Thursday, April 14, 2011

Waste Land, dir. Lucy Walker, 2010

Fabio Ghivelder, Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho Beside Magna

I am not a big fan of Vik Muniz’ photography and sculptures, and have always found them to be somewhat obvious. Despite their appeal to the art market and the buzz that accompanies each new series, I have never been so interested in them as aesthetic objects. The same reservation rests true for what I see of his work in Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, a portrait of Muniz’ project on the garbage collectors and sorters of Jardim Gramacho, a landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. However, the film has something else: it shows Muniz’ engagement with the “catadores”, the “self-designated pickers of recyclable material.” And as Muniz himself acknowledges, they are the heart and soul of his project, its raison d’être, relegating the aesthetic to the background.
Vik Muniz, Marat/Sebastiao - Pictures of Garbage, 2010
I want to put Waste Land in the same genre as films such as Born Into Brothels (dir. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, 2004) or War Photographer (Christian Frei with James Nachtwey, 2001) in which the artist goes into the ghetto and ostensibly liberates his or her subjects through his or her art. Because this is what Muniz wants to do: to give oppressed people a voice and an identity through involving them in his art. His goal is their liberation. And within that genre, Muniz’ work is probably better than most because it retains an ethical correctness that the others do not. The film itself is nothing special or revelatory as a documentary, but it does mark a rare occasion on which I want to reflect on the subject matter without demanding filmic innovation.
Vik Muniz, View Down onto Irma's Portrait on the Floor, 2010

There is a conversation mid-way through the film between Muniz, his wife and a skeptical observer about the ethics of Muniz' introduction of these garbage sorters to the art world, to London, to money and prestige. Will his opening of a door to desires, hopes and dreams that will forever rest unrealized further oppress?  This, of course, is the question for any such project that claims to “make people’s lives better”. Because as we learnt from the end of Born into Brothels,  showing the ghettoized what it might be to live outside of the ghetto is a recipe for disaster. But this is where Muniz, and Waste Land stand out from other work of this genre. Muniz makes clear that he came from the same world as the catadores, he understands them, he listens to them, he admires and loves them. As Muniz says, the only thing separating them from him is luck. His father happened to live and work, and so he remained in a lower class neighborhood of Sao Paolo, rather than relegated to the edge of the world in Rio as are the catadores. 
Vik Muniz, Portrait of Valter, 2010
What makes Waste Land work where other films fall short, is that Muniz is one of them. The film is not focused on Muniz, the great artist at work in his studio in what is, to be sure, an interesting process. Infact, there is very little shown of his complicated and obviously lengthy process. Rather the film focuses on the relationship between Muniz and the Catadores whose portraits will be made out of garbage and photographed for exhibition and sale in London and New York. In a moment towards the end of the film, Muniz gives each of those pictured a copy of their portrait, and they hang it on the wall of their home. Muniz makes no attempt to direct where they put it, how to hang it, but rather, each subject places the image where they see it best in their home. As Muniz quietly looks on as each performs the ritual, his presence acts as an affirmation to their choices, just as it has throughout the film.
Vik Muniz, Original Shot of Isis and Valeria, 2010

Of course, what the film doesn’t show are the many many catadores whose lives are not touched by Muniz. He did, afterall, only profile a handful of them in his photographs. Though the lives of those in the frame are made better, transformed by the possibilities of creating art out of what effectively gives them their livelihood and their identities, there must be those who remain in the shadows, who continue to suffer at the bottom of the trash heap. Well, one could argue, Muniz sells the works and gives back to the people, as one of his subjects, Tiao creates an association, and sets up a library with discarded books, thus creating better conditions for everyone. In the end, the film thus has Muniz gesture towards the possibility of art to transform lives, to literally make something out of nothing, and specifically, from the very things that oppress them. But, in doing so, I wonder, is he also perpetuating his own image as the do-gooder, the savior of those who have hitherto been cast on the trash heap? And if so, perhaps we need to see the film as making his practice out to be more ethical than it really is... 

All Images Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio

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