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NPR Arts & Life

Minting Treasure From Trash

Brazil is one of the world's most rapidly developing countries. In the past decade, the South American country has lifted millions of its residents out of poverty and into a growing middle class.

But with growth comes consumption, and with consumption, trash.

And in all of that trash, one artist found inspiration.

Vik Muniz created a photo series using trash he found in Rio de Janiero's Jardim Gramacho, one of the world's largest landfills. Photos from the project are on display in the Uptown Mint Museum's exhibit,  Garbage Matters.

Vik Muniz will give a free lecture at the Uptown Mint Museum Tuesday, January 8, at 6:30pm. The Museum will screen the documentary, Waste Land, on January 29.

Standing in front of one of Vik Muniz’s huge, high resolution photographs, UNC-Charlotte student Nathaniel Nieminen recognizes the image.

“I actually know who this is,” he says. “This was the French Revolution. This is Marat.”

Centered in the photo, in white, is a man murdered in a bathtub. His right arm hangs to the floor and he holds a letter in his left. It’s a re-creation of Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat.

Nieminen steps forward and focuses on the details, and that is when the similarities vanish. Where David used oil paint, the Brazilian artist used trash. There are coke bottles, toilet seats, dishes, you name it.

In fact, the exhibit, called Garbage Matters, is full of re-creations of famous paintings designed out of garbage. It is on display at the Uptown Mint Museum until April 28.

Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance

Think of Botticelli’s Venus looking through eyes made of nuts and bolts, and rising from a sea of trash.

The work behind the photos was messy, long, and labor intensive. And Muniz says, that was intentional.

“The more complicated the process, the more the picture inspires you to get deeper and deeper in the picture,” he says. “It makes you wonder how that was made.”

And this process was the subject of the documentary, Waste Land. The movie follows Muniz as he sets up a studio next to Rio de Janeiro’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho. At the time, the landfill received more trash than any other landfill in the world.

But working on a growing pile of trash that is over 300 feet high and 14 million feet across has its challenges. The smell is one. Another is the methane gas that trash releases as it decomposes.

“You never feel quite safe because you could have a burst of methane gas,” says Muniz. “Or you are walking and sometimes you just walk into a flame because you don’t see it. There is always burning gas coming from the ground. Whenever a truck goes by you feel like you’re on a heap of jello.”

For Muniz, the project was a social challenge. He wanted to involve those people outside of the wealthy circles in which the Brazilian art scene is concentrated. So he employed a group that never interacted with high art – the catadores. They are the informal workforce that collect and sell recyclables they find in the landfill.

Working in Muniz’s football field sized studio, the catadores assembled the recyclables into re-creations of famous images. Muniz then took a photo from above.

The resulting photos, Pictures of Garbage, broke gallery attendance records in Brazil. And the documentary Waste Land, was nominated for an Oscar.

“To realize that these ideas, they can grow and transcend your range of influence is quite amazing," Muniz says.