The Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly. A portrait of Frankenstein’s monster made out of caviar. Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son composed from piles of junk.
Vik Muniz’s art is whimsical and playful on the surface. As viewers look deeper at the contemporary artist’s work, however, they find what museum curator Kenneth Hartvigsen called “the sophistication behind the joke.” This includes social commentary and deep reflections on the human experience.
Visitors to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art (MOA) can experience that powerful combination of whimsy and sophistication for themselves through the exhibit “Vik Muniz: Extra-Ordinary.” The display opened June 18 and will be available until November 27.
About the Exhibit
Vik Muniz was born in São Paulo in 1961 and moved to the United States in 1983. His work has been featured worldwide in prestigious collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
“Extra-Ordinary” features more than 100 of Muniz’s works. Featured works include a high-tech series of sandcastle drawings carved into singular grains of sand, aerial photographs of large-scale bulldozer carvings he directed the formation of and intricate collages of famous cities.
This exhibit is unique for the Museum of Art in two ways: how well-known and prominent Muniz is in the contemporary sphere and how much of his work is accessible in a single display.
“To have a mid-career retrospective where people can see all the aspects of his career in one place, it does make it very special,” Hartvigsen said.
“The Sugar Children”
One prominent feature in the Muniz exhibit is “The Sugar Children,” a series of six portraits of Caribbean children made out of grains of sugar. Muniz created these portraits in 1996 after visiting with families on the island St. Kitts who eke out a living working on sugar cane plantations.
This breakout creation launched Muniz’s career, as his photographs of the portraits were chosen for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1997 “New Photography” roundup.
“Each portrait serves as a reminder that the sweetest things in life can have bitter origins,” Hartvigsen wrote in the portraits’ label. Hartvigsen pointed out the poignance of each title, which give greater personality and definition to the subjects: “Jacynthe Loves Orange Juice” and “Lil’ Calist Can’t Swim.”
“You start to see them as individuals,” Hartvigsen said. “You start to think of them not just as children in a difficult situation but as people you might know.”
Muniz’s work is intended to not only entertain viewers and wow them with his technical expertise but also to make them ask questions about the way they see the world. Hartvigsen said Muniz’s work prompts audiences to look more closely and learn more deeply.
“I think that’s ultimately what his work is about: if you look once, do you see everything you’re supposed to see?” Hartvigsen said. “Do we see and feel and understand the world as deeply as we should? Or do we look at things once, make a decision or a judgment, and then move on?”
“Pictures of Garbage”
Muniz’s work finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, and his 2008 series “Pictures of Garbage” is no exception. For this seven-photograph collection, Muniz collaborated with Brazilian garbage pickers in Jardim Gramacho, a 321-acre landfill just outside Rio. Muniz employed impoverished trash pickers to help him create enormous works of art modeled out of refuse. The works took about a month each to create. The final products were sold as photographs to benefit the garbage pickers and help them gain a new lease on life.
The 2010 documentary “Waste Land,” directed by Lucy Walker, shows Muniz’s behind-the-scenes process creating the portraits. The documentary won the Audience Award for a World Cinema Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, among other prizes at other distinguished film festivals.
“George Stinney, Jr.”
Muniz’s oversized collage “George Stinney, Jr.” shows a mugshot of the titular figure, the youngest person in the United States to be sentenced to death in the 20th century. Stinney was 14 years old when he was executed by electric chair in 1944 after being wrongly accused of murdering two little girls. Stinney’s case was reopened and he was posthumously exonerated in December 2014.
Hartvigsen described the visceral experience of seeing the artwork in person for the first time.
“It was a very profound experience to look at the mugshot and be very, very aware that this picture I was looking at was of a child,” Hartvigsen said.
The collage is made out of smaller images of people laughing and living their normal lives. It is part of Muniz’s “Album” series.
“The feeling I had was a reminder that we are all part of our successes and our failures as a human race,” Hartvigsen said. “I am still part of this story, just as all these faces and people make up this portrait of George Stinney, Jr.”
“Look Again, and Look More Closely”
Visitors to the museum so far have expressed high praise for the Muniz exhibit. Hartvigsen said he has enjoyed walking around the gallery and seeing how people interact with and learn from the pieces.
“I think that’s what Vik’s work does: It says, ‘Why don’t you look again, and look more closely, and see if you can learn more or feel more?’” Hartvigsen said. “You spend more time with it, and it continues to teach you. I hope the show engenders that kind of thoughtfulness that sometimes is lacking in modern society.”