Collecting Material

Ever since we formed the Material Collective, I’ve been thinking about the intersections between collecting, collections, and collectives. Groupings of objects and people seem to have an awful lot in common, and I’m kind of fascinated by multiples in a lot of different ways. Maybe it’s the only child in me, always wondering what it must be like to enter the world with the constant companionship of a sibling. So many of my childhood companions were things rather than beings, but I didn’t feel any lack as a result. I was perfectly content to play a round of poker with my dollies—and I didn’t even win every hand.

But the question of how collections and collectives function with regard to the visual arts is obviously a much more complex one, and I’ve only begun to fathom what I want to say about the subject. I’m going to try to formulate some initial thoughts here, by sharing my experience of the incredible 2010 documentary Wasteland ( and I hope that you’ll pass it on, re-blog it, talk about it in your classes and with your friends, because, truly, it’s worth sharing.

The movie is about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s work with the catadores, the “pickers” who once lived and worked in the world’s largest garbage dump outside of Rio de Janeiro. Jardim Gramacho was an open-air landfill built in the 1970s. It was closed in 2012 because of environmental concerns about the contamination of Guanabara Bay, and it is slated to be replaced by a methane recapture plant. Sounds great, right? We’re cleaning up the environment—not to mention the city that will host the Olympics in 2016. But there’s a catch. What about the catadores?

For generations now, they have been picking through the trash at Jardim Gramacho, sorting out recyclables to make their living. (Those of us who live in urban environments, are familiar with the phenomenon on a much smaller scale—at least in Brooklyn, it’s very common to see someone with a shopping cart, working his or her way up and down the block to pick out recyclables, which they turn in for cash). It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, by any means, but it has kept the catadores from starving and offered them the dignity of doing genuinely good work. During the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, when much of the world was only just beginning to institute real recycling programs, they served an essential social and environmental purpose. They recycled out of necessity when most of the rest of us were too self-involved to do it for ourselves.

And they took pride in their work. They formed a union (often referred to in the media as a “collective” or a “cooperative”), the ACAMJG (Associação dos Catadores do Aterro Metropolitando de Jardim Gamacho, or Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gamacho), which became part of a national movement. That national movement then spawned a global alliance, which you can read more about here. Presumably, such national and international action wouldn’t have been possible without the exposure the catadores received through the Academy-Award-nominated movie, and new media outlets like the Internet. After the closure of Jardim Gamacho, the pickers were supposed to receive lump sum payments and the opportunity for job placement, but registration problems and long lines caused many of them to give up.

Ok, ok, you’re thinking. That’s all pretty interesting, but what about the art?

Although he began his career as a sculptor in the late 1980s, Vik Muniz found his groove in works that use surprising materials to render images that are often familiar. He has riffed on many art historical icons, such as Da Vinci’s Last Supper in chocolate syrup:


Or the Mona Lisa in PB & J:


His glorious portraits of the catadores look like this:


What you’re looking at is a photographic reproduction of a collection of things, a collector of things, and a collector of people, all in one incredible recreation of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting, The Death of Marat (1793).

Muniz’s photo is an image of Tiaõ (Sebastiao Carlos Dos Santos), the young catadore who served as the energetic president of the ACAMJG at the time the film was made. Tiaõ has worked as a picker since he was 11 years old, and he was inspired to organize his co-workers when he read political texts that he found in the landfill. After years of collecting recyclable things, Tiaõ shifted his focus and began to bring people together, forming the union that changed the way many of the catadores felt about themselves and their vocation.

Muniz took his picture, posing him to resemble the murdered French revolutionary, and granting the young man the dignity he deserves. Here’s the before and after:


But the final image that you see at the right is not simply a picture of Tiaõ slumped over the edge of a bathtub. Muniz has recreated his contours with fragments of dust and other matter, sketching the human form out of rocks and bits of debris taken from the trash heap itself. In fact, all of the color and texture that surrounds the main figure is a collection of garbage, which Muniz arranged on the floor of a vast warehouse—around his “drawing” of Tiaõ—and then re-photographed to create the final work. By gathering all these things together, Muniz captures both the young organizer’s radical spirit and his tragic circumstances. The image’s link with David’s famous painting asks viewers to take Tiaõ seriously as a political figure, and the ensemble is definitely more than a sum of its parts.

What interests me the most about these photographs is the transformations that are made possible when things come together. By itself, each object in the image is a discarded, used-up piece of rubbish. By himself, Tiaõ is just another nameless, faceless, member of the Brazilian working poor. But when they come together—the materials that Tiaõ collects and the people that he gathers around him—something magical happens. In that moment of encounter, there’s a comingling of atoms, voices, vibrations and scents. Invisible transactions occur, and matter—both living and inert—is forever altered.

In many ways, the process of Muniz’s work is nearly as important as the final results. Here’s a shot of one of his catadore portraits in progress:


That’s Magna (Magna de França Santos), whose photo depicts her as a strong, proud, and hopeful figure. Magna came to be a catadore after her husband lost his job and she made a choice not to work as a prostitute. Here’s her before and after:


In the original photograph, her radiant face is surrounded by plain cloth; in Muniz’s collage, that drapery comes alive with the objects from her collection. Her humanity is so much more palpable in the midst of all that other stuff.

