ROOTS OF AN ARTIST
Brazilian mixed-media artist Vik Muniz was in town to showcase his work at Art Basel Hong Kong
DEBUTING IN THE Ruinart Lounge at Art Basel in Hong Kong this year were some of the latest works by Brazilian photographer and mixed-media artist Vik Muniz, where six large-scale photographs from his Shared Roots exhibition dominated the booth. While his Flow Polyptych became the spot for many visitors to grab a picture – including the portrait you see of the artist here – a piece simply titled Chardonnay Leaf is the one that lingers in the memory long after leaving the exhibition – particularly when a video projector reveals time-lapse clips of how it was created and the sheer effort that went into its making. The giant ampelographic representation of the Chardonnay plant is composed of leaves, shoots and branches from the Sillery vineyards, and was created in one of the crayère chalk cellars belonging to Maison Ruinart in Reims. It invites ruminations on the relationship between man and nature – or at least, that’s what Muniz intended. When asked about using unconventional material to create his work, he laughs and says, “You know I’ve been accused of that by many art writers and critics, but I don’t understand it. You know what’s in paint? In the 18th century, ground mummy powder was one of the ingredients! They had all kinds of parts from animals, or very rare stones, or even the rot of corpses in it. Paint is not something simple, my friend. If you think about classic, vintage drawings you’re making art with something weird. Paint itself is a composite of the living and the dead.” It was a meeting in Paris with Ruinart president Frédéric Dufour that ultimately led Muniz to his Hong Kong vernissage. The French champagne maison has fostered relationships with luminaries in the art world for decades. This year, it chose Muniz, the self-described “low-tech illusionist”. Renowned for repurposing everyday materials for intricate recreations of works of art, he has an almost tongue-in-cheek approach – for example, his interpretation in peanut butter and jelly of Andy Warhol’s famous 1963 work Double Mona Lisa. Or the 2008 large-scale project he undertook in Brazil photographing trash-pickers as figures from emblematic paintings such as The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. To top it all, he then recreated the photographs in large-scale arrangements of trash. The project was documented in the 2010 film Waste Land in an attempt to raise awareness of urban poverty – and grabbed an Oscar nomination in the process. From humble beginnings in São Paulo to the Academy Awards, Muniz’s life is a series of remarkable journeys. The artist and Dufour had long wanted to work together and, for 2019, eventually decided that the time was right. “I think these things can go both ways,” says Muniz of the collaboration. “A lot of people are sceptical about putting artists and technicians together. The LA County Museum put Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in touch with Robert Irwin for a project. It was a total disaster, because they couldn’t see eye to eye. They were two very smart people. But it doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re going to find a middle ground. Art is generally able to create a certain ambiguous area for discussion.” However, the discussions worked out perfectly for Muniz, who spent several days during last year’s harvest at the Sillery vineyard, one of the most northerly in continental Europe, and at Forêt des Faux de Verzy, where he discovered its uniquely shaped trees. Thus were planted the seeds of his ideas for his premiere showing in Hong Kong. But when asked if he could have ever foreseen this when he was first starting off, Muniz nods.
“Well, yeah, I did. If you think about the historical importance of somebody’s work, it has to do with context, you know. Let’s go back a little bit. In the early 19th century when photography was invented, people said that painting is dead. And in fact, you can go anywhere and buy a painting today. So photography did not kill painting. A medium does not kill another medium, it just transforms it.” He transformed what he saw in the fields and vineyards to create the pieces for the exhibition. Enraptured by the long process required to produce Ruinart and the journey from hardship and adversity to wonder, he created through his art “an ode to the power of nature and its creative flow”, and he captured the relationship between humans and nature in an image of the hands of the maison’s chef de caves Frédéric Panaïotis. “Actually,” says Muniz, “photography liberated painting from the prison house of representation. It didn’t have to represent things anymore, it could be anything else. I think it’s a very interesting turn of events that the ghost of painting comes back after almost 200 years to haunt photography, in the form of digital imaging.” As we part while standing beside Flow Hands, one of his larger digital images, he says: “Every time I do an installation in a museum I have to make sure I’m in tune with what the directors are trying to convey. It was the same with this project. But I also take into account what the tour guide has to say, what the cleaner thinks. “You know how to piss off the art critic of The Times? Let him know that the opinion of the guy who mops the floor in the museum matters to me more than his column.”