The Birth of Venus, After Botticelli (Pictures of Junk) (2008) by Brazilian lens-based artist Vik Muniz (b. 1961) is a digital photographic C-print in three parts, with a monumental size of 92.2” x 53.3”. The ‘Pictures of Junk’ series is the product of Muniz’ long-term collaboration with resident garbage pickers of Jardim Gramacho, Rio de Janiero’s largest waste landfill. With scraps of refuse collected from the dump, Muniz recreates famous works of Old Masters by assembling large scale arrangements on a warehouse floor, which when viewed from above, simulate the original iconic, historic classics.
An array of discarded metal and plastic objects forms the foundation above which four figures float dreamily; soda cans, tires, nuts and bolts, wire coils, rope and broken appliances. Continuous earth-tone lines and shading contour the colourless characters in faithful representation of their models. Save the occasional red object, the neutral, monotone colour palette demonstrates a blunt departure from the warm, inviting, soft pastels of the Early Renaissance Botticelli painting.
Here, Venus poses demurely atop a scallop shell washed ashore from a barren-looking sea, beached among the drab detritus of discarded pots and pans, gas cans, beer cans, fan belts and gaskets.
Muniz’ dispiriting scene offers a brazen dismissal of the enduring mythology of Venus as the goddess of love and beauty by mischievously depositing her virtuous 15thc. persona on the littered shore of a 21st century dystopian society. Poor darling.
Venus’ seashell is rendered in gears, runner washers, bottle caps and engine parts. Bearing springs and bike chains outline her body and her long hair is made of tangled rope twisting past her knees. The distant sea and sky are simplistic in their depiction, nearly devoid of illustration, creating a large area of predominantly white space. Counter to this negative space, the busy perimeter of the image displays a pile of jumbled debris in a consistent, though unsettling rhythm.
Once the layout is complete and the likeness achieved, Muniz photographs the massive creation from scaffolding high above, preserving the artwork as a two-dimensional legacy of his three-dimensional assemblage. The resulting photograph succeeds in capturing the melancholy, discordant mood of the fatigued social order he conceptualizes with this project. Reflected is the dichotomous nature of modern society that grapples with polarizing inequalities of class, income and race as a consequence of history and geography.
The artist has fiercely juxtaposed what is universally embraced in Venus-- innocence, serenity, purity -- with the abandoned remnants of a deeply conflicted society straining under the misery of socio-economic burdens borne of civilization’s mismanaged progress.
Muniz’ Birth of Venus is more than ‘pictures of junk’-- it is a picture of us.