PRINT October 2000


*Chocolate, ink, peanut butter, wire, glue, thread, sugar, soil. The words read like a supermarket shopping list. But for Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, this everyday taxonomy is a Borgesian bestiary, each item a magical being with its own special power and a mythic tale of how it came to be. As a self-described adventurer in the “world of the nonexistent”—that is, of the image—Muniz has deployed these unlikely media to conjure everything from Andy Warhol paintings to simulated cumulus clouds, from Hollywood film stills to newspaper clippings.

In his latest project, “Clayton Days,” 2000, Muniz has gone looking in the folds of history for the uncanny doublings that have become his signature. He has created—or rather, re-created—a series of sixty-five black-and-white “vintage” photographs from Clayton, Henry Clay Frick's Pittsburgh estate, now a museum that preserves the nineteenth-century industrialist's home as it existed when robber barons roamed the earth. The idea for the series came to Muniz when he discovered that archival photographs had been used to restore the house to its original state. Some of his images are photographs of these vintage prints; others feature the museum's tour guides reenacting scenes from the home's past. Visitors to the estate during Muniz's exhibition there (on view through October 22) will now contemplate not only the house and the objects that convey its history but also the Möbius strip of document and replica that, as Muniz's interventions remind us, is the only way we can know Clayton's reality today.

For Muniz, who has been based in New York City since 1984, all beings are doppelgangers in search of originals; the same might be said of conversations. We met in the artist's Brooklyn loft, where the tales told in imagining the days at Clayton led us back to Borges—but also on to new doublings and fabulists of doubling, to Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco, even art historian and critic Georges Didi-Huberman. When it comes to copies and replicas, there's always another story.

Saul Anton*


WHILE IN PITTSBURGH some time ago, I took the tour of Henry Clay Frick's estate, Clayton, which is set up exactly the way it was a hundred years ago. It's amazing: You walk into this house and feel like you're in the nineteenth century. The first time I walked in, there were muddied children's boots lying in the doorway. Everything was put back in place by using old photographs. Clayton, I realized, is a postphotographic document. When tourists take pictures there, they're taking pictures of some thing that's already a picture.

That complex layering of copies has a strong connection to how I see art—in relation to the history of media, not apart from it. Art is an aberration, a growth on the body of media, but a mimetic growth that draws attention to the body itself. If you have a tumor, you're more aware of your body. Art has a bit of that function in relation to things perceived through a particular medium.

The speed at which images are made today far exceeds that at which people can digest them. So there's a need to slow everything down. To do this, you have to understand the way people process an image. Usually they grasp its meaning by recognizing basic elements. You can get very fast at this by watching television and films. You scan the image and realize what's going on even before something happens. But what are you really looking at? How much of it are you taking in?

Marshall McLuhan wrote that education was created by the masses as a shelter from technological media. If one person knows how to read and write, that person holds power over those who don't, so mass education developed to protect people from that person's control over the power of print. We're still dealing with media that began thousands of years ago, but today we should also be educated in the rhetoric of the image. I'm talking about mass education, teaching children how to watch TV. There's no purity of the sign, or, as Umberto Eco says, there's no worm without a hook. Every image is rhetorical. Take advertising: You see an image, and underneath it, there's the slogan “Drink Coca-Cola.” It brands it as an advertisement, and you think the words are commanding you to do something. But in fact the whole message is conveyed through the image. The text just diverts your attention so that the image can work more subliminally.

I took the Clayton tour about five times. I came to know the story and the historical characters pretty quickly. Still, on every tour the story differed slightly. If the guide was a smoker, he'd point out that Frick smoked and played poker with the president in such and such room. If the guide was a woman, she'd draw attention to the room where the women dressed. The story was shaped and corrupted each time by the tour guide.

How the installational presentation shapes the experience of the history is interesting. Seeing the history on the walls, you're not subject to a textual narrative, so your attention is of a different kind: You're not reading, you're listening to the tour guide. It's a different kind of narrative experience: It explodes. Frick's personality becomes a maze. People can imagine all kinds of things, depending on which objects they notice.

The people who tell the house's story every day are much more a part of that story than the people who lived there. At some point, the number of years the house was lived in will be much smaller than the amount of time it's been a museum. Is the future history here related more to the museum or to an industrialist's house? How can you mix history and the making of history? I don't know. Artists aren't good at answering questions; they're good at asking them. I just decided to go there and make a mess.

I mixed some of my appropriations of the house's photographic documents with my own fabricated documents. I also tried to follow what the people who work there do. The tour guide's job is to fill your head with images from a bygone era. I tried to figure out what these images were. What images do you see, and what shape do they have? I was trying to animate some of these possibilities. They're almost ghosts.

I've used some of the tour guides, who keep the house's story alive. I tried to get them to animate themselves, so they become part of the history that's layered into these photographs. If these pictures are there 500 years from now, they'll become part of the history, and no one will be able to see that they were fabricated.