Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is known for painting or creating visual images with materials related to his subject matter. One critically acclaimed series featured portraits of the children of poor sugar field laborers using sugar from the plantation where they worked. His portraits in chocolate were displayed at the Contemporary Arts Center in 2001.
The subject of Lucy Walker's engrossing documentary Waste Land is his three-year project to make portraits of the garbage pickers who work in the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, near Rio de Janeiro. Both the film and Muniz's project are about the transformative power of art, particularly as Muniz enlists the pickers as collaborators. Much of the film focuses on the pickers, and just that material about the bizarre colony of life in a massive landfill is eye-opening.
Though relocated to Brooklyn, Muniz had become one of the most famous and commercially successful Brazilian artists when he started this project. He dedicated money from sales of the works to the individual pickers with whom he worked and community groups that support them.
The pickers sift through thousands of tons of garbage brought to the landfill daily, picking out any reusable material that can be sold. They comprise a sort of underclass of the poor — and as suggested, discarded people. Many live in appalling conditions on the edge of the landfill and subsist on meager earnings, but many also take pride in surviving and hope to return to more normal lives away from Gramacho. It's a bizarre niche, and the landfill offers endlessly rich insights into consumer culture. Some of the pickers read and discuss books they have salvaged from the mess, laughing at the idea of knowledge being thrown away.
Under Muniz's direction, pickers selected for portraits uses garbage from the landfill to create massive collages he then photographed from above. One of the picker leaders, Tiao Santos, accompanies Muniz to an auction in London where they sell his portrait and brush with the vast wealth of the art world and its patrons. It offers one of the film's more brilliant moments of juxtaposition as Muniz takes Santos to a museum and shows him work by renowned contemporary British artists. One piece is a bronze statue of a bag of garbage by Gavin Turk, and they view a shelf of pill bottles assembled by Damien Hirst. The various pickers' stints as globetrotting artists are brief, and the question is whether the experience will help them sustain renewed lives after Gramacho. Tickets $7 general admission, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
Opens Jan. 14
9 p.m. Fri. through Sun., Jan. 23
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net