PRINT September 1997


VIK MUNIZ’S SIGMUND, 1997, is a five-by-four-foot color photograph of a drawing made with chocolate syrup on a five-by-four-inch piece of white plastic. Muniz used a view camera mounted on a copy stand to take the photograph, a straight pin to draw the portrait, and Bosco brand syrup as his medium. When he finished, he licked the plastic clean.

Such dislocations of scale, medium, and aesthetic expectation are a source of pleasure to this thirty five-year-old, Brazilian-born, New York-based polymath; more to the point, they’re his artistic stock-in trade. Muniz calls himself a “low-tech illusionist”—“more in the tradition of Ricky Jay than Siegfried and Roy”—and his legerdemain has the virtue of being both witty and challenging. Photography, with its claims to verisimilitude, plays a large part in the illusions he creates, but the more traditional mediums of drawing and sculpture are essential as well. In the last seven years he has produced drawings based on his memory of famous photographs; photographs of sculptural “drawings” constructed from wire, thread, and cotton balls; a series of bogus newspaper articles incorporating his own bogus photographs; and other conundrums of materiality and appearance.

In an age when the notion of “the original” seems all but overwhelmed by a flood tide of digital technologies and Derridian-do, Muniz might seem the proverbial Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Yet for all his work’s material uniqueness, “originality” is less a claim than a foil. In the case of Sigmund, the skill and conceptual audacity involved in drawing a portrait with chocolate sauce is mediated by the final product: a photograph. The painstakingly constructed drawing is erased with a swipe of the tongue; all that remains is a second-order representation, a convincing but nonetheless approximate simulation that is somehow stranger and more affecting than the chocolate original.

Muniz taught himself to draw with chocolate syrup not long after mastering the process of drawing with sugar. In both cases, his aim was to stretch the norms of what constitutes artmaking, to produce work that “revolves around the principle of translation.” In Sigmund, which is part of his ongoing “Pictures of Chocolate Series,” 1997–, the act of translating a drawing into a photograph that recalls a painting opens a gap in the formal and syntactical chain that we construct whenever we attempt to decipher a work of art. This image is, in its own peculiar way, as degraded as a painting on black velvet, but Muniz’s ingenuity in choosing his materials and his ability to turn those materials into willing servants of his adaptive draftsmanship enable the picture to comment on the very devices of representation it employs. Sigmund is at once a demonstration of Muniz’s mastery over his quirky medium and a reminder of how readily the codes of our common visual experience can slide into travesty.

Of course Sigmund is not only a fascinating translation of means and materials—pin for pen, syrup for ink, plastic for paper—but also a portrait of the founder of psychoanalysis, whose distinctive visage is not only readily recognizable but immediately conjures the whole history of this century-defining discovery. “The chocolate pictures started with the material and then progressed toward the search for suitable subjects. Freud was very appropriate because the piece dealt plainly with desire and representation. Everyone I know loves chocolate, but it is difficult to explain why you love the taste of something. Psychoanalysis was set up to tackle problems of this nature, to give a ‘meaning’ to emotions, instincts, and sensations,” Muniz explains.

Other pictures in the chocolate series include near-photographic images of a couple locked in a Hollywood-style embrace; a woman rowing a boat in a river; another woman dropping a plate on the floor; and a portrait of Napoleon. “I believe all the images in the series to be descriptions of dreams or delusions,” Muniz notes, adding that his next undertaking in chocolate syrup will be a re-creation of a famous Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollock making a drip painting.

Muniz’s scrambled but apt references to history, and particularly to art history, are as characteristic of his work as they are of Mark Tansey’s. In 16,000 yards (After the 1854 cliché-verre 12y J. B. C. Corot, Le Songeur), 1996, from the “Pictures of Thread Series,” 1995–96, the artist essentially duplicated Corot’s experimental photographic drawing of a landscape using an enormous quantity of black sewing thread (the 16,000 yards of the title). In exhibition, Muniz’s black and white photographic print is hung near a pedestal displaying a tangled ball of the thread used to make it. The image alludes to the impact of photography’s invention on nineteenth-century artists and, with admirable economy, demonstrates the medium’s current ubiquity.

Muniz’s sense of play sets his work apart from most recent conceptually based artistic practice, which has often treated the overlap of content and form with painful seriousness. Much as William Wegman and Robert Cumming did in the ’70s, Muniz demonstrates that serious conceptions are sometimes best expressed with wit. Coming from a country where the functions of poets and philosophers often overlap, Muniz is fully aware of the meanings of his manipulations and of their relationship to a state of linguistic indeterminacy. It is as if he were illustrating the sensibility of writers like Borges, Calvino, Marquez, Nabokov, and Pynchon, who are able to convey the contingency of meaning even as they construct elaborate chains of signification. As Calvino once put it, “I play the game, in other words, the game of pretending there’s an order in the dust, a regularity in the system, or an interpenetration of different systems, incongruous but still measurable, so that every graininess of disorder coincides with the faceting of an order which promptly crumbles.”

