Brazilian-born, Brooklyn-based illusionist and innovator Vik Muniz lives for the moment when all of our fixed preconceptions fail us and we are forced to enter a dialogue with the world we inhabit. In this moment, we are confronted with the chaos that is otherwise hidden from view. It is precisely through his art work (both in product and process) that Muniz harnesses the generative possibility of chaos.
Similar to dumpster diving and freeganism, Vik Muniz’s project “Pictures of Garbage” is invested in the excavation of garbage. However, a key distinction is that his particular exploration moves beyond questions of utility– he not interested in finding and salvaging the secret treasures within trash heaps (ipods, sealed fruit bowls, jewelry) but rather in using garbage as an art medium. “The beautiful thing about garbage is that it’s negative; it’s something that you don’t use anymore; it’s what you don’t want to see,” says Muniz. “So, if you are a visual artist, it becomes a very interesting material to work with because it’s the most nonvisual of materials. You are working with something that you usually try to hide.”
First, Muniz travelled to the biggest garbage dump in the world, Jardim Gramacho (north of Rio de Janeiro), where he was met with a community of catadores.
An estimated 3,000-5,000 people live in the dump, 15,000 derive their income from activities related to it, and some come from families that had been working there for three generations. Catadores like the trash heaps they call home, live on the margins of society and are made invisible to the average Brazilian.
And yet, Muniz is not interested in perpetuating a “Save The Children” politics of pity that positions catadores as passive victims. “These people are at the other end of consumer culture,” he says. “I was expecting to see people who were beaten and broken, but they were survivors.” Muniz quickly befriended and collaborated with a number of catadores on large-scale portraits of themselves including Irma, a cook who sells food in the dump; Zumbi, the resident intellectual who has held onto every book he’s scavenged; and 18-year-old Suelem, who first arrived there when she was 7.
According to Donald Eubank, “Muniz rented 4 tons of junk and a warehouse, and together they arranged the trash on the ground to replicate photographs of themselves that Muniz had taken earlier. Then they would climb up to the ceiling and take photos of the compositions from 22 meters high.The portraits of the people are made out of empty spaces, out of what wasn’t garbage.”
Calling upon his resources as a world famous artist, Muniz raised $64,097 at the esteemed Phillipe de Pury auction in London by selling one of his garbage portraits. 100% of the profits went to the Garbage Pickers Association of Jardim Gramacho.