In a way, Vik Muniz has ketchup and diamonds to thank for becoming a world-renowned artist and Brazilian celebrity. Those are just two ingredients of the many he’s spent the past few decades transforming into the artworks that have earned him the title of “illusionist.” (See: His take on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in the form of a double portrait of the Mona Lisa, and his portrait of Jackson Pollock carefully crafted from dribbles of chocolate syrup.)
But, like his recreations of masterpieces like The Death of Marat using finds from Rio’s largest landfill, which was at the center of an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Muniz’s most recent creation is much less edible. Given carte blanche by Ruinart, the first-ever established champagne house which, true to its roots in the Age of Enlightenment, has been commissioning artists since 1896, Muniz opted to work only with blackened wood, leaves, and charcoal.
Of course, with free rein to create whatever he wanted, Muniz didn’t stop there. The final step of his tribute to the Champagne region’s vineyards and harsh climate, Shared Roots, was to completely destroy six of the large-scale works he’d created for the brand, from a large-scale representation a leaf of a chardonnay vine to another depicting a series of roots, with one held in the hands of Ruinart’s cellar master, Frédéric Panaitotis — though only, of course, after photographing the pieces.
Deep in the chalk cellars of Maison Ruinart in Reims, however, one of his works remains intact. Amidst the mounds of nearly 3,000 champagne bottles stacked by hand with the process of entreillage is one that Muniz has transformed so that it mirrors the movement of anyone who steps in front of it, with the help of a hidden camera — an installation he admits is, regrettably, not very Instagrammable. (Muniz would know: He has more than 200,000 followers, which is certainly many more than most artists.) In Paris, following a visit to Maison Ruinart, Muniz shared why he himself doesn’t like most other artists’ accounts, how he responds to fans hitting on him in the comments, and more in his Social Q’s, here.
Do you remember your first Instagram? Well, you know who got me into Instagram? It was [the French street artist] JR. He actually installed it on my phone six or seven years ago. We were at Davos and I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘It’s Instagram,’ and I said, ‘What is that?’ So he said, ‘Let me install it for you,’ and he did it for me — that’s why one of my first pictures is with him.
No wonder you have so many followers—he has a ton. It’s funny, because at first someone had a fake account for me, with my name. I was trying to find out who it was, and finally I called him and he said, ‘Oh, I’ll give it to you.’ It was somebody who liked my work, so he just gave me the password and then I already had 5,000 or so followers. But I don’t have a ton — a ton is what JR has, which is over a million. I’m fascinated by people like that. But I almost never show my own art, because it doesn’t translate well. My work doesn’t even translate in books, because you miss out on the material part and the scale. It’s very hard to show art in a small scale like a tiny screen.
Images, and how we see them constantly, is something you spoke about at Maison Ruinart, which led you to ask the question of what, then, makes an image a work of art. Is that also part of why you don’t like to post images of your own work? Even the market of photography has taken its toll because we live in a world that’s flooded with images. By the time someone comes home, the idea of looking at a photograph can be kind of unfathomable. Even for me, it’s very hard to look at work with images — I’d rather look at a blank wall or a painting. But at the same time, I’m a photographer, so recently my work has really been concentrated in making images that cannot be reproduced. They only work at a certain scale, and they require physical presence. It’s a visual experience that only happens if you’re there.
Does it bother you when people post photos of your work on Instagram, then? Not at all — I just see them as information. It’s funny how there are now crowds of people, more than ever before, at museums, just because of Instagram. People go and take a picture, then people see that it’s there, and they go, too. But I think they go to museums mostly to document their presence — like to punch their card or something.
Or even art fairs. Anish Kapoor. [Laughs.] At every fair, you have a mirror, because it’s like an Instagram machine. I think he should put a camera in the mirror. It would be the best. Because people just become silly when they’re in front of it.
That’s what you did with your installation in Reims, at Maison Ruinart, right? Yeah, it’s a little bit like that. But it’s very un-Instagrammable, because it’s very hard to photograph — the contrast is too high and the light is poor. I should have thought more about that…
How do you feel about posting your own selfies? You’ve posted quite a few with your “friend Dana,” aka Queen Latifah. Eh. I don’t do it that much. I’m old. [Laughs.] I’m 57. My son is 38, and I keep saying to him, ‘Dude, stop putting up pictures of yourself,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, my image is very important.’ He’s a DJ, and he’s good-looking, but it’s like, come on, it’s so cheesy! If someone sends me a picture of me doing something, that’s informative or interesting in any way, like working on an exhibition, though, I’ll do it.
