On a chilly spring morning in 2004, a modest shrine began to grow in the shadow of Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway. Local faithfuls swarmed to the grimy wall of the underpass, where the Virgin Mary had supposedly materialized in the form of a ghostly gray stain. In a matter of days, the phenomenon had drawn the attention of flashbulbs and live video feeds, and suddenly this largish salt deposit was national news. The cameras drew more visitors, and the visitors, in turn, drew more cameras. People swayed and wept in front of it, clutching sprays of flowers. They kissed the cold concrete, whispered their ailments and fears. They told their small children to do the same.
A few weeks later the stain image was vandalized when a local man scrawled the words “BIG LIE” across its surface in black shoe polish. Shortly afterward, the city of Chicago decided to cover the whole thing in brown paint, despite the wailing of onlookers.
Scenes like Our Lady of the Underpass abound in recent history. There are dozens of such stories, shocking and comical. There was an infamous grilled cheese sandwich, bearing the burnt image of Christ, auctioned for $28,000 on eBay. In 2003 Jesus reappeared on a burnt fish stick in Ontario, and in 2005 on an oyster shell in Italy. The Italian bar manager who discovered the shell had of course heard of the priceless sandwich. He told a Swiss newspaper, "This piece is unique. It is the work of nature. It is neither grilled nor cooked. I shall try my luck over the internet." What is going on here? Can we attribute these bizarre events to some kind of millennial fervor, stoked by the new viral modes of broadcasting?
I couldn’t help but think of these carnivalesque events when viewing Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s Photo Op, from his 1997 series Pictures of Chocolate. And in fact, Muniz has made a very successful career out of his (and our) runaway fascination with the miraculous. Using non-traditional materials such as thread, dirt, chocolate syrup, or cotton, he recreates eerily accurate representations of magazine photographs and then re-photographs them. He calls the act of looking at them a “perceptual bottleneck”: you can choose to see either the image or the material, but never both at the same time. Piles of thread coalesce into a hilly landscape, mountains of sugar become the portrait of a child.
Photo Op begs us to investigate it from these different angles. Its ostensible subject matter is a group of paparazzi clamoring to snap a photo of some unseen event. I am struck by Muniz’s sly caricature of each individual photographer, a characteristically self-effacing jibe (he also produced a chocolate image of Pollock in the act of dripping paint). They strain and elbow each other, vying for the prize-winning shot. But there is a threshold of scale at which the image disappears and the materials emerge. As you move closer and closer, the faces and gestures dissolve into daubs of sweet, glistening chocolate syrup. The clarity of the photograph perfectly translates the decadence surface of the original drawing. It’s enough to make your mouth water.
It takes a while to get over Muniz’s sheer technical virtuosity and the novelty of his materials. But a closer consideration of his methods reveals layers of meaning that go far beyond mere gimmickry. Photo Op’s three-pointed tension between the “original” reproduced image, the artist’s reproduction in chocolate, and the photographic reproduction we see on the wall in front of us is the first slippery step into a semiotic hall of mirrors. Which is the “real” image? What exactly are we looking at? A drawing, a photo, a riddle of some kind? Then there is the psychological tension between the zealous, bustling mass of photographers and the sensual, alluring connotations of chocolate. It suggests that the act of making an image, or taking a picture, is intimately linked with the desire to possess the subject. By focusing on the photographers themselves, Photo Op deflects that desire in order to draw attention to it.
Muniz revels in these kinds of games. He is a self-professed devotee of Harry Houdini, and loves to mystify and confound, but it is always tempered with an underlying benevolence, a healthy dose of humor, and a good-natured love of the humaneness involved in picture-making. His works are so hybridized, so unexpected, that after all their lofty theoretical implications, they finally return us to seeing in an inquisitive, childlike way. Whether the salt-stain Madonna was real or a hoax, what matters is that it brought together hundreds of strangers, and brought together hundreds of thousands through the ethereal media of television and internet. And whether you choose to see the photo, the image, or the chocolate, the true subject matter is the alchemical play of symbols among them. “The trick,” Muniz says in a 2000 interview, “is not getting people to believe. It is making them aware of how much they want to believe.”