For me, Vik Muniz offers a model of what the Material Collective should strive to be. He transforms the stuff of life—even the dirty, messy, seemingly banal substances—into beautiful and moving things. Those things have real impact. They can affect honest and measurable change in the world. They have inspired many of the catadores to look beyond their circumstances, and I hope that they have also aroused distant viewers—like us—to look beyond our surroundings and work towards a universe that we would be proud to inhabit.

More than anything else, I feel a kinship with Muniz. His expression of the pickers’ pride, intelligence, strength, and beauty makes me feel guilt, powerlessness, and inspiration all at once. And, truthfully, isn’t that the perfect combination? Just enough guilt to make you feel ashamed of the accident of your birth, the cost of your education, and the overall cushiness of your life. Precisely the right amount of powerlessness: you have no hope of ever affecting real change for these particular people (especially at your age!), but still you want to rail against that ineffectuality and make some kind of difference in your own arena. And, just a dash of hope, enough to urge you on, force you up off the couch to DO SOMETHING.

So I’m writing this to ask you to pass it on, blog about it, bring it up in your classes. If Muniz’s photos can magically transform the basest of matter into the loftiest of ideas, maybe our work can also manifest some real change in the world. Maybe, if we work at it, we can bring things and people together in inspirational new ways.


9 Responses to “Collecting Material”

  1. Asa Mittman March 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    This is great. I just read Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (finally) yesterday, and this resonates really well with her first two chapters. She writes about the contents of a sewer drain (dead rat, bottle cap, stick, etc.), saying that she saw “an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics.” And these images are certainly assemblages with some power, as is the original dump — what will happen to it when it is replaced with the methane capturing plant, I wonder?

    Thanks so much for this. I’ll look for Waste Land on Netflix, asap…

  2. Maggie Williams March 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    Thanks, Asa. You’re absolutely right, and that’s a connection that I probably should have made. I’ve always been absent minded about weaving texts into the conversation and/or writing in that way. One of the side-effects of being a visual person, I guess. Anyway, yes, Netflix is where I saw it in the first place!

  3. Asa Mittman March 20, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    We watched Waste Land last night — really fascinating. Thanks again for drawing my attention to it!

  4. Foteini Vlachou March 31, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    I also found Waste Land fascinating, but my view of it was completely different. I thought it reinforced what is basically a conservative worldview. If I may, this is the text I wrote about it a few months ago:

  5. Maggie Williams March 31, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    That’s really interesting, and I do see your point. I also really appreciate the debate!

    In terms of the imagery, I like the way that the images highlight the physicality of the trash, and I’m not sure whether I think they make it seem beautiful or not. I suppose that was Muniz’s intention, but I don’t know that I find the end results beautiful in any traditional sense, to be honest. Just amazingly tactile.

    I think my perspective on the workers themselves was a bit different because of their own efforts to organize. I didn’t see Muniz suggesting that their portraits would somehow allow them to “better themselves” for lack of a better phrase; I saw him drawing public attention to workers who were *already* organizing, so that’s what I found valuable.

    • Foteini Vlachou April 1, 2013 at 3:49 am #

      Thank you for the reply (I also appreciate the debate!). My different view on the subject might have something to do with the fact that I saw the exhibition before I saw the documentary. Seeing the pictures framed, covered with glass and exposed as works of art in a regular exhibition space definitely affected my attitude later. I was having doubts about the project even before I knew the film existed. Well, doubts is not perhaps the appropriate word, but as a visitor of the exhibition I was very ambivalent towards them. The pictures themselves were posed as things of beauty (without concealing the origin – even a certain pride – in the humble origins of their materials), but at the same time I felt that they were aestheticizing poverty. Why have some of the pickers pose as great works of art, for example? “Magna” is, in a sense, a far more powerful work of art, precisely because it avoids this “recognition” game, intended inevitably for the knowing public.

  6. Asa Mittman April 1, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    I think that ambivalence is a good instinct in regard to these (and most!) works of art, since it signals that the works are not simple or flat (conceptually). I have some ambivalences, as well. That said, I think that there is more going on than a recognition game. Yes, to get the Death of Marat image, we have to recognize the David painting, as reconstructed, but I think this is only part of the process of engaging with the work. Once we know what painting is recalled, then we have to sort out how the catadore relates to Marat. As Maggie points out, the workers were actively organizing, and Tiaõ was the president of their collective. It seems far more than just aestheticization to re-render him as one of the leaders of the French Revolution, a champion of the rights of the poor and dispossessed. So, yes, David’s painting is a recognizable “great work of art,” but perhaps the point is not that Muniz is a great artist or that Tiaõ (and/or his lifestyle) is beautiful, but that Tiaõ is a revolutionary. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some beauty to these images — there is, and some of that is surely the beauty of the catadores, themselves. But I think we can read more in the images.

  7. Taishi February 18, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

    Que maravilha! *-*Acho o me1ximo ver como alagums escolas este3o trabalhando a reciclagem e reuso de materiais com seus alunos.Quanto mais cedo as pessoas criarem conscieancia da importe2ncia do meio ambiente e da reciclagem, mais o paeds tende a se desenvolver.parabe9ns pelos posts, se3o f3timos!


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