vik muniz: memory renderings - Williams College Museum of Art



vik muniz: memory renderings - Williams College Museum of Art
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Labeltalk 2009: Vik Muniz
Labeltalk is an innovative exhibition series that highlights the rich teaching
potential of art. Each exhibition presents artwork from the museum’s collection along with a publication that includes written responses by Williams
faculty from different disciplines, illustrating multiple perspectives on art.
Labeltalk 2009: Vik Muniz highlights a new acquisition: ten “Memory
Renderings” by Vik Muniz (Brazilian, born 1961) from his 1989– 2000
series, “The Best of Life.” Each Memory Rendering is a photograph of a
drawing that Muniz made from memory of a photograph printed in The
Best of “Life,” a book of iconic photographs that appeared in Life magazine
between 1936 and 1972. Muniz photographed his drawings in soft focus to
make them blurry and remove evidence of his hand. He also printed them
through a half tone screen to simulate the pixilated quality of photographs
published in a magazine — the format in which most people first
encountered the images.
The museum is grateful to the thirteen participating professors. These
professors represent different departments at Williams, including American
studies, art, astronomy, computer science, economics, English, history,
mathematics, psychology, religion, Russian, and theatre.
Labeltalk 2009 was organized by Elizabeth Gallerani, the Coordinator
of Mellon Academic Programs. It is the seventh in a series originally
created in 1995 with the support of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation. The project supports the museum’s mission to advance learning
through lively and innovative approaches to art.
—Lisa G. Corrin, Class of 1956 Director, Williams College Museum of Art
Memory Rendering, 3-D Screening
(from “The Best of Life ”), 1989–2000
All images:
gelatin silver print
Museum purchase, Wachenheim
Family Fund, M.2007.23.A-J
© Vik Muniz/Licensed by VAGA,
New York, NY
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y memories of these events, though also fuzzy, are clearer
than Vik Muniz’s photographs. Muniz’s ten images parallel my
entire life. When I was born, my father was in the army medical
corps, about to go overseas. The Iwo Jima victory marked a turning point in the war. I was a two-year-old baby in New York, a few
miles from the scene of the joyous Times Square kissing of 1945.
It marked the V-J day that kept my father from having to go to
Japan. John Lennon takes me back to college days and the Beatles’
“I want to hold your hand.” But then the world darkened on
November 22, 1963—when I was about to go off to the HarvardYale game with the girl whose hand I had succeeded in holding—
and when John Kennedy was killed. The Viet Nam shooting, the
napalmed girl, and Kent State shootings were of that era, and I
was still at Harvard, as a postdoc. I had seen a 3-D movie while at
Harvard, though the picture now reminds me of those solareclipse glasses that people wear, not understanding that they are
not for totality, when the solar corona appears to the naked eye in
all its glory. The moon landing, whose 40th anniversary is upon
us, takes me to the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, which I observed
as part of the New York City Moonwatch Team in 1957, and which
played a large part in where I am professionally today.
—Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy
Memory Rendering
of John John
A medium for media memories—Viewing life by
glancing away
Memory Rendering of John John (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
arms in a destroyed Vietnam.They have become images from our past.
These photographs of photo-esque drawings were created
solely from the artist’s memory.The fact that we marvel at how well
Quickly look at these iconic images of our twentieth-century
these images coincide with their original counterparts illustrates
collective history, then cast your eyes away from the art and take
that we too hold these images, and perhaps that is the point. There
a moment to reflect. See those images dance in your mind—they
is an eerie familiarity about the exhibition—a déjà vu that leads
are etched in your memory because we have seen them hundreds
us to wonder: Can the media plant personal memories within
of times before. They have become our memories.
us? Not many of us were near Greenwich Street on the morning
In our minds we see John John’s buttoned coat, the tilted
of September 11, 2001. But the visual memory we hold of that
pole in motion that unites flag and soldiers on Iwo Jima, the
inferno and its infamous aftermath is as real as any life moment
reflective stare of the mirrored-face astronaut, the sensuous curve
we personally lived. The media brought us there—and we are
of em-braced figures in the world’s most celebrated kiss, and the
unable to leave.
unimaginable image of a naked nameless child with outstretched
—Edward B. Burger, Professor of Mathematics
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eeing black-and-white uniforms and arched spines,
Eisenstaedt snapped his V-J Day photograph and created an icon.
Muniz’s perfect recollection of tones and pose over details testifies
to Eisenstaedt’s success. That photograph, and our collective
memory of it as represented by Muniz, are the only documentation
Memory Rendering,
Times Square
of the sailor because neither Eisenstaedt nor the nurse, Edith
Shain, remembers enough to identify him. Thirteen men claimed
to be the sailor, including George Mendonça, but as men and
memories aged we lost the ability to document the reality behind the experience...