Muniz’s penchant for setting up a gamelike arena for his art, complete with rules and boundaries, is evident in one of his best-known bodies of work, the “memory renderings” of 1990. Sometimes referred to as “The Best of Life,” these black and white photographs document pencil drawings Muniz made from his memories of Life magazine’s most iconic images. Memory Rendering of Tram Bang, 1990, is a passable (and, more to the point, recognizable) rendition of Nick Ut’s prizewinning picture of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing an American napalm attack. Published in Life in 1972, the picture helped crystallize the country’s broad-based antiwar sentiment; redrawn and rephotographed by Muniz, the image is a container emptied of its historical horror—a new kind of “life drawing,” one appropriate to a postmodern world.

Muniz himself sees his work as analogous to crossword puzzles, which different people solve via different routes:

The nature of every game is to provide a conventional structure where people can sense their individual capacities. In my structures, everything that is general, conventional, common sense, folk psychology, grammatical, etcetera, is taken into consideration and carefully measured to force the player to assume a dynamic attitude toward it. Some are games of attention, when the representational systems are very similar, and some are games of association, when the representational systems are either very different or open.

Muniz’s “Cloud Pictures” of 1993 (aka the “Equivalents” series) are an example of the latter. These photographs depict cotton-ball sculptures that mimic fluffy clouds which assume the shape of recognizable objects—a pair of praying hands, in one case. The pictures are easily referenced to Alfred Stieglitz’s own series of cloud pictures produced mostly in the ’20s, but without the aspiration to metaphorical transcendence. Instead, Muniz provides an easy (and perversely dopey) reference for his “clouds,” while also letting you know they aren’t clouds at all, but cotton. Here again, the “low-tech illusionist” revels in the unstable territory between object and image, material and representation, fact and metaphor.

The chocolate series followed immediately on the heels of a 1996 series “The Sugar Children,” a group of six portraits drawn with sugar on a sheet of black paper and then photographed. (Each portrait was “erased” by clearing the paper of granules before starting on the next one.) When he exhibited these in New York last December, Muniz included, as part of the installation, jars of the sugar he used to make the drawings. Whereas the sugar had a strong sociopolitical connotation—the portraits were of plantation workers’ children, whom Muniz had photographed on St. Kitts—the chocolate gave rise to more elusive associations. Muniz notes:

I usually pick materials based on the potential for association they offer. I could do still lifes with wire, but I needed thread to do landscapes and powder to do portraits. I guess that since I had covered most of the genres of Western art I started to explore different ways of rendering them.

Basically, at first I was working with the formal properties of these materials, but recently I became curious about associations that occur outside the realm of vision. The use of chocolate, for example, appeals to other senses, forcing the amount of cognitive play involved with the apprehension of the image to become even more complex. My choices of material have something to do with my choices of subjects, but the opposite is also true. Sometimes, as in the case of “The Sugar Children,” the subject inspires and influences the material.

Using chocolate upped the sensory ante of Muniz’s work, and it also led to two changes in presentation: large scale and color. Sigmund and its companion pieces are Muniz’s biggest photographs to date, and in this respect they mimic painting more than conventional drawing. In part the resemblance was inevitable: chocolate syrup looks like paint and, as Muniz points out, even behaves somewhat like it. “The chocolate pieces have the ‘feeling’ of painting because they are larger than life and deal with physical pleasure, but the reason I made them at first was to try to make a drawing that required a certain amount of speed— chocolate either spreads or dries, depending on the amount of time between the drawing and the photo. In any case, I had a lot of physical pleasure executing those drawings—not to mention that I ended up eating a lot of the chocolate.”

And while he had rarely used color photography before, Muniz found that color was necessary to render chocolate as chocolate. “Black-and-white chocolate is not chocolate; it’s blood,” he says, insisting that Alfred Hitchcock used chocolate syrup in Psycho’s shower scene. Besides providing the requisite chocolate-brown tones, color film also emphasizes the specular highlights and prismatic effects produced when the liquid is photographed—effects that give the final image its tantalizing, faux-finish look.

For Muniz, drawing and painting are allied but syntactically different means of imagemaking: drawing is closer to language and more numeric, he declares, while painting is “totally analog.” Fittingly, he believes that his virtuosity as a draftsman stems from a childhood inability to cope with language. “When I was a kid I suffered from attention-deficit syndrome, and I could hardly finish a sentence I started,” he remembers. “I would jump from subject to subject, making it very difficult for people to follow what I was trying to say. I always had to draw pictures and diagrams to illustrate my arguments.” But it is photography that both inspires and makes possible his navigations between the syntactical and the pictorial. Of his photographic turn, Muniz says:

I became more involved with the medium after I was working as a sculptor and had my pieces photographed for documentation. It was then that I realized I was after the images of those objects more than I was after the objects themselves.

What really fascinates me about the photographic process is that it endorses the existence of things. A chocolate puddle with the likeness of Freud becomes a part of the same history as its notable subject. It did exist sometime and somewhere as an object in the world. Photography objectifies even flat representations. It reveals their real identity as objects.

The verisimilitude, essential to Muniz’s illusions, that is made possible by the camera allows him to consider not only how photographic representation reflects cultural and social norms but also its means of production—the materiality of the two-dimensional image. Despite his fascination with photographs, Muniz remains a happy materialist. “A visual artist who isolates himself from contact with the material is putting himself in the position of the spectator. It’s an enjoyable position, but unfortunately not a very ambitious one.”

Andy Grundberg is a critic living in San Francisco and the founding editor of see: a journal of visual culture.