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. 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. –Vik Muniz
Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is known for his visual wit using either the world’s detritus or the generally unexpected as the medium for his portraits and landscapes. Each piece, formed by ink drops, chocolate drips, dust motes, thread swirls or garbage itself, is temporary by nature, achieving permanence via a camera’s lens.
One way to describe the artist’s work is to use the analogy of focus. Stand back and there’s a landscape or portrait. Squint, and you see the medium in the message. Sometimes the distance required is substantial, say, 22 meters above a warehouse floor….
The slide show above offers examples of composition, created from the minuscule (dust) to the substantial (garbage). The photos below brings the medium into focus.
His collaboration with British film director Lucy Walker offers an additional dimension to his work. Known for thought provoking, award winning documentaries, she, too, has an unusual relationship with garbage and what it says about us as people. As a graduate film student at NYU her friendship with Robin Nagle, an Anthropology professor doing ethnographic research with the department of sanitation, deepened her thoughts on the subject.
The 2010 documentary film Waste Land is set north of Rio de Janeiro in the biggest garbage dump in the world–Jardim Gramacho. The dump is surrounded by a favela that is home to thousands of people whose economy revolves almost entirely around the trade of recyclable materials. The Rio sanitation department began to rehabilitate the landfill in 1995, enforcing basic safety standards and allowing the catadores (the Portuguese name for those that make a living scavenging for recyclables in the dump) to organize. They also began a pilot program to create a carbon negative power plant fueled by the 7,000 tons of waste that lands in Gramacho daily. The Garbage Pickers Association of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG) helped to create a recycling center, (removing 200 tons of recyclable materials a day), a 24 hour medical clinic and the construction of daycare and skills training centers.
Muniz had traveled there to meet with the community of catadores. The group was organized by a charismatic young leader, and after establishing relationships with the members, he worked with them, creating large scale portraits that were then sold at London’s Phillipe de Pury auction house. (The Marat portrait of the leader Tiaõ graces the film poster above.) Many of the catadores Muniz met in the Jardim come from families who have been working there for generations. The film tells the story of a group of extraordinary people, like Zumbi (Jose Carlos da Silva Bala Lopes) who started a community lending library of found books and who draws a precise comparison between Machiavelli’s Florence and modern day Rio or Valter (Valter dos Santos) a man with little to no education who knows all about the philosophy of recycling.
The project raised $64,097 and 100% of the profits went to the Garbage Pickers Association of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG). The film’s press notes state:
Muniz rented 4 tons of junk and a warehouse, and together they arranged the trash on the ground to replicate the 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 the empty spaces, out of what wasn’t garbage.
The empty spaces. A different interpretation of the “negative” that Muniz is referring to in his quotation above, and one that makes all the difference.