Vik Muniz: "The color of the clay makes Roland-Garros very special"
Since 1980, the Roland-Garros tournament poster has been created by an accomplished modern artist. In 2017, the designer is the Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz. We met him in his studio space and home in New York.
Regarding your poster for the Roland-Garros tournament, what is the genesis of your design?
Well, I like to be challenged—I think that's what art does. If you put a sculpture right in front on your sidewalk, where you walk every day, the least that's going to do to you is it's going to make you cross the street. It takes you away from your regular path, your routine, and like everybody else, even as an artist, I tend to establish routines. And to get out of them, I get involved in projects such as this. You know, sports are a long shot from art making—I get along with scientists, we have very similar lines of production, and we're experimenting all the time.
In sports, it also involves a lot of experimentation and games, it's become very scientific especially nowadays, but it's a completely different thing. It's performed on site, it has more to do with theater. So it's dynamic, it happens over a period of time—it fascinates me, I'm very interested in sports. I directed a film about the ball, for the World Cup (This Is Not a Ball, 2014). There was so much material it could be a series, but they wanted to package everything.
Focusing on the ball.
On the ball, yeah. And I talked to scientists, why do we play with balls? It's amazing, every culture, you can go everywhere, you have some kind of ball playing. It's like drumming, or singing. It's something very primitive. I'm not a sports person, you know. I've never been very athletic. I'm more the kid who loves drawing, or reading books. And I have to say, that even increases my fascination with people who can do formidable things with their bodies. Another project, I just recently directed the Paralympic opening in Rio, which got me completely into this universe of the paralympic movement. You learn so many things!
"I feel very flattered to be part of this tradition. When you see posters by Tapiès and people like that..."
And then another project comes along, to design a poster for Roland-Garros. There are two things there: one is, it is Paris, a city that I love. I have a place in Paris, I lived in Paris, I love the language, I love the culture, I love the food. Yeah, sure, why not, any excuse. And the fact that consistently—I find this really interesting—they managed to produce really beautiful posters with really great artists. So, I feel very flattered to be part of this tradition. When you see posters by Tapiès and people like that, and the posters are quite wonderful too. I was very honored to be invited.
And then it's, how do you see that? What kind of relation do you have to that event?
Tennis, for me, I've been to a few matches. It's not something that I travel to see, and I surely did not grow up around a tennis court. In Brazil you only have the soccer fields everywhere. But there's something very mechanical about tennis that fascinates me. The speed of the game is really amazing. And something that makes Roland-Garros also special, it's the color. The color of the court. So you have a clay court. I remember when I was a kid growing up in Brazil and I started befriending kids that were from other social classes, and they had these white sneakers: they were dirty. But they were dirty with the right color. Their sneakers were clay colored, because they played tennis. I thought that was so cool. I was like, Wow, how can I get my sneakers dirty like that? Obviously they played tennis after school. There was good dirty and bad dirty. And I never understood why they liked playing on soft clay—it's a tradition, or why did it start? I imagine it would be much better to do on some synthetic thing. But other than that, it's the color that gets me. It has an unmistakable identity. You know it's the French Open because of the clay court. That really places it.
"The shadows in the clay court become very poignant"
And if you're looking at the court, all sports are about a limited amount of performance under given rules. The first rule is the court itself: you have a limit where the ball can play. And when you look at the court, beyond the player, you already have a picture. A shadow is a sort of a portrait. To make the poster like probably the part that nobody pays attention to, but is equally important—well, whenever you have a project like this, I always feel that I get an education, so I went through thousands of pictures. The thing is, I wasn't looking at a match; I was looking at pictures. Which gives you a completely different sense of what's going on. And the shadows—especially the shadows in the clay court—become very poignant.
They become really amazing, because they abstract the body but they give just the barest signifiers of what's going on. If you see the shadow of a tennis player, you know the guy's playing tennis. Even if it's a very confusing shadow, you still sense it. I ran some tests, trying to make it from very abstract to something very clear. And I chose something kind of in the middle, because it had to have some magic, some room for wondering there. When you look at it, you go, What's going on here? Obviously somebody playing tennis, but you still have to adapt to understand—someone is serving, but you have to figure out what's going on.
How did this project come about originally? How did they find their way to you?
They told me that they were thinking about doing something with me for a few years now, and then all of a sudden this came through my gallery in London. I was asked by Patrice Cotensin from Galerie Lelong to show him a few ideas. Then, after a couple of months I showed him what I had done. There was some back and forth, but it was just very practical stuff about with or without the title on, how I wanted to have the text in it.
