Artist Vik Muniz opens up about his signature style, collaborating with kids and why art is a powerful tool for social change.Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Vik Muniz is a visual artist who lives and works in New York City. Inspired by the worldwide response to Paper Cranes for Japan—in which young people mailed over two million cranes from 38 countries after the Sendai earthquake—Vik and his team set to work in his Brooklyn studio. With the help of New York City school children, Vik and his studio are creating a massive visual piece that represents the outpouring of cranes and wishes from young crane-makers worldwide. The creation will be captured in his signature photographic style and become a poster to help the effort and raise more money for reconstruction in Japan.
How would you describe your art?
Most of my work consists in making drawings and representations out of very strange things. It can be chocolate, sugar, diamonds, garbage… It can be as big as a soccer football field and as small as the head of a pin. I make these representations and then I photograph them either from a helicopter or from a microscope. But normally they’re just drawings and the final result is always a photograph.
What drew you to the Paper Cranes for Japan project?
Art is a very powerful tool for social change. People really don’t know that until they start to get practically involved with it. I’ve done projects in several countries, especially in my native Brazil, with homeless children, with garbage pickers, people who have never had any interaction with art whatsoever. They’ve never been to a museum, they’ve never been to a gallery, they’ve never opened an art book… If you expose people who [are] completely outside the realm of fine arts to an experience that’s artistic, it transforms—changes the way they see things and it changes the way they see themselves. Normally when I do that, I try to donate the proceeds of the sale of the pictures so it has an economic counterpart to this too.
What is it like to share the process of creating art with kids?
You know, sometimes people ask me when did I become an artist. When did I start thinking of becoming an artist? I don’t remember when I became an artist, but I remember when everyone else stopped being one. …Kids are genuinely, instinctively creative. And they are very capable of making choices and they work in a very abstract way. Having that kind of input into a work of art is intense. It makes it a little more multifaceted.
The kids you’re working with feel they’re a part of something larger. And that is a big piece of your work as an artist. Can you speak to that element?
Every time I’m working on a piece I’m thinking that it is supposed to do some good. I’m thinking of how that’s going to change somebody’s perspective on a certain subject or it’s going to transform the way in which people will see something—in a positive way, normally. …Every single drawing, every single representation, it’s a little trick; it’s a little piece of magic in itself. But when that magic can be used to actually create larger structures, you can use that to transform other things, like the lives of people. Or to build schools in this case in Japan. To actually assist society in times of crisis. Or try to correct certain social inequalities. Once you realize that the power of what you do actually can transform what initially is an image into something that is tangible—that you can eat, that you can build with—then you start really understanding the scope of my occupation as an artist.
Can you share more about the idea of transformation through art-making?
You know, we talk about alchemy, the possibility of transforming something into something else like metals into gold. And this is what we do. We make a little drawing we evoke anything we want into that image. It is magical and it’s an important thing. And when you do projects like this, when you actually are transforming these little drawings into something solid, tangible and good, you are reenacting this very powerful ritual that art can bring upon society. It’s the power of transformation and transformation is the stuff of art. …Everybody feels art. There’s a lot of confusion that art is something that should be understood. I think art is something that should be felt and lived.
These thousands and thousands of cranes came from kids all over the world, made out of fine paper, origami paper, out of math homework and vocab lessons. What is your message to those young crane-makers?
You cannot make art without good materials. And the definition of a good material is that it’s compatible with the kind of picture you want to make. A good material doesn’t have to be good paper or good ink, it can be diamonds, it can be thread, it can be garbage, you know? As long as it tells a good story. In this case, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of things that were made, one by one, by children all over the world. …It’s a marvelous thing. And the sheer quantity, the amount of these things! And when you look at it and you see that it’s such a huge amount of good intentions. I want to thank every one of the kids who made these cranes for the project, because they generated these heaps of beautiful, beautiful surface, beautiful texture that we can make a huge crane that represents the crane that’s behind the essence of this project.