Recreate. Recycle. Responsible?

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

I started this post wanting to write something on Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and his impressive ability to transform well-known works of art. I first saw his work in an exhibition at the Berardo Collection (Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon) in 2011. I was very intrigued by his experimentation with unusual materials such as sugar, peanut butter, thread. The piece that I had in mind was his recreation of Piranesi’s Carceri, a brilliant reconstruction using pins and thread to explore the spatial complexities of the original as well as highlight its inherent sculptural dimension, with intense chiaroscuro lighting. What was exhibited was the photograph of Muniz’s construction, a fact that further raised interesting questions concerning the relationship between original and reproduction, and about the place of representation in contemporary art. But this is not what I ended up writing after all.

A part of the exhibition was dedicated to his (then) most recent work, Pictures of Garbage. These were photographs of real people, the catadores or pickers of recyclable material who worked in one of Latin America’s largest landfills, Jardim Gramacho in Brazil. Muniz worked along with the pickers to create monumental works, with the pickers posing in imitation of famous works of art (such as David’s Death of Marat), then had the pickers “fill in” their portraits with material they gathered from the landfill, and photographed the ensuing work. The photographs were exhibited with wild success, and a documentary called Waste Land (2010) captured the entire process on film and went on to be nominated for an Oscar, along with the marvelous Exit through the Gift Shop (they both lost to the Inside Job).

Even at the exhibition, I remembered thinking about social responsibility. The garbage pictures were there so I had the opportunity to closely inspect them. What was their point? Making garbage look beautiful? Distract the viewer from the awful reality of the pickers’ everyday lives? Display the transformative power of art? Muniz himself had talked about his desire to change peoples’ lives, to give something back as the expression goes. It is a noble intention and there is no doubt that Muniz meant well or that he contributed substantially to the community of the pickers (he offered them the proceeds of the Death of Marat’s auction, for example).

But after having watched Waste Land, I am very conscious of the limitations of these noble intentions. I was surprised (to say the least) to see the film described as “uplifting”, and only when I realized that this was a Brazilian version of the American dream, this view made any sense. The film presents, as a source of inspiration, Muniz’s own rise to fame and riches from relatively modest beginnings, and it hopes to do the same when it comes to the pickers themselves. The film fares very well when it stresses the dignity of the pickers and portrays them as actual human beings. The resilience of the human spirit is nothing short of remarkable. But it is the underlying assumption that one can escape his sordid existence and build a better life for herself or himself, while the system that bred so much inequality remains unchanged, that is especially grating. It is the vision of the pickers as happy and proud of their work (as in, content with their place in the world) that is deeply problematic. An old man (who dies from lung cancer by the end of the film and does not appear much in it anyway) claiming that it’s not bad to be poor and that the wealthy with their questionable morals are worse, exemplifies this ideological positioning within the film.

The film operates, in a sense, by making the viewer comfortable in the face of grinding poverty, human misery and social injustice. It offers a reassuring vision that there is hope, that people can actually make it if someone only shows them how and sufficiently motivates them. The “inspiring” or “uplifting” happy end that the film provides, ties neatly the narrative with one big emotional bow. The pickers proudly hang in their shacks their own portraits, offered by the artist, having gained self-awareness through the power of art. The same power that transformed garbage into art and art into money.

I recommend watching Ilha das Flores (1990) instead. The 13 min documentary by Jorge Furtado (another Brazilian) is an unparalleled work of social commentary that also talks about an ironically named landfill. It won’t make you feel good about yourself and the world you live in. And you’re not supposed to.