Today’s article is not about art. It’s about possibility and the promise of the human mind to move things in the right direction, even in the worst of conditions. Here’s a quote that may shed light on a key aspect of our shared futures as we turn things around on our planet:
“The moment that one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment.”- Vik Muniz
Here at EverWideningCircles.com we often feature thought leaders who are improving our world by putting things together that no one ever thought to connect.
We’ve featured brain scientists who are using diapers to map the brain. We’ve pointed you to an amazing TED Talk by a fellow who found two amazing uses for rats in the service of humanity, solving two huge human problems (they will literally save hundreds of thousands of lives) and we’ve shown you the remarkable work of a successful man from the tech industry who is teaching the homeless to do computer coding.
And the list could go on.
In those pieces, I pose the question:
Are we missing the potential in all the things we consider untouchable?
Things like seaweed and sewage, bugs, household dust, and scrap iron might hold some remarkable promise.
As you may know, if you are a regular visitor here at EWC, you will find daily articles on everything under that sun: space, sports, animals, music, education, technology, etc. When we do bring you something from the world of The Arts, we love to feature artists on who find amazing connections with people by using materials we might never consider. (Have you seen our article about the woman who paints people in a pool of milk?)
Today’s innovator is that sort of creative genius.
Take a look at what Vic Muniz (artist) and Lucy Walker (film director) have done with one untouchable that our entire species has created for thousands of years – garbage – and the wastelands we create to store it.
This is absolutely amazing and inspiring!
After seeing something like this I always have two burning questions: How did this come to be? Where did the spark of this idea come from?
Here’s what the director of this film – Lucy Walker – has to say about this project: (There’s so much humanity in these few paragraphs that I had to share it with you.)
I have always been interested in garbage: What it says about us. What in there embarrasses us, and what we can’t bear to part with. Where it goes and how much of it there is. How it endures. What it might be like to work with it every day. I read about one woman’s crusade to show her appreciation for all the sanitation workers in New York by hugging each of them, and I applauded the sentiment … and yet … there had to be some other way for me to show my appreciation.
Then when I was a graduate film student at NYU, I started training with the NYU Triathlon Club. As we endured the most grueling 6 AM workouts imaginable, I bonded with fellow triathlete Robin Nagle, a brilliant professor who was teaching about garbage. Listening to Robin talk about her work was so fascinating that I began sitting in on her Ph.D seminar, and loved deepening my thinking about the sociology and implications and revelations and actuality of garbage.
So when Robin took her grad students to visit Fresh Kills, the landfill on Staten Island, I was curious and gate-crashed. These days it is best known as the resting place of the debris from the World Trade Center, but this was back in March 2000. It was a shocking place, with chain-link fences clad with teeming nightmare quantities of plastic bags making the nastiest noise imaginable, and pipes outgassing methane poking up at regular intervals through the exaggerated contours of the grassed-over giant mounds of garbage. It’s a parody of an idyllic hyper-landscaped city park, with garbage hills 225-feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty. We looked at the rats and seagulls and dogs, and at the palimpsests of layer upon layer of discarded possessions. And we tried to ignore the putrid smell.
I love great locations in movies, and I couldn’t believe I’d never seen a landfill on screen before. It was the most haunting place. And all of the garbage I’d ever generated living in New York City was in there somewhere. This was the graveyard of all my stuff, along with everyone else’s. I immediately knew that I wanted to make a movie in a garbage dump.
Cut to 2006, and I met producer Angus Aynsley and co-producer Peter Martin at BritDoc and again at the London Film Festival, and instantly liked them enormously and wanted to work with them. Talking about possible projects, Angus mentioned that he had met Vik Muniz and been impressed by his highly entertaining slideshow about art history. I had seen and loved Vik’s work, and I was hugely excited about the possibility of working with him. So I read some of Vik’s writing and set off with Angus and Peter to meet Vik in Newcastle, England when he had an opening at the Baltic in January 2007.
- Vic Muniz with his portrait done in chocolate called “His and Hers.”
When we met up again in Vik’s studio in New York two months later the conversation turned to garbage, and I suddenly thought about my trip to Fresh Kills seven years previous. That was the lightbulb moment. Vik had previously done a beautiful series using junk, and he had also done projects with street sweepings and dust. His creative use of materials is his signature — whether chocolate sauce, sugar, or condensation trails from planes — so this project would very much be an extension of his earlier work. After we’d started talking about it, no other ideas were interesting anymore. I knew that a collaboration between Vik and the catadores would be potentially very dramatic. Vik had previously done some brilliant social projects with street kids in São Paulo and had a wonderful ongoing project in Rio that employed kids from the favelas, and I was totally inspired by him.
A month later, Angus and I got exciting news that Fabio had found one landfill where the drug traffic was under control, and the catadores were being organized into a co-operative by a charismatic young leader who might be open to collaborating with Vik. We were all very nervous — there were so many things to be afraid of, from dengue fever to kidnapping — but we all wanted to go. We arrived in Rio de Janeiro in August 2007 — Vik, Angus, Peter, and me. Seeing the extremes of poverty and wealth so ostentatiously displayed through the car window … the contrasts of mountains and oceans, black and white, garbage and art, art stars and catadores … the contrasts couldn’t be more starkly drawn than in Rio de Janeiro, and I realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that we were tackling this particular topic in Rio. It was perfect.
For me this film, as with all of my work, is about getting to know people who you do not normally meet in your life. And, if I’m doing my job, I aim to create an opportunity for the audience to feel they are getting under the skin, to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. But you need people you can care about. And so when Valter first cycled into my line of sight, I knew for sure that we had a movie. That day I had gone on my first reconnaissance mission to the landfill and was dressed head-to-toe in protective layers fit for a moon landing. His bike was decorated so creatively with odd trinkets from the trash and he honked his eagle horn with such sweet wit that I was totally smitten.
I am Vik’s biggest fan. And this idea of “the human factor,” about scales in portraiture, and distances in getting to know people, is what the movie is about for me. I’m not sure anyone will notice this unless I tell them, but there are three references to ants in the movie: Vik says that when he is flying over Gramacho, the people look like “just little ants, doing what they do every day”; then Isis talks about the ant that she saw crawling over her dead son’s face; finally we see Vik playing with an ant with his paintbrush in the studio. That play of being so far away that people are just ants, with no “human factor” is the opposite experience of being so deeply connected to your son that you will never forget “not the tiniest detail, not a single single detail,” not even an ant on his face in a single moment. 2
Now, let’s have a look at the scale of things and how some of the art from the landfill was created:
First, the artists takes a photo…
Then on a grand scale, the garbage is carefully arranged and photographed from above…
Here’s another beautiful portrait of a mother who works in the dump, with her children. The garbage was carefully arranged on a large scale and photographed from above to create a portrait…
Here’s more of this mastery:
Here’s another interesting thing Vic Muniz like to experiment with: taking famous old master works and re-engineering them with found materials, like garbage:
Well, there you have it, folks!
What’s the next “big idea”?
I suspect it will be taking the things we’ve already have too much of and finding masterful ways to use them to improve our world.
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Meanwhile, stay open, curious and hopeful. (Tim certainly proves where that can lead us!)
~ Dr. Lynda