...until 2005, when Drs. Moghaddam,
Pfister, and Lee scientifically analyzed
Mendonça’s claim. Using newly developed
computer graphics algorithms, they created
a digital cast of his face, reverse-aged it 40
years, and then rendered it into the original
moment. Experts at the Naval War College
then declared that George was the one.
Reverse-aging George back to 1945
demonstrates that technology can manipulate any photograph to deceive as well as to
reveal. It really happens. In a handful of
recent scandals, newspapers have been
caught retouching front-page images.
Photographs no longer document literal
truth. Yet the lack of truth need not be
deception. Muniz’s Memory Renderings
create a deeper documentation; he blurred
the details to enhance action rather than
detract. Eisenstaedt sought the action of
joy, Adams the action of hate (Saigon
Execution), and Armstrong the action of
triumph (Man on the Moon). What
remains is what matters: not the actors, but
the action, measured in tone and arch.
—Morgan McGuire
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Memory Rendering, Times Square (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
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Memory Rendering of John Lennon
Memory Rendering of John Lennon
(from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
ohn Lennon: I can’t help but wonder…
It’s hard for me to look at a picture of John Lennon during his
post-Beatles life without thinking about the night of his death.
Like many Americans, I was watching Monday Night Football,
and Howard Cosell interrupted the coverage of the game to
inform us that Lennon had been murdered. The phone started to
ring, “Have you heard?” This was before 24-hour news stations, so
I don’t recall any live coverage of the scene outside of the Dakota.
It was December, and I remember crying one night in the car in
the mall parking lot while doing my holiday shopping when
Lennon came on the radio, “So this is Christmas, what have you
done?” I look at this image of Lennon, wearing a New York City
T-shirt, looking a bit defiant or perhaps bored with another photo
shoot, and I can’t help but wonder what he’d be doing now, how
he would have responded to the events of September 11, 2001, in
his adopted city, his adopted country, and what he would be
saying and singing about the events that have come to pass. “War
is over, if you want it.” “Imagine all the people…”
“The Best of Life,” yet so full of death.
—K. Scott Wong, James Phinney Baxter III
Professor of History & Public Affairs
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bathed in red tones to match the sands of another planet? Will I
still be amazed like I was in the summer of 1969 in shades of
black, white, and gray? This future armor of possibility will then
be projected into the deep reaches of space. This life-sustaining
suit will also be, perhaps, poetic. Let us go forward into space
with new explorers, cameras, and pencils in suits of wonder for all
of our dreams. Again to stillness.
—Deborah A. Brothers
Costume Director, Designer, and Lecturer in Theatre
Memory Rendering
of Man on the Moon
eople used to wonder about the man in the moon. Then they
were awed by the man on the moon. Back in 1963, Buzz Aldrin’s
lunar walk seemed almost miraculous, but photographs proved
that it had actually happened. Of course, those pictures didn’t stop
at the facts…They also relocated and resized the viewer into a tiny
being on a pebble in a huge universe; in effect, those images recalibrated humanity. The photograph subsequently anthologized in
Memory Rendering of Man on the Moon (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
The Best of “Life,” the iconic proof of Aldrin’s stroll, is particularly
unsettling. It is a sneaky pretzel of a picture, turning back on itself
to show the photographer, Neil Armstrong, reflected in Aldrin’s
tillness. A suit of wonder: a second perhaps a third skin,
self-sufficient, contained, a womb of white. This suit is both a
visor. Looking at it, the viewer and the astronaut taking the picture
become one.The viewer begins to wonder—who am I? Where am
I and how did I get here?
miracle and a reality. To walk, breathe, take a picture—all on the
Now, in the 21st century, the moon is mundane. Movies rou-
airless surface of the moon. So few have been there; yet while we
tinely depict other planets in graphic detail, however imaginary.
stand here on Earth, we can imagine being up on the moon with
Can that time-bound original still mystify us? In Muniz’ rendition,
Neil Armstrong and his camera taking Buzz Aldrin’s picture.
it does. The astronaut’s visor does not mask a recognizable face;
There is Buzz in his contained suit of armor, alive in the stillness
it steadies a vaguely flickering human candle, a space-suit lantern
of a frozen shutter click and rendered there for us: how incredi-
of sorts. Moon rocks are replaced by the planes and shadows of
ble—so far from us in that special cocoon skin. Now I dream
somewhere else. Where exactly are we? Or maybe the real question
about the future. How will a new magic suit be conceived? How
is when are we? Muniz has salvaged a recognizable past but he
will this new second and third skin fit close as our own? How will
also seems to wander toward the future, just by standing still in
the scale of the helmet match the contours of our own skulls?
