Vik Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage and the Aesthetics of Poverty

This essay focuses on Brazilian–American artist Vik Muniz’s 2008 Pictures of Garbage and the pendant 2010 documentary on their making, Waste Land, directed by Lucy Walker. Muniz enlists a group of Brazilian garbage pickers as subjects and participants in the construction of their own portraits, using garbage picked from a landfill outside of Rio de Janeiro. The use of garbage as a material draws attention to global patterns of exploitation that produce both the waste itself and the poverty of the garbage pickers. However, this essay argues that Muniz’s social aims are undermined by formal incoherences within the portraits and their subsequent recommodification on the global art market. Using Michael Fried’s theories, the essay identifies a tension in Pictures of Garbage between the theatricality of the subjects’ poses, drawn from canonical European paintings, and the absorptive qualities of the garbage itself. This dissonance reflects Muniz’s own split position as a cosmopolitan global artist compelled to represent Brazilian identity through associations with base materiality.

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