WORST POSSIBLE ILLUSION: The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz

The Curiosity Cabinet

Vik Muniz: a quite possibly true story

It’s said that Vik Muniz was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil in 1961; that his mother was a switchboard operator; that his father was a bartender; that he’s read parts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses every morning since he was six.

Around that age, he might have looked like this:
...except probably in pajamas or perhaps naked, it’s hard to know.

Vik says his grandmother taught him to read at a young age, but according to a system that identified complete words, not syllables or letters. That meant he consequently had trouble writing when he entered school, and during those first two frustrating years of schooling turned to a more universal language: drawing.

Hand-colored photo of Vik Muniz as a child

Artwork: Over-sized version of the <i>Encyclopedia Britannica</i>, 36x12x9 inches, by Vik Muniz
Big Book by Vik Muniz, from Seeing Is Believing, Arena Editions

If drawing was one half of the equation, compulsive curiosity was the other. One day the Encyclopedia Britannica arrived at his house via wheelbarrow — Vik’s father had won it in a pool game. Instantly, the book was Vik’s link to the mysteries and details of the outside world. “It was like the Internet,” he recalls. “But, you know, for primitive people.”

As a young man, Vik attended art school for a few years in Brazil, and worked briefly in advertising. He arrived in the United States in 1983, speaking very little English, and worked a variety of jobs as he developed his art—mainly drawing and sculpture. By the late ‘80s, his interests began to turn to photographic reproductions of his own art work, and eventually he worked exclusively photographing his three-dimensional pieces.

Vik credits the painting A Child’s Head by Peter Paul Rubens as the work of art that prompted him to become an artist, and a trip to Europe as the moment he felt he could live up to the title. Facing Hungarian guards without a visa, Vik was asked to prove he was an artist and sketched a clipboard picture of one of his interrogators holding a machine gun. “He looked at it,” Vik says, “and said, 'Oh, indeed you are an artist! Can you sign it?' After that… I could call myself an artist.”

He returned from Europe to New York City with about $100 to his name, a piece of plasticene, a camera and some film. Vik made a sculpture. He liked it, but having used all the plasticene, he took a picture of the sculpture, destroyed it and made a new one. Soon he had 60 pictures of the same lump of plasticene as different sculptures. A friend offered to print them for him, and the result was a 1992 solo show, Individuals, featuring the photographs alongside empty pedestals representing the missing sculptures.

Portrait of a child, oil painting by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens
A Child’s Head by
Peter Paul Rubens

Photo of Vik in his studio, with large lens over his face, magnifying his eye
Vik in his studio, 1998
Photo: Mark Alice Durant

Artwork: Enormous scissors carved into a mountain, by Vik Muniz
Scissors from Pictures of Earthwork, the Sarzedo Drawings, by Vik Muniz

Since then, the self-described “low-tech illusionist” has photographed tufts of cotton as representational clouds; portraits made from sugar, dirt, dust and chocolate sauce; and images in the earth and sky made with airplanes and backhoes. Over the last 15 years, Vik’s many exhibits have included one-man shows at the Whitney Museum, New York; Centre National pour la Photographie, Paris; and the Venice Biennale, as well as group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Gallery, London; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He is the co-founder and associate editor of Blindspot Magazine. His book Seeing is Believing (Arena Editions, 1998) was rated among the top ten photography books of the year by the New York Times Book Review and the Village Voice. Apparently, the illusive Vik Muniz lives in New York.

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