the here and now with his eyes wide open. Perhaps that is life in
How much sleeker and even more miraculous will it be? There
the moment, at its very best.
will hopefully be future travel to new worlds. Will the suit be
—Holly Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Art
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n John Filo’s original photograph, Mary Ann Vecchio, a
pallid, silent, ghost skull with dark apertures. He darkens the day.
teenage stray, is so unleashed in her helplessness that there is
He lifts Vecchio’s right arm. He straightens her left arm so that it
something primordial and maternal-divine in it. She absorbs and
elongates slightly forward rather than bends slightly back—it is
transmutes the historical moment—the murder of Vietnam-
thus aligned with the dead student. The revised gesture is formal
protestor Jeffrey Miller by the Ohio National Guard—by virtue
and distancing, almost worthy of Christ in Michelangelo’s Last
of her inadequacy to it. One especially recalls the wheeling arms.
Judgment. Muniz sacralizes Vecchio’s helpless spasm: She now
Turn away and one imagines eight arms—Vecchio is mother
dances a ritual of sympathy with the dead.
Kali—and each hand displays an aspect of her suffering: her
—John Limon, John J. Gibson Professor of English
horror, lamentation, ferocity, frenzy, desperation, and crazed
sorrow, her accusation and appeal.
Vik Muniz eliminates the dozen passers-by who overpopulate
Filo’s photograph—dogs prolonging their doggy lives. He reverses
the curb so that it encircles his two isolated figures. He diminishes
the volume of Vecchio’s frozen Munchian cry and draws her as a
Memory Rendering
of Kent State
Memory Rendering of Kent State (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
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Memory Rendering, Saigon Execution (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
e selectively remember what most intensely engages our
photograph of the Saigon execution, the Police Chief ’s arm is at
emotions. To understand selective memory, first discard the
a slightly higher angle, his finger not on the trigger. He seems to
notion that we actually remember what we literally “see” with our
be threatening the suspect, who holds his body away. In the
eyes. There are more neurons sending axons into primary visual
Muniz print, we “see” the action of shooting. The space between
cortex from “higher” brain processing areas than from the retina.
the gun and the head of the victim looks like smoke as the bullet
This massive “top-down” neural processing means that visual
exits the gun. The indented shape that seems to be where the
images are altered by feelings, memories, and expectations even
bullet entered his neck is really the fold of the victim’s collar.
when they are first stored, and certainly when they are recalled.
“Top-down” processing, with the prior knowledge that the victim
When comparing the originals with the prints, we see how
Muniz remembered key figures more than background details.
Faces are blurred, so we insert facial expressions. In the actual
was indeed shot, combined with the outrage of injustice and fear
of violence, can alter our retained mental image.
—Betty Zimmerberg, Professor of Psychology
Memory Rendering, Saigon Execution
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he image to which I keep returning from Vik Muniz’s
Memory Renderings is that of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the naked
girl photographed by Nick Út as she flees a napalm bomb
during the Vietnam War. Our lives describe two trajectories that
resemble but are removed from one another, just as Muniz’s
photograph resembles but is removed from Út’s photographic
negative. Born one year before me in the early 1960s, Phúc’s
childhood was destroyed by a war in which my father, then an
officer in the U.S. military, was eager to take part. Defecting
from communist Vietnam during college, she fled from behind
the iron curtain to begin her life again in Canada. In contrast, I
discovered life behind the iron curtain during college, becoming
a Russian major and eventually a Russian professor. I remember
seeing this image as a child and understanding neither the
circumstances that would make a little girl run into the streets
without her clothes nor her expression of intense fear and pain.
Although seeing Út’s original photograph triggered incomprehension in me as a child, looking at Muniz’s Memory Rendering
fills me with horror and compassion, making me painfully aware
of the distance between my childhood and that of the little
burned girl.
—Julie Cassiday, Chair of German/Russian
and Professor of Russian
Memory Rendering
of Vietnam
uniz dwells in the space between drawing and photo-
graph to use ambiguity and irony to destabilize the power of
images. His early advertising career led him to seek a vaccination
against the beguiling power of images, as he has said, making
“very subjective, transparent images more objective and opaque
by adding more interpretative layers.” “The Best of Life” series
explores the afterlife of images in memory, while mourning the
loss of the original copy that played such an important role in
Muniz’s immersion in American culture. The Memory Rendering
of Tiananmen Square doesn’t fit with the others because it is too
recent to have been a part of the book. Its abstractness, angle, and
absence of background all differ radically from the original. It
views that iconic moment on June 5, 1989 on Changan Avenue
in Beijing from an impossible perspective and in its verticality
makes the moment more threatening than heroic, signaling the
hopelessness of the unknown figure before the tanks. Why the
disjuncture? Does having lived through the event, or at least seen
it on film, provide another type of vaccination against the power
of image? Given memory’s dependence upon images, I am not
sure. Or might the absence of mourning provide liberation for
the imagination? I hope so.
