Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Death of Marat (Sebastião)

'Marat (Sebastião)' by Vik Muniz
 In an earlier post I wrote about my search in Paris for the room where the revolutionary, Marat, was murdered in his bath.  The event was immortalised by David's famous painting (below).

The Death of Marat by David

Now, New York based Brazilian artist Vik Muniz has realised a fascinating project called "Pictures of Garbage" which involved the study of the hundreds of garbage pickers who earn a meager living by sorting through the rubbish in the world's biggest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, near Rio de Jainero, Brazil. Muniz became fascinated by the leader of the garbage pickers, Tião Santos, a man he described as a thinker, a sort of philosopher, always on the look out for works of philosphy that have been dumped.  When Muniz met Santos, the latter was reading Machiavelli's The Prince. Muniz told The Wall Street Journal that "the work's creation was essentially accidental. He was talking with Mr. Santos at the landfill when he spotted two pickers carrying a discarded bathtub. Mr. Muniz thought of Marat and pulled up an image of the painting on his phone. The scene was recreated for a photograph on the spot: the white headpiece Mr. Santos wears is his shirt and the "pen" in his hand is a vulture's feather."

Muniz had the image blown up to gigantic proportions and projected on the floor of his studio, overlayed with a grid.  He then asked the garbage pickers to fill the various grids surrounding the bath with garbage.  Ironically, the garbage pickers, described by Muniz in a interview on the BBC World Service as people who are "at the opposite end of consumer society" and who "really perceive what we throw away as a source of income", could not bring themselves to choose objects based on aesthetic criteria; instead, they choose items that would bring a high price when resold for recycling. They viewed the garbage as money, and they filled the art work with what in their eyes was treasure, high-value thrash.

It is somehow a beautiful symmetry, that this modern rendition of Marat, the bloodthirsty friend of the poor, in his modern carnation has become surrounded by rubbish chosen by the world's most destitute citizens. And what a commentary on how we live our lives - the philosopher of the garbage heap, surrounded by the deitrus of our throwaway society, where unwanted people, as much as unwanted objects, can be discarded.

'Marat (Sebastião)'was sold  in London for 50,000 dollars. Muniz had brought Santos from the garbage heap to London for the auction.  Most of the money has been returned to the garbage pickers of  Jardim Gramacho to be used to buy a truck to help them with their recycling business. A documentary about Muniz's project called Waste Land has just been released and has already won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and a human rights award from Amnesty International.


  1. By now, Santos has likely learned that Marat was more than just “an intellectual” (the only adjective used by Muniz to describe him in the film). I wonder if he still appreciates the connection? And I wonder if Muniz regrets yoking his friend to this villain of international disrepute?

  2. Good point Julia. Thanks for your comment.

  3. "Villain of international disrepute"?! Based on whose version of history?

  4. As Tião Santos corrected the Brazilian TV host interviewing him about calling the workers garbage pickers: "We are not pickers of garbage, we are pickers of recyclable materials. Garbage can't be reused, whereas recyclable materials can."

    After watching Wasteland, I do not believe the catadores are "the world's most destitute citizens." I find that hyperbolic and untrue. Their community, pride in their work, and humility reflect rich lives more complex than reducing them to destitute.

    Glad you wrote about this. My nit-picking does not negate the value of your blog entry.


  5. Thanks a million for that comment jerbear.