Artist Vik Muniz and Marshal McLuhan

“Let us return to the electric light. Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or in night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. … Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” (McLuhan 103)

In reading McLuhan’s explanation of the powers of mediums at play upon a viewer, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite contemporary artists, Brazilian-born Vik Muniz. For those not acquainted, Muniz’ most far-reaching and widely exhibited works are his photographs; that is, photographs of other objects which, more often than not, are themselves imitating, reflecting or posing as other objects.

I wanted to more closely examine Muniz’ motives and methods in creating visual art in order to better understand some of McLuhan’s points on how a particular medium could affect its audience, and how the “message” could run simultaneously, or be embedded within it.

An example of Muniz’ method of building a message into a medium can be found in one of his prints from the series “Pictures of Chocolate,” which was on display at the PS1 gallery in Queens last spring (2007). This photo showed an image Sigmund Freud painted in chocolate. Throughout Muniz’ career, he has recreated famous and easily recognizable images of classic art as well as pop culture icons (Boris Carloff out of caviar, Barbara Streisand drawn in a mound of diamonds—even great artistic works such as an etching of Rembrandt’s “Beggars” sifted from nails and peanut butter and jelly Mona Lisas, themselves a recreation of Andy Warhol’s black and white Mona Lisa double prints) out of dirt, sugar, leaves, stones, threads and wires, photographed these images and then destroyed the originals. He has also often quoted McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” in interviews (Feitlowitz).

This made me consider Muniz deeper; what kind of artist is he? A photographer? A sculptor? A painter? A sketch artist? All of these rolled into the broad, boundary-defying term, artiste?

After reading some interviews and considering McLuhan, I started to think of Muniz as not just an artist, but also a cultural scholar. In photographing his three-dimensional works, Muniz is making a statement about media and the temporality of the visual artist’s materials (the medium), at the same time, he makes a statement about the viewer’s relationship to the works. In his move to photograph them and then exhibit the photographic prints, he isn’t trying at a vain attempt to preserve his art or secure its place in the cultural record (well, maybe he is, just a little). But, photographs fade; photo paper deteriorates from exposure to the air and light and can even grow mold. Negatives can easily become scratched or warped, as well. Photography is not a medium that can endure all elements forever. So for Muniz, taking pictures of his art is not a motion to postpone its eminent destruction, it is a statement positing the viewer in a place that is once-, twice-, sometimes even three times or more removed from the subject—an action that forces the viewer to realize he is only the audience/participant, and that there are layers, or boundaries, between the viewer and the actual subject.

Other theorists may have other postulations on the Muniz’ intents in creating his mimetic images. But one thing is uncontestable—that his subjects and the materials he uses to replicate them are married deliberately. As one critic said, “everyone is in on the joke” (Feitlowitz). For the joke to be successful, there must be a viewing public of audience/participants—a tribunal of the conscious who are, themselves, already implicated in the artist’s statement whether conscious of that statement or not. There is a joke, for example, in recreating a classical, “flawless”—even controversial—work of art in cheap, messy foodstuffs frequently associated with a child’s paper-sacked lunch.

In another of Muniz’ works, he manipulated mounds of sugar to depict the faces of children of cane farmers from the Caribbean, the medium is only doing what it has been told to do. One of Muniz’ insides jokes here, is that the material he uses has a direct connection to his subjects’ lives; harvesting cane sugar constitutes their parent’s livelihoods. But to make a statement in a ‘meta’ way, consider the image for the viewer, twice removed: a viewer standing in a clean-floored, white-walled gallery, viewing a photograph of a sculpture made in sugar—designed to replicate a photographic image of a third world child’s portrait, is not only an example of mimesis in play, it makes it impossible to ignore the implicit message that Muniz has packed into the medium.

As McLuhan describes the “Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new, technical form,” so, too, is the viewer/participant distracted by the medium, sometimes enough to miss critical information being hurtled at him or her that accompanies the message’s delivery. Take, for example, the cultural critic who blames media for all social ills; for an increase in devious behaviors and a breakdown of society. “It has never occurred to General Sarnoff that any technology could do anything but add itself on to what we already are” (McLuhan p. 132).

McLuhan concludes his essay by positioning humanity in an interesting double-bind. Though humankind created media, and can control, adapt, direct and build on it, we can’t avoid that media has the capacity to turn around and play upon us, as well. McLuhan pokes fun at the literate man, thoroughly indoctrinated in society, who claims to “pay no attention to ads,” but then he leaves us with a quote from Jung about the Romans and their slaves, and how they inadvertently were influenced by the psychology of slaves, because after all, “No one can shield himself from such as influence” (McLuhan 136, 138).

I’m left with questions about exactly where McLuhan sees the viewer fitting into the equation with the medium. Is McLuhan concluding with a dark forecast that as viewer/participants who are already implicated in the cause/effect of media, we are powerless to its messages working upon us? Or, is he advocating an education in media so that we don’t have to sit idly by as “slaves” to the machine? Does MuLuhan believe that we, as individuals, steer our own destinies, and may be empowered to seize control of the media and direct it in the motion that best serves our causes? Or is he a fatalist who sees us all as pawns who are doomed to have too much information foisted upon us in unconscious ways that we can’t avoid?


Feitlowitz, Marguerite. Vik Muniz: Between Illusion and Memory. Americas (English Edition). July 1, 2001. (Accessed September 14, 2008)

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message.” Media and Cultural Studies; Keyworks. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner p. 127-138.


2 Responses to “Artist Vik Muniz and Marshal McLuhan”

  1. I think McLuhan is saying all of these things. There is no single conclusion to be made. Media is power and with power comes great freedom and opportunity but also danger. It gives us the ability to destroy or create or both. We cannot always control how media will affect us and we certainly cannot control being exposed to it, but we are offered the opportunity to make our opinions heard and affect others in a way we see important.

  2. I love your example of Vik Muniz, he is definitely a media theorist whose medium is art. He frequently refers to his own practice to be drawing which is a deceptively simplistic answer. Drawing is an extension of observation and as a teacher he would be well aware that it is part of the basic toolkit for for training young artists to see. His works could even be considered a literal exploration of the medium as message. What does it mean make a portrait of Che Guevara out of black bean soup?

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