed with a coffee filter like a modern day breakfast appliance, and an Ashanti sculpture artifact turned into a video game joystick. What results is a humorous commentary on the nature of representation and how objects from the past circulate in the present.

The Relics works introduced Muniz's themes of representation, appropriation, and history, which would become more important in his later photographic work. They also represented a personal milestone, marked by (as the artist said) a "comprehension of the object as an image and, provoked by this comprehension, a kind of identity crisis of the object itself, a discrepancy between what is expected from the material and what it offers."

After a professional photographer took photos of these works for a gallery, Muniz decided to photograph the objects himself. According to him, the professional pictures "seemed to go against the three-dimensional nature and dynamics" that he had sought to imbue in his objects. This episode ended up inspiring him and soon after that he began making two-dimensional things solely to photograph them.
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Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Catarina Flaksman
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 20 Jun 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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