Do you see this piece as related to your other work?
I've done several series with pure pigment. Which is basically earth, colored earth. I think it falls directly into those, but obviously it's not a piece made after a work of art; it's a piece made after a performance. So, it's a commission, but it has strong similarities to many other things that I have done in the past.
What do you consider the essential element of that poster?
I like it because it cues the realism of the clay itself, so when you look at it, you look at colored earth. You're looking at a picture of it. And then also, the shadow is made out of the same material, but it's black. It's funny, when you design the shadow with the same material as the ground, you feel it. There's some epistemological trick that it makes you think about how the picture is constructed. I find it very interesting, and the fact also that you see it upside down.
Yes, you're the first artist to portray a tennis player upside down for the poster. Is there a particular reason for that choice?
Well, that's how you see other people's shadows. If you're opposite to it. And that's a clear disadvantage if you see your opponent's shadow upside down, that means you're facing the sun as well. So, I think it has some kind of psychological charge, it makes the shadow of that player all the more fearful.
What can you tell me about the pigments you used for the picture?
Ideally, I've done like portraits of friends from the sand where they have the beach house. Normally I love the fact that you can bring the real thing to do it. But it's very hard to transport earth around. There's an anecdote, once I brought a bag of garbage from Brazil to the United States, because I was doing things with garbage from Carnival. And they stopped me at customs—I had to explain to them what that was! Until I explained that it was for a charitable cause, they actually let me in. They said, Why are you bringing garbage from other countries here? I said, Oh, I'm going to turn this into money, believe me. But what we did, we just worked with—when I did this pigment series, I called it "Pictures of Color." It's very important the idea that a pigment is pure color. When I did the poster, I was going for the color. So, we had to mix a little bit until we got the right clay color. Which is also interesting, because sometimes we don't really think about it but in a painting, a painting of a little corner of a house, you have pigments that come from all over the world. Even if they picked a small detail, or a still life, a picture of an apple, in that picture you get things that come from Africa, from Asia, from Australia, because pigments come from everywhere. Even synthetic pigments, you need the materials to do that. And maybe it's an international tournament, you know, probably you have elements in that clay that come from every single country that's participating.
"Now that I think of it, the thing about the French Open when it started really becoming more popular in Brazil was because of Gustavo Kuerten"
One could compare the ephemeral nature of your work, or a certain part of it, to that of a tennis match: the tracks of the players' battle are erased by the net that's used to wipe the ground afterwards.
Exactly. Everything becomes memory, too. There's something interesting about this series of works where you just move a thin powder around a surface, and you make a drawing with it. It makes you think of the way the Tibetans make mandalas—at the end of each mandala what they do, as soon as they finish they start sweeping the very intricate design and just throw it in the river, throw it in the garbage somewhere. I think that has a reference to the idea of how a tennis match or any sports event just becomes memory as soon as it's finished. The idea is just to get the work done and, as soon as the work is finished, nothing is there, it's just that experience. It's like making a mandala: both the poster and the tennis match are very analogous. When I did the pigment series, at the end of every work what I did I just gathered it up on the paper and put it all into a little vial. So the whole thing was erased and ready to start again. It's very similar to the way the court gets cleaned up after every match, the calligraphy of the feet, all that.
When did you first hear of the Roland-Garros tournament?
I've been hearing about Roland-Garros since I was a child. People in Brazil don't play tennis, but they love watching it. It's been on TV since I was a kid. Brazilians do love sports, which they perform very well, like auto racing they're crazy about, but tennis—apart from Guga, which brought a lot of this Brazilian pizzazz to the French Open, which made us all very proud. Now that I think of it, the thing about the French Open when it started really becoming more popular in Brazil was because of Gustavo Kuerten. He was a very good player, but he was also a very charming guy. It's funny with tennis, you have to play it very well, but it has a lot to do with personality too. I love McEnroe, for instance, he's like a moody guy, or sometimes the guy is very cold, like Bjorn Borg. You kind of know the person, you're psychoanalyzing the player. That's what everybody does, they speculate about how he's going to play.
Do you know Guga?
I met him a few times, but in social events, not very well. He seems like a really nice guy.
Do you remember the drawing of a heart that he traced in the clay with his racket at the end of his first victory?
Yeah, I remember that. That was big in Brazil. It was on the first page of the sports section.