The Invisible Object
Vik Muniz was born in São Paulo in 1961, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. He arrived in Salvador on August 11, 1999, a day after he became a U.S. citizen, overlapping with Marepe, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. He worked with a group of twenty-four children and teenagers from Opaxé.
For Muniz, living in Salvador and working with the children was an incredibly intense experience. He had made work touching on children and childhood before. For example, The Sugar Children (1996) is a series of gelatin-silver prints of his drawings of photographs of six children of workers on a sugar cane plantation on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and the series Aftermath (1998) features images of Brazilian street children. But he was especially moved by the courage that he witnessed in the children at Projeto Axé, particularly their ability to create a rich and vibrant culture out of struggle. "The poor black people here," he has remarked, "are the cultivated people, the intelligentsia. They are the ones who own Brazilian culture, which you see in the way people walk and talk. It is the skin of these children. The culture that they—the oppressed and abandoned, people who have less than what they need to live—developed is one of the most beautiful cultures in the world."
Muniz identified strongly with these children because they spoke the same language and because he himself grew up in a poor family: "I see myself as a child every time I come to Brazil. When I arrived in Salvador, I tried to think first about how the child inside of me is feeling, and I remembered not having things that I would see in stores or on television. I would tell my mother that I had to have certain things, and she would say that I couldn't. I suffered so much because of that. One of the things I did to ease the pain was to draw things I wanted and to make objects based on the drawings. Sometimes I destroyed the objects. It was like exorcism."
This memory inspired his project, whose title refers to a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) entitled Hands Holding the Void (The Void) (1934). In this sculpture, a figure formally influenced by Giacometti's study of African sculpture holds her hands in front of her breasts as if she were holding an object, which is invisible. Muniz made connections between this gesture, his memories of his own relationship to objects that he could not have as a child, and his wish to empower the children as the creators and arbiters of their own desires. The Invisible Object developed as a movingly poetic project about the relationship between visualization and vision, the physical and the imaginary, and the creative process and the power of dreams.
After talking with the children about what it meant to be a contemporary artist and about his own work, Muniz asked them to make drawings of their desires, which they then fabricated. He then asked the children to make the objects invisible by hiding them in black velvet bags, which they put together in a collective sculpture. "By putting the objects away," he has remarked, "the children would be the creators of their desires, and the ones who controlled it. That kind of empowerment is very rare for them. It's a pleasurable feeling of power. I told them that people will make you want things, and you can make these things into symbols and do whatever you want to them and take them out of your system." In order to underscore the symbolic importance of their actions, they put the objects into the bags during a special ceremony.
Muniz found the experience of working with the children transformative. "When you ask a child what the object of his desire is, and he says boxes in which he can hide food or a cardboard box he can use to sleep in the streets, you cannot help but to be moved. You see in comparison to the problems they face, yours are nothing. This realization helps you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and to start figuring out who you are."