Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Museum

I got a hold of a documentary called "Waste Land" that was supposed to be good and socially relevant and blah, blah, blah. Vik Muniz grew up a very lower middle class child in Brazil only to work his way out to New York as a successful artist. Once someone like that can buy all the things he can buy his life loses direction and suddenly he wants to "give back". That's a real red flag for me. I've seen socialized guilt scrubbing too many times not to be suspicious.

In terms of volume, Jardim Gramacho in Rio De Janeiro receives more garbage than any other place in the world. Vik decided he wanted to paint portraits of the catadores (garbage pickers). These unfortunate souls pick through tons of waste to find recyclable material they then sell on to make a living. They are not employees but rather scavengers living at the mercy of guards and the re-sellers. Vik wanted to see how art may change their lives.

Well, fuck, you can make a million portraits of fast food workers and nothing will change for the better. Like I said, it's social guilt scrubbing by those who feel they cannot turn on the system that has finally made them comfortable. To those who've never been in need I'm sure this sounds highly nuanced and probably imagined. But it's very real and at the very core of our societal existence. "How would art change their lives?" Give me a break!

Scavenging has never appealed to me but I understand the appeal to those for whom it works. Our man Vik had a bit of trepidation heading to the landfill for many reasons - not the least of which was sanitary. His other very justifiable concern was the reaction he might receive as an outsider heading into a community of souls who'd been pushed outside of the normal bounds of society. Not too hard to imagine a hostile reception.

But his concerns turned out to be unjustified. As often happens in times of great distress, people pull together with the forced reality of knowing they sink or swim as one. There was laughter amid the shame just as there was treasure in the trash. To the outside world their stories could sound incredibly horrific, especially when a young girl told of puking when she came across a dead baby. But when she was telling it one only sees her humanity and not the horror.

Vik made his trip with an open mind and in so doing scrapped his original idea for painted portraits and instead wanted to incorporate the recyclables into photographic prints of the catadores. And that is where things got interesting.

Working in a large studio, the recyclables and dirt were arranged on a giant floor canvass with a camera overhead. The arrangement was a huge undertaking and the catadores whose portraits were being made came in to help, making these self-portraits to a degree (all proceeds went to the catadores' community as well as film award money from the film). And in this one simple magical act, lives were changed - changed forever and ever.

Spending time in an artist's studio, feeling the joy of creation, finding meaning in life was both beautiful and tragic for the participating catadores. "I don't want to go back," says one with tears in her eyes. Having tasted sour milk all your life, one more sip doesn't matter. But once having tasted sweet milk it makes going back to the sour brew twice as bitter. They'd had a taste of life and like anyone wanted more. They work among trash but they no longer considered themselves trash.

One woman explained she'd been hiding her landfill work for years from her family. After working with Vik on her portrait she told them all the truth. "The shame was gone." Taio, the shy leader of his self-made catadore's co-op, was nearly in tears at the beginning of the (three year) film telling how he'd struggled against constant naysayers telling him that organizing the catadores was a waste of time and nothing would change. "But I refused to listen and instead believed in myself," he explained with his head not looking directly at the camera.

A huge story in this film is the blossoming of Taio. An avid book reader of tomes he finds in the trash, he was sparked by a bathtub he found to recreate David's famous "The Death Of Marat", which I thought was both brilliant and hilarious. But the question hanging over everyone in this new found euphoria was how much life should be shared to the catadores, how much "mind fucking" was prudent by Vik and his producers? In this is a very real danger.

It's an old trick by the-powers-that-be that when someone protests against you, give the leader a taste of the apple. Longer you live the good life the harder it is to go back. Then with a simple threat of yanking that apple back you can get that bribed soul to do pretty much anything you want, a lifestyle addiction so to speak. Though completely inadvertent and unplanned, Vik was in danger of making life impossible to continue as is for the catadores involved with him.

The seven portraits once finished were scheduled to be auctioned in London. Vik decided there was no turning back and brought Taio along to witness the auction firsthand. His Marat imitation sold for $50,000. Afterwards, backstage, he was bawling helplessly, dreams beyond his wildest imagination having come true (be prepared to cry watching this). The transformative effect on the others was equally beautiful.

Their human dignity they could no longer hide. When the prints were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art each the of the participants was on hand shining like the sun as they were interviewed by the press. Later, you could see the light in their eyes telling of the changes in their lives, no longer settling for things they did not want. Taio, now wholly self-confident with interviews lined up one after the other, spoke of his new fear of needing to "keep my ego in check."

So, can art make a difference and change lives? You're goddam right it can! With the hundreds of thousands raised, a truck, a library, a learning center and other capital needs were met. But more importantly was a community finding itself and gaining self-respect. From a simple idea and a seemingly naive question sprouted a volcano of change no one ever imagined. There's certainly something to be learned here.

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