(Vik Muniz, from the series Pictures of Garbage, 2008)
Bogged down by the powerful sentiment that dominates it, Waste Land, which I saw the other night on Netflix, is two things. It’s a film about art and it’s a film about the lives of people who work sorting out recyclable goods at Jardim Gramacho, what was once the largest open-air dump and landfill in Rio de Jinero. What stands out in Waste Land is just how ordinary the people are whose lives are caught up by the brutal realities of poverty and circumstance determined by unequal social structures. The film tells their story and the story of Brazilian born, New York based photographer Vik Muniz who employed a group of workers from the site to participate in his series, the badly named Pictures of Garbage, both as subjects and as co-creators.
Born in the slums of Sao Paolo, Muniz is by now famous for making photographic send-ups of masterpieces in the western art tradition. He photographs these works and then overlays the image with common materials, with sugar, or dust, or syrup, which he then goes on to re-shoot to complete the final image. In this case, his “sitters” re-enact classic art scenes, the image of which was then projected on a large studio floor. The artist, his crew, and the co-creators proceed painstakingly to frame and to overlay these images with recycled goods (not garbage) salvaged by the participants from the dump. Everyone involved in the project was paid for time and labor and received shares from the final proceeds of the sales.
The formal point made by Muniz in the film has to do with perception and with images, with how images are hybrid combinations composed of a material base and a more immaterial idea. In the film, he explains how he starts with the material and only then “goes after” the image; which is an interesting figure of speech. Also in the film, Muniz explains how the closer you look into the image, the more the image disappears into material, while moving back allows the image-idea to emerge. He calls the “magical” moment of that passage from material into image “the most beautiful.” (Muniz talks about this around minutes 7:00 and 55:43 of the film.)
The exploitation of people is a problem raised by this film. It is a problem that is always going to be the problem with political art. About art and political transformation, the film is very much aware of the uncomfortable fact that a famous artist “saves” a small group of participants from hard toil, only to return them to that life after the completion of the project. Of course it’s not that simple, because in the end, the lives of the participants do seem, in fact, to have changed for the better. Some of the participants use the money to move on, to build a nicer home, to set up a small business, to stabilize their personal lives; and some decide to stay at Jardim Gramacho because of close ties to friends and fellow-workers. Say what you want about the exploitation of people by a blue-chip artist, but at the end of the day, it was a job, just a job, no more and no less, and a pretty good one for which participants were paid; on top of that, Muniz seeded a lot of money, about a quarter of a million dollars, from the proceeds of the sales back to grassroots, non-profit community organizations.
The idea behind this film is perhaps too big. It speaks to that aspect of perception, how a different point of view or changed perspective by which political actors can create new possibilities. It’s not that Muniz saved anyone; art is not redemption.. When first filmed working at the site, all of the workers stand out as ordinary people forced by circumstance to work an awful job at an awful place at the bottom of the social heap. The opportunity afforded by this project merely opens up for a select group another set of possibilities, which are realized more or less.
My first response was to find this all incredibly moving, but that first response needs to be checked, which I don’t think the film manages to do. But what more can one say, and what more can one do? Apart from registering affect whose long term effects are impossible to gauge, the immediate and practical change that art can effect is piecemeal, not systemic. The rich eat the poor who pick through their trash. From these material conditions art can only step back in order to form this or that image. What remains then is the art. Aesthetically, can it stand on its own according to the formal values that define art as art? Politically, does it jibe with inequality and injustice that mark our lived human environments? Ethically, can it speak to the beauty of a human person or to the dignity of labor, and the value of a human life? I’m not sure that political art can do much more than this. Certainly that is the most that bourgeois political art can do.