—William Darrow, Chair of Religion and Lissack Professor for
Social Responsibility and Personal Ethics
Memory Rendering of Vietnam (napalm) (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
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he last century was American. How fitting that,
as the superpower collapses, we are asked to reflect on
Memory Renderings by a Brazilian artist whose early
perception about America was informed by The Best of
“Life” (the title itself an index of post-war confidence).
Becoming/being “American” is a process of internalizing a
dream montage of pop culture, news photos, and iconic
symbolism—Muniz’s “images within.” Fluff and napalm
mixed together.
Seeing these ten images, I am struck by how much of
the twentieth century was about American war but also its
twin, American “innocence.” Much of that militarism was
directed against Asians: three enemies in three wars; Japan,
the only country ever to be nuked; Japanese Americans,
the only U.S. citizens to be interned as a racial group.
Five images have obvious links to those wars, but so do the
others: John John saluting at the funeral of his father;
Armstrong’s shot of Aldrin (both Korean War vets) at the
height of Vietnam; and the well-dressed movie audience,
oblivious to the Korean War thousands of miles away.
The one anomaly is Tiananmen. The 1989 photo
comes almost two decades after the others and seems
untied to American might. But it too is linked—to a
country that was our enemy in two wars and our “friend”
in another, and whose postmodern modernizing, fueled by
centuries of humiliation by the West, may signal a new
world order.
—Dorothy Wang, Assistant Professor of American Studies
Memory Rendering of Tiananmen Square (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
anks and a lone man standing up to them—the iconic image
of the Tiananmen Square protests that rocked China in 1989.
Students and activists demonstrated for democratic reform and
were met by arrests and brutal violence. A single man facing the
tanks seemed to epitomize the hopes and the inevitable demise of
Memory Rendering
of Tiananmen Square
the protests.
Communist authoritarianism and economics were in retreat
around the world in 1989. China took a different path. Economic
growth took off while the Communist Party consolidated its
power. Industrial production boomed, construction exploded, and
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a consumption-loving middle class emerged. The Beijing
Olympics were an exclamation point to China’s economic surge.
Vik Muniz renders the image from 1989 but not exactly as
events happened. The original photo shows four tanks to the
right and only slightly above the lone protester. The action is
much closer to the viewer than in Muniz’s version. The protester
appears less heroic and the tanks less foreboding in the rendering
than the original photo.
Maybe Muniz’s memory brings out a hidden truth. In
emphasizing economic growth over democratic change, is China
hen I want to understand something I draw it. When I
want to remember something I photograph it. (I doubt this is an
original thought but I don’t know whom I’m quoting.)
I think it is important to credit the photographers who shot the
original photographs, which Muniz used to make this series.
Memory Rendering of John John
Stanley Stearns
(Incorrectly attributed to Joe O’Donnell in the
New York Times obituary for O’Donnell)
Interviews and opinion polls suggest that most Chinese care far
Memory Rendering of Iwo Jima
Joe Rosenthal
less about political reform than economic success. But will that
Memory Rendering of Kent State
willing to accept a faded, less threatening memory of Tiananmen?
always be the case for the millions of urban and rural Chinese
John Filo
who see few benefits from economic growth? Only time will tell
if their memories of 1989 will eventually sharpen…
—Steven Nafziger, Assistant Professor of Economics
Memory Rendering of Iwo Jima (from “The Best of Life”), 1989–2000
Memory Rendering, 3-D Screening
J.R. Eyerman
Memory Rendering of Man on the Moon
Neil Armstrong
Memory Rendering of John Lennon
Bob Gruen
Memory Rendering, Saigon Execution
Eddie Adams
Memory Rendering, Times Square
Alfred Eisenstaedt
Memory Rendering of Tiananmen Square
Stuart Franklin (Magnum)
Memory Rendering of Vietnam (napalm)
Nick Ut
—Aida Laleian, Professor of Art
Memory Rendering
of Iwo Jima
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J AN U ARY 17 – MAY 17, 20 09
Williams College Museum of Art
15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Suite 2
Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267-2566
Telephone 413-597-2429
Fax 413- 458 -9017

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