Art Doc of the Week: Vik Muniz’s Transformative ‘Waste Land’

Tiao at Jardim Gramacho Waste Land Vik Muniz

Early in director Lucy Walker’s documentary Waste Land, the camera zooms in for a close-up on a small card on the wall next to a work by visual artist Vik Muniz. The card informs both gallery patron and film viewer that:

“Vik Muniz incorporates everyday objects into his photographic practice to create witty, bold, and often deceiving images. Often working in series, the New York-based artist makes pictures from unlikely materials including dirt, diamonds, sugar, wire, string, chocolate syrup, peanut butter, and pigment.”

Boilerplate art world language, the statement pulls double duty. It offers basic information on the artist’s practice while stealthily building his “brand” by underscoring the nuts and bolts behind the social commentary aspect to his work – reminding us, in fact, that the nuts and bolts are a huge component of the social (and political) commentary.

Marat Sebastiao Waste LandThe film’s raison d’être is to capture the globally celebrated Muniz when he returns to his native Brazil to create works to illustrate the grim working conditions and complex private lives of the people who pick through garbage to reclaim recyclables. Waste Land follows Muniz from his studio in Brooklyn to the staggering Jardim Gramacho (Gramacho Gardens,) not only the largest landfill in Rio de Janiero, but the largest in the world. There, catadores (self-designated men, women, and children) pluck recyclables from mountains of garbage for roughly twenty US dollars a day. It’s long, hard, and often harrowing work (one woman speaks of vomiting after coming across the body of a dead baby) but the workers – at least the ones Muniz picks out as subjects for his project – are resilient, hard working, inspiring figures. They’re inarguably good subjects for the massive project at hand, for which they’ll also be enlisted as co-creators. Some of their stories are gut-wrenching, but almost to a person they’re unwaveringly noble and upstanding.

And that’s where the film stumbles a bit. It’s not that the people Muniz chooses aren’t captivating in their own right, and worthy of having their stories told, but the film itself slips a bit into the kind of romanticizing of the poor and their struggles that is a hallmark of a lot of American documentary filmmaking.  It’s as though showing how ignoble struggle can make some people, how brutal of spirit if not action they might become, somehow weakens the argument that they and their tribulations are just as worthy of consideration as one of the “good” poors. Part of that weakness in the film can be attributed to who Muniz (understandably) chose to work with; part can be attributed to the way Walker shapes individual and collective narratives. The film might have been strengthened a bit as agitprop (which is what it is) had hard data been inserted to flesh out Muniz’s frustration with the classism of Brazil. And the fact that so many of those struggling were clearly of Afro-Brazilian heritage (which again goes uncommented on in the film) is not mere coincidence.

Related: Photography: Up Close With New York’s Homeless Youth

Still you can’t help but be caught up in the emotions stoked as the subjects are brought in to actually help Muniz create huge images of themselves. He starts with a photograph (the subjects are staged in poses lifted from canonical paintings), blows the image up to a massive scale, and then uses materials scavenged from the landfill to “color in” the image. That artifact is then photographed from a height of several floors up, and a final print is made of that. The point of the whole exercise is to spark a conversation about image and materials, materials and ideas, and then to push the conversation into one about how perspective shifts according to your distance from a subject (be that subject a political idea or a human being). Seeing the final photo up close is jarring when you realize what it is really made of.

Before its admittedly moving, rousing final fifteen minutes or so, when wheels are put into motion to forever change the lives of some of Muniz’s subjects, the film is at its best when it simply captures ordinary human moments of the Brazilians in its frame – a man breaking into tears of frustration after he and his co-workers are robbed of their meager wages; a woman painfully recounting the death of her toddler son and the dissolution of her marriage. Those are the moments that charge the film’s bittersweet ending, and really illustrate how and why art is such a powerful, even necessary element in all our lives.


Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New YorkTimes, the Village VoiceVibeRolling StoneLA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.