I imagine that most viewers of Vik Muniz’s current show Scraps at Sikkema Jenkins gallery will be attracted to this work. It tempts that implicit human tendency to fill in the blanks, complete that which is partial, fragmentary. Christopher Nolan (director of Memento, Inception, and Interstellar films) may owe his success as a filmmaker to this trait: Presented with a piecemeal mystery, an avid listener will morph into an avid participant to solve it. Using mosaic images that are missing bits of information here and there, Muniz exploits that innate inquisitiveness in the viewer to join together what has been torn asunder. It works. His images like “Gramacho, Scraps” (2021) are compelling. It is black and white, which contributes to the feeling that it appears timeless. It’s some kind of depot or market and several individuals are trying to find, or mine, or organize some set of things. Because several pieces of the puzzle are missing, such as the individual faces and the identifying details of the objects being handled, the piece reads like a raggedy memory, or a dream half-grasped in hazy time of first waking. 

How Muniz achieves this is by taking abstracted, painted pieces that are arranged in a mosaic and then photographed, cut up, and then those shards are arranged into an image we recognize as representative of an actual reality, for example “Breakfast, after Stephen Shore, Scraps” (2021) which looks like a hamburger with fries and a side salad. These images feel utterly reminiscent of real, adult life, yet at the same time feel like something that happened long ago because they are, like distant memories, missing bits of detail here and there. 

Vik Muniz, “Breakfast, after Stephen Shore, Scraps” (2021) archival inkjet print, framed: 50 1/2 x 36 1/4 inches

Memory is a perennial topic for visual artists precisely because it exists at the crossroads of perception and imagination, and these aspects of our humanity are the ones that keep us alive and keep us searching for wonder. These images give us something to try to simultaneously place in all these boxes: something you saw, something you did, something you want to do, something you dreamt, something you should have done by now, something you should honor.

Vik Muniz, “Protest, Scraps” (2020) archival inkjet print, framed: 50 1/2 x 73 1/2 inches

The work takes on historical resonance when the images represent collectively experienced  situations such as “Oklahoma, Scraps” (2020), which eulogizes the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. The piece reconstructs the bombed-out shell of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I and maybe others like me see that image and feel ravaged by it, want to staple and glue it back together. We do so because we know we could easily be subject to such arbitrary violence, hollowed out by it. I respond to this image intuitively, reaching to grasp what can’t really be held, that is, our humanity, and simultaneously drawing back to protect what suddenly feels in need of protection: our own fate. 

Vik Muniz “Oklahoma, Scraps” (2020) archival inkjet print, framed: 50 1/2 x 71 inches

The work of Scraps is also a kind of harbinger imagery, a recognition that even if we avoid unpredictable cataclysms and human-to-human brutality, we are still subject to the slow dissolution over time that is coming for us, all of us. Things fall apart. People do too. And then someone stitches us back together in commemoration, in care, in curiosity, or perhaps with a sense of duty.

Installation view of Vik Muniz’s Scraps at Sikkema Jenkins gallery (photo by the author)

Scraps continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 9.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...