Vik Muniz meticulously creates illusionist images out of ephemeral materials such as chocolate syrup, sugar, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter and jelly, cotton, dust, and paper trimmings from magazines. He then photographs and transforms them into large-scale prints. Although some of his photographic tableaux are originally made out of perishable materials, such as the diptych Mass (From the Chocolate Series), 1997, there is nothing ugly or repulsive about them. They have a clean, inviting look, which draws the viewer closer to discover that these images are not what they first appear to be.
Muniz considers himself to be an illusionist. He says: "I want to make the worst possible illusion that will still fool the eyes of the average person."(1) He plays with different perceptions of appearance and reality questioning the nature of visual representation. The process is quite curious and fascinating: He begins by making a Polaroid photograph of his chosen subject matter. Then he remakes it in chocolate syrup, dirt, or sugar, and finally photographs the result. In this process, what started as a permanent object (usually a famous or anonymous photograph) becomes an impermanent drawing made out of an edible material (chocolate syrup, sugar, or spaghetti marinara) to be turned again into a permanent work of art (a conventional gelatin-silver print).
His work usually involves some kind of appropriation strategy. It is a copy of a copy, which, during the process of transformation, becomes an original work by Vik Muniz. The artist has to complete the whole process (drawing and photographing it) in one hour before the chocolate syrup becomes thick, dull, and too hard to be manipulated. His work emphasizes the passage of time and its ephemeral nature. It is not only the materials chosen by the artist that carry that temporal quality attached to them; it is also their performative aspect that recalls time and its impermanent attributes. Movement and rhythm are part of his process, and it comes as no surprise that one of Muniz's famous prints from the "Chocolate Series" is based on a well-known still from a documentary made by Hans Namuth about Jackson Pollock creating his dripping painting Autumn Rhythm in East Hampton. Action painting, performance, fast moves, and choreography are all part of Muniz's work, as well as Pollock's.
Besides Action Photo (After Hans Namuth), from 1997, other photographs from the "Chocolate Series" include The Raft of the Medusa, based on the painting by the 19th-century artist Théodore Géricault (diptych), 1999, and The Last Supper, (triptych), 1998, from Leonardo da Vinci's fresco.
The first image of the "Chocolate Series" was a photograph of Sigmund Freud. According to Muniz, he "chose to work with chocolate because it had something to do with the feeling of painting. Chocolate inspires a multitude of psychological phenomena: it has to do with scatology, desire, sex, addition, luxury, romance, etc." He adds: "I have never met anyone who doesn't like chocolate. Freud could probably explain why everybody loves chocolate...That's why [Freud] was my first subject."(2) A picture of an edible substance also brings to mind memories of the taste of that food, which could also be interpreted through a psychoanalytical lens. Real and fictional, process-based and result-oriented, temporal and permanent, solid and melted, repulsive and tasteful, visual and tactile, truth and imaginary-these are all games played upon Muniz's illusionist tableaux in which the viewer is amused and complacent in being fooled and deceived.
Claudia Calirman, Ph.D., New York.
1) "Vik Muniz and Charles Ashley Stainback: A Dialogue," in Seeing is Believing, Santa Fe: Arena Editions, 1998, 16.
2) C. Ashley Stainback, 43.