Vik Muniz is an internationally-acclaimed artist best known for his playful recreations of famous masterpieces using quotidian materials–the peanut butter and jelly Mona Lisa, for example. But coming from a lower class background in Brazil, Muniz is now developing an interest in breaking out of art world gags and doing something more global, more socially significant. And so he hits on the idea of working with garbage pickers at one of the world’s largest landfills, using them and their materials to make giant, stunningly beautiful, emotionally and intellectually evocative portraits. The conditions are potentially toxic, the people reputedly treacherous. Will the project be impossible, Muniz asks? “It is more impossible to think that we can’t help these people.”
Wasteland follows Muniz on this daring project. Arriving at the landfill, Muniz discovers that the workers are welcoming, engaging, bright people. One man has opened a library using the discarded books he’s found, while another has started a union for the pickers. They are also not just scavengers: they run a sophisticated recycling system, doing more for the environment than the mix of millionaires and paupers whose garbage they sift through. In a shining lesson, a wise old man imparts the necessity of recycling each and every possible item, valuing everything, “because 99 is not 100.” There is always more you can do; there is always a unique individual who can do something special in this world.
As the pickers help Muniz create portraits of themselves, they become invested in the project, their eyes opened to new ideas, new possibilities. It is then that Muniz and his artistic crew realize the fallacy of their initial assumptions, that though these people were living in squalor, they were somehow happy. In fact, they made do, but they would do anything to leave the landfill. And so as the project comes to a close, the question rises, how can Muniz bare to leave? What will he have done to them, by revealing options but not offering opportunities? It’s a meaningful question for many artists and filmmakers, and Muniz and Walker handle it deftly, creating a series of uplifting and genuinely helpful works of art. With Muniz based in Brooklyn, and our fair share of squalor and scraps, it would be inspiring if we could recreate a little bit of this wonderful project at Rooftop this summer.