New York

Vik Muniz

Brent Sikkema

The extensive literature on ancient monuments like Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza includes more than a few revisionist titles devoted to exposing the “real” artists behind these works: extraterrestrials. Such texts can easily be written off as crackpot fantasies. But there’s something fascinating about the impulse to reassign authorship of these constructions. The idea seems to be that humans are more prone to make human-scale figural work like cave paintings or the Venus of Willendorf than enormous, abstractly conceived objects.

Vik Muniz’s recent photographs of his large earth drawings add another volume to the genre of alien art. Drawn into the soil of an iron ore–mining site in southeastern Brazil and photographed from a helicopter, his motifs are so distinctly human and contemporary it would be impossible to attribute them to any other being or time. Photos like Hanger, Envelope, and Sock (all works 2002) capture images of everyday objects inscribed on the earth: a wire coat hanger; the seams of a legal envelope; the cuff, toe, and heel of a reinforced sock. There is an obvious and wonderful absurdity to Muniz's enterprise—and what else would you expect from an artist who has exhibited photographs of drawings executed in chocolate, dust, sugar, syrup, thread, and clouds?

Like all good art tricksters, however, Muniz is a smart provocateur, not just a clown (he is a self-proclaimed student of Buster Keaton). Rather than poke fun at the ancients, his mundane objects (which also include scissors, a key, a pipe, and a paper clip) pay homage to their herculean efforts. They are also linked, in other ways, with centuries-old works like the abstract and figural Nazca drawings in Peru, which must be seen from an aerial perspective—a vantage not available to the creators—to be fully appreciated, or modern-day crop circles, which have gathered a cult of followers who liken them to ancient sites and revel in the mystery of their authorship.

But there is another, more pertinent reference as well. Muniz’s photographs share the format of ’60s and ’70s Earthworks, which were fabricated on-site and then photographed. Like Muniz’s drawings, Earthworks are generally experienced via photographs (very often, like Muniz’s, aerial ones), which originally serve as documents but become surrogates for the works themselves. Of course, practitioners of earth art in the ’60s were strongly influenced by ancient works, which were almost unanimously geometric (think of the pancultural dominance of the pyramid), as well as twentieth-century art practices, in which abstraction tended to rule. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the Giza of late-twentieth-century art, exhibits this reliance on geometric abstraction.

Muniz’s earthworks lean heavily toward the cultural, the unmistakably human imprint on nature. He carries on the tradition of Claes Oldenburg, offering big dumb objects that lampoon the angsty-seriousness to which abstraction succumbed in the middle of the last century and the attempt of earth artists to make works that looked primal. (With his pipe drawn in the sand, Muniz also references Magritte’s paradox of representation, here extending it to photography.) Like Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, Muniz’s photographs serve as sober celebrations of the everyday, reminding us to commemorate icons of humanity rather than retreat to abstract forms that could be mistaken, from outer space or otherwise, for the work of someone else.

Martha Schwendener