Sunday, April 17, 2011

Art Month on Independent Lens: Waste Land

Brooklyn-based Vik Muniz takes understandable pride in his status as Brazil’s most collectable contemporary artist. Whatever captures his interest will eventually become a topic of conversation in the gallery world. When Muniz turned to Rio’s Jardim Gramacho landfill (the largest in the world) for inspiration, it also commanded the attention of filmmaker Lucy Walker, who documented the project in her Academy Award nominated Waste Land (trailer here), which airs next week as part of a month of art-related documentaries programmed by PBS’s Independent Lens.

Like Egypt’s Zaballeen, Rio has a small marginalized class of garbage “pickers” who eke out a living salvaging recyclables from the landfill. Needless to say, this takes a toll on their self-esteem and social standing. It is these lumpenproletariats Muniz sought to directly involve in his project.

After a few days of taking in Jardim Gramacho’s festering spectacle, Muniz started choosing his subject-helpers and raw recycled materials. After photographing a number of pickers, both at work and in his studio, Muniz projected giant outlines of their portraits on the floor of his studio, which the pickers used as an outline to fill in with the objects from the landfill. The resulting mosaics were then photographed and printed, so Muniz could whisk them away to an auction in London (the proceeds from which went to the pickers’ start-up mutual aid society).

To its credit, Waste does not duck the issues raised by Muniz’s grand scheme. Several within Muniz’s inner circle directly question the wisdom of temporarily employing the pickers and possibly even taking them to London for the auction, only to dump them back at Jardim Gramacho once the project had run its course. Also, given the extent of the pickers’ hands-on involvement, one might also debate how appropriate it is to attribute the pieces to Muniz. However, unlike a Jeff Coons, in addition to directing the process from above, Muniz shot the original photos (often conceived as pastiches to famous paintings, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat) and he can also be seen adding graphite shadings, for what might be deemed the artistic touch.

People are not recyclable. Walker seems to get this. Though she clearly embraces the environmental implications of Muniz’s work, she never fetishizes the pickers’ way of life simply because they recycle, unlike Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander’s highly problematic documentary portrait of the Zaballeen. Indeed, Walker and Muniz both seem to understand it would highly desirable if the Jardim Gramacho workers could find cleaner, less wearying employment elsewhere.

Wisely, Walker keeps the human element front-and-center in Waste. However, Moby’s electro-ambient soundtrack sounds oddly sterile for a film about garbage and conveys no sense of the Brazilian favelas where the pickers live. Despite its environmental preoccupations, Waste is a reasonably interesting behind-the-scenes look at a large-scale contemporary art project. Viewers can watch the Oscar nominee on free TV this coming Tuesday (4/19) as part of the current season of Independent Lens.