“The world of the media is proverbially cannibalistic: it absorbs and digests all kinds of images, then reformats them and renders them inoffensive. By doing what he already does, Muniz produces images that have already been transformed and therefore resist recuperation” (R. Durand, “A Little Too Self-Evident,” Vik Muniz, exh. cat., Centre national de la photographie, p. 109).
Brazilian-born, New York-based artist Vik Muniz has risen to international acclaim for his visually sly and frequently socially conscious photographic experiments. Muniz creates images—detailed replicas of well-known artworks and meticulous portraits based on photographs—using unorthodox materials like chocolate syrup, cotton, trash, thread, and in the present work, sugar. Muniz then photographs these ephemeral compositions and translates them into glossy large-scale prints that belie their material origins. This sophisticated cross-media appropriative process produces a copy of a copy and undermines photography’s claims to authenticity. The Sugar Children, the work that brought Muniz to the attention of the Museum of Modern Art, is a series of portraits of children whose parents or grandparents have worked on the sugar plantations on the island of Saint Kitts in the West Indies. Muniz “tried to figure out what made the children look so luminous while their parents seemed so broken down” (C. Kino, “Where Art Meets Trash and Transforms Life,” The New York Times, 21 October 2010, www.nytimes.com). Realizing that “the difference was a lifetime spent working in sugar,” the artist drew the children’s portraits using sugar granules upon black paper and photographed the compositions (ibid.). The unusual and compelling result is the present work, a group of six distinct portraits of these “sugar children.”
The portraits emerged from a trip that Muniz took to Saint Kitts in 1996. The artist, who often challenges traditional boundaries between photographer and subject, spent time with local sugar plantation workers and their children and took Polaroids of the children. Studying these upon his return to New York, Muniz realized that the cheerful youth he met in the West Indies would be “transformed by sugar…children who become sugar” (V. Muniz cited in P. Herkenhoff et al., “A Tempo Lexicon,” Tempo, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, p. 14). The artist reflected upon the effects of hard manual labor by using the Polaroids to recreate these children—so joyous and distinct, from Valentina, the Fastest to Jacynthe, Loves Orange Juice— in the saccharine material that would come to transform them and even consume them. In Muniz’s hands, sugar becomes bittersweet. As is characteristic of his process, Muniz photographed the compositions, immortalizing them in the classic form of the gelatin silver print. The final grainy portraits visually pun on the dots that compose newspaper and magazine photographs, playing on the assumption that photographs in the media convey facts and subverting notions of visual truth.
The Sugar Children represent a defining moment in Vik Muniz’s artistic trajectory. In the early 1980s, inspired by the vacuum cleaner and basketball sculptures of Jeff Koons, Muniz took to a borrowed studio space and began making “his own objects, like a shiny shelf intended to gather dust, or a pre-Colombian drip coffee maker” (C. Kino, “Where Art Meets Trash and Transforms Life,” The New York Times, 21 October 2010, www.nytimes.com). Coming off of his first New York solo show in 1988, the artist began to expand his practice as he experimented with drawing and photography. It was in 1996 with The Sugar Children that Muniz formulated a mode to combine all of these cross-media talents into a single image; he photographed the children, drew their portraits illusionistically with sugar to create a hybrid object-drawing, and photographed the result, making the documentation of his creation his objective. Struck by The Sugar Children, the Museum of Modern Art selected the portraits for its prestigious 1997 “New Photography” roundup, and the photo series garnered the artist his first invitation to exhibit at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1998.
Today Vik Muniz is a celebrated artist internationally. The artist was the star of the Oscar-nominated film “Waste Land,” which documented his photographic portrait-making using trash—analogous to the unorthodox material used in The Sugar Children—in collaboration with garbage collectors in his native Brazil. Muniz has been honored with major solo exhibitions at the Moscow House of Photography, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art; the Museums of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the Whitney Museum of American Art; the International Center of Photography; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His work is featured in the public collections of such renowned institutions as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and The Tate Gallery in London. Challenging hard lines between visual fact and fiction, espousing visual rigor and social consciousness, The Sugar Children is one of the major works that garnered Muniz such acclaim.