19 December 2010

Waste Land

Waste Land
Lucy Walker
UK/Brasil 10
Seen at PÖFF - Black Nights Film Festival - Tallinn, 2010

The Brazilian artist Vik Muniz wanted to do something for the poor people of his country. He chose to focus on the people sorting garbage on the Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill. From being quite cautious and afraid of what he might meet, he ended up getting deeply involved and changing the lives of several people.

This documentary by Lucy Walker shows in a beautiful and touching way the process of the art project, letting us get close to the artist and the people he meet. We get involved in their destiny, feeling that we get to know them a bit.

This is far from the first time an artist gets involved in the destiny of poor people. It is not the first time a documentary is made about it either. “Yes Men Change the World” and “JR: Women are Heroes” are great examples on this. What makes “Waste Land” special, is that the objects get involved in making the art themselves. The artist is the supervisor, the man with the idea and the plan. The workers are making the actual art, and they are getting the credit and the income from it.

Muniz' change of view on the garbage workers is symbolic to the whole process. Before going he is afraid of this closed community, probably ruled by drug-addicts and criminals. Arriving there he meets beautiful, intelligent, proud people. His work triggers the same change in the community: The garbage sorters' union gets recognized as a serious organization, and the work recognized at a regular work task.

I am also thrilled by the discussion between the artist and his wife. What are the consequenses of taking some people away from the garbage dump to make the art, and then put them back there again. Will the "one week in Paradise" make them desillusioned for the rest of their life? Or will this experience give them inspiration to aspire for a better life? It seems like the answer is both. Some return, some never return. Some get a better life, some don't. But who are we, the outsiders, to say that "experiencing good life is probably not good for her"?

The results of this art project are many. Many of the workers got confidence in themselves. Some got the small income they needed to start a better life. And as the workers' union got official status, it was able to change the working conditions to the better, build a school, and spread the knowledge to other garbage dumps. The art project thus triggered a major change of the lives of not only the few people involved, but all the garbage sorting workers and their families.

Then remains this question: Is this art, or a large social project using art as a tool? You need to look not only at the installations, the portraits made by garbage items in a large hall, or the photos of it, displayed in a gallery. The real artwork is in the process, in the relations. How this process started, evolved and its consequences. This was not initiated as a social program, then it would probably have had a different approach and content. The process starting from the first idea is a great work of relational art, beautifully captured in the documentary.