What’s your favorite thing to post? I’m very interested in how people respond to certain things, so I always look at what people think of my photos. People are very interested in your personal life. I could post a picture that’s totally uninteresting, like me sitting right here, and then I could get a huge number of interactions. But sometimes you take a picture that you think is so good and aesthetically correct, and you’re very proud of it, and you get nothing. And you’re like, why?
Is there anything you would never post? Nothing offensive, though I’m fine with slightly political. I don’t take pictures of, you know, cats or sushi. But I am a sucker for sunsets and sunrises.
You respond to your comments fairly often. What’s the weirdest one you’ve ever gotten? People hitting on me. It’s like, how? It’s usually on pictures that aren’t related to me, saying, like, ‘Do you want to go out?’ So I respond, like, ‘No, this is the wrong app. This ain’t Tinder.’ I get a lot of likes for that. [Laughs.]
Have you discovered any artists on Instagram? Mostly people who aren’t particularly artists but are interested in visual things, like street artists or people who cut hair. I follow a few weird people — like a craft cocktail maker from Melbourne called the Margarita Mum. [Laughs.] I don’t know if they taste good, but she makes beautiful drinks.
Have you ever bought art from Instagram? No, but I’ve sold a lot of times. I don’t post my own art, but if I do, it’s worth it because if I post anything, I sell it. It’s ridiculous, by the sheer amount of followers, the amount of people who see it, and the amount of those people who actually know who I am or have some kind of interest in what I do. You know, I have a friend in Brazil, a young soap opera actress, who has 15 million followers, and she wanted to buy a work by another guy I know, a young artist who shows in a small gallery. So her manager told the artist that she would trade a piece for a post, and the artist got so offended. The work was $1,500 — something very, very inexpensive. And he came to me and said, ‘Can you believe that? She’s a rich woman, and she wanted to trade it for a post.’ I just said, ‘You’re so stupid. Think about it: 15 million people, who like what she likes, or are tuned in to her. How many of those people have $1,500 to buy the same work she bought?’ You just have to understand the different kind of capital, which comes from exposure. But you also can’t be making things based on that kind of thing.
Have you ever done an exchange like that yourself? No. Accidentally, sometimes, you get so excited about a show or something that you post it, which I’m surprised that people will call the gallery and say, ‘I want that.’ They’re looking at a picture smaller than a screen, when the original is about the size of a wall — and they would spend $60,000, $70,000 based on something that small. It’s quite amazing, though. I have a lot of pressure from the galleries asking me to post things, but I say, ‘No, no, no, no. You sell it — I’m not going to sell it for you.’
How do you decide whether to post in Portuguese or English? I used to only post in English, but I got a lot of complaints. Probably half of my followers are from São Paolo — the other half, New York — and it’s really sad because the app doesn’t translate very well to Portuguese. Sometimes I’m too lazy to translate the whole thing, but someone like Gisele Bündchen — she translates everything. She’s got time to do that.
Well, or assistants. Do you post everything yourself? Yeah, and I take all the pictures, too. And I don’t know how many of these followers are actually real. But even if I’m not checking who’s looking, I like Instagram, because it forces me to take pictures. For instance, I passed a magnolia tree in bloom in my car the other day and thought, I have to come back here and take pictures of the tree. It’s something you would never do if you didn’t have a camera in your pocket, or have a reason to do it, or know that you’d be communicating with more than 200,000 people. But you do, and it’s beautiful, so you want to share it. Right now, it’s an ugly day in Paris, so today I’m not going to post anything, but I kind of miss it. Tomorrow, maybe — I’ll go around and look for something.
Who are some of your favorite artists to follow? I like Michel Gaubert. I like people who post a lot of stupid things, like Jerry Saltz. He’s a funny guy. There’s a guy in Brazil, Johnny Luxo, who’s very good. He’s always in drag. And Martin Parr has a good one — his pictures are perfect for it. But in terms of artist artists? They have bad Instagrams! So many photographers, you know, just post their own work. There are some that are really fun, like JR, but he’s a different kind of artist — a post-social media kind of artist, who does a lot of things involving the public.
Last thing: How would you describe yourself in three emojis? Hang on, I have to look at them. [Laughs.] Oh shit, they don’t have an octopus? I’ll say the plane, the sunset or sunrise, and the puzzle piece.