Brazil­ian mixed-me­dia artist Vik Mu­niz was in town to show­case his work at Art Basel Hong Kong

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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.”

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