Films about Art: Waste Land (2010)

This post is Part II in a series highlighting some insightful documentary films from the past decade on art and artmaking. [Read Part I here.]

Can beauty save? Can art transform? These are questions that take on flesh and blood in the stunning Waste Land (2010, dir. Lucy Walker/Karen Harley/João Jardim). The film depicts a strange encounter between two vastly different worlds – the often insular, elitist “artworld” and the real face of global poverty. The venue for this remarkable collision is quite literally a “waste land”: the enormous garbage dump outside of Rio de Janeiro known as Jardim Gramacho, where an array of minimally-paid workers labour every day in dangerous conditions to sort and organize the vast mounds of trash.

New York-based Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, himself no stranger to poverty, is known for creating large-scale portraits made out of strange materials, from a version of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in chocolate syrup to a Warhol portrait recreated in peanut butter and jelly. He travels to Jardim Gramacho, however, with a different medium in mind: garbage. Hoping to impact positively the lives of the people who work in the dump, he creates enormous portraits of individual garbage workers out of the foul-smelling detritus they must navigate each day; he photographs these large collages from high above, and sells the images at Sotheby’s for extravagant prices – up to $50,000 each – money which he donates back to the local worker’s association.

Portraits were, in ages past, reserved for royalty – so to have someone take the time to create such an image of an individual is perhaps inherently ennobling. When one young woman looks down on her giant portrait, a kind of (post)modern Madonna and Child made from trash, she is overcome by emotion. Muniz allows her to see what he sees in her countenance, radiant beauty and strength in the face of adversity. Yet the redemptive beauty at play here is not simply a matter of the rich artist turning ‘worthless’ people into works of art – as if the people who work in the dump are also garbage waiting to be redeemed/recycled. Rather, the people of Jardim Gramacho are already fascinating, storied, often brilliant examples of humanity. Perhaps the most striking character is Tiao, leader of the workers’ association, who reads all the books discarded in the trash (especially Machiavelli!). Muniz’ trash-collage portrait of Tiao is a re-creation of J.-L. David’s Death of Marat, the startling image of the martyr-hero of the French Revolution transposed onto a different (but no less urgent) struggle.

What is at work here in these portraits of the working poor can perhaps be described as what Hans Urs von Balthasar called “seeing the form.” As Roberto Goizueta reminds us in his Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation, “seeing the form” of Christ (the “form of forms”) is inextricably bound up with “seeing the form” of the poor – their beauty, radiance, and truth as human beings. Without “idealizing or romanticizing the poor,” we must recognize in those who suffer economic and political injustice the image and likeness of God.[1] Liberation theology takes as axiomatic the belief that the face of Christ (the perfect “image of the invisible God”) shines through wherever the innocent suffer. To see an individual human “form” in its particular splendor, even in the de-humanizing environment of the garbage dump – this is an act of vision with not just aesthetic but deep ethical and theological implications.

Muniz brings Tiao to the Sotheby’s art auction where his image sells for an exorbitant price. It is a reminder of the unbelievable extremes of the global economic system, where a photograph is worth more than the human life it depicts, yet the experience leads Tiao to shed tears of joy. Muniz also invites his subjects to the gallery opening, where they are awestruck by their portraits so reverently displayed on the walls. Do art and beauty thus bring salvation to the garbage dump? The proceeds from the photographs are used by the worker’s association to enrich and better the community, and the people of Jardim Gramacho are inspired and touched by this artistic encounter, so it is hard not to call the project a success. However, such aesthetic intervention is not always of lasting value. The deep ambiguity of involving those caught up in poverty in grand artistic ventures is explored in another great documentary, The Sound of Mumbai (2010, dir. Sarah McCarthy), where it is not clear that injecting beauty into the lives of the poor (in this case, the beauty of Western music) is always enough.

T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land speaks of a “heap of broken images.” In the literal land of waste and refuse depicted in the film, the “images” to be recovered amidst the immense piles of garbage are human faces (“forms”), revealing the likeness of their Creator. Vik Muniz and Waste Land, by so creatively turning our eyes to the “least of these,” reminds us of the transformative power of art and the beauty of humanity.

Brett David Potter is working on a PhD in theology, art and culture at the Toronto School of Theology and has an MCS in Christianity and the Arts from Regent College in Vancouver. Before that he studied film and video at York University. His current research project is an attempt to navigate the space between theological aesthetics and contemporary art, with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jean-Luc Marion as guides. Brett lives with his wife and daughter in Toronto, where alongside his academic interests he makes video art, writes music and blogs about art, film and faith (on his blog “unfolding forms“.)


[1] Roberto Goizueta, Christ Our Companion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009), 6.

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