Vik Muniz wants people to look at his work and be confused.
But only for a moment.
The photographer creates “bad” illusions with his drawings and images because he likes to see when bewilderment changes to understanding. A smile often follows, too.
“There’s this double-take; it’s not what you thought it was,” Muniz said in a 2016 interview. “It’s quite effective in creating a lasting impression … this is the kind of interaction I want my art to have with the viewer.”
Plan for plenty of epiphanies with the opening of “Vik Muniz: Photography and the Rebirth of Wonder” at the Chrysler Museum of Art today. The exhibition, which includes more than 100 photographs, runs through mid-October.
Muniz is known for taking everyday objects – trash, chocolate, tomato sauce, sugar, string – and creating wondrous pieces of art.
Crafting visual puns is his signature, and the pieces are meant to be comical or convey a political or social message.
Muniz was born in 1961 in Brazil and has said that growing up under a military dictatorship gave him an appreciation for hidden meanings.
“People learned to communicate in a very specific way,” he said in a popular Ted Talk. “You couldn’t say what you really wanted to say.”
Years later, as he worked in advertising, he designed pieces that twisted the idea behind popular terms and objects.
For example, he made an indigenous-looking statue that appeared that it could’ve been found in an ancient South American dig. He put a coffee filter on its top, filled it with coffee, and called it a pre-Columbian coffee maker.
A half of a tombstone he made was a tombstone for someone who hadn’t died yet.
One of his more recent projects is creating sandcastles – etching castles on grains of sand with a device typically used for fixing integrated circuits on microchip. The pieces were then photographed through a microscope and printed at a large scale, like most of his pieces.
Two of the images are on display.
Seth Feman, Chrysler’s curator of photography and exhibitions, has long been a fan of Muniz, and is elated that some of Muniz’s most famous works will be in Norfolk.
In 1996, Muniz visited the island of St. Kitts and befriended several of the families working on sugar plantations.
He was captivated by the vitality of the young children, which was in stark contrast to their worn, downtrodden parents and elders, who worked long hours in the field.
Muniz took photos of the smiling children and re-created their portraits in sugar. He designed his own sifters to apply heavier amounts of sugar in some areas and used a small battery-operated vacuum to clear other spots. Then he fingerpainted the braids and smiles with his dampened finger dipped in sugar.
The series is called the “Sugar Children.”
“Not only is it representative but the material itself has a luminous quality,” Feman said. “It relates to the material, but also to a bigger theme.”
Muniz also enjoys playing with scale in his work.
In two series, “Pictures of Junk,” and “Pictures of Garbage,” he recreates historical masterpieces out of trash. Muniz has said that he imitates the classics because they are familiar to a lot of people. He then adds his own twist and message.
“Pictures of Garbage,” accompanies his 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, “Waste Land.”
He spent more than three years in one of the world’s largest landfills outside of Rio de Janeiro. He photographed the “catadores,” the people who struggle to survive by find recyclables in the trash.
He took photos of several of the workers and posed them as elegant figures in famous works such as “The Death of Marat,” a 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David.
Muniz then used items from the landfill – discarded tires, toilet seats, rags – to create shadows and highlights in the images. The men and women look regal among the rubbish.
He sold the photographs for more than $250,000, and much of the money went to the catadores union to build a library and to retrain the workers when the landfill closed in 2012.
In the images, a tire, bolt or nut might appear bigger than the man’s eye in the photograph. That is one of Muniz’s tricks, Feman said, to get the viewer to look closer and study the piece.
Feman said: “There’s a real delight in figuring it out.”