Making Art Out of Garbage: Waste Land

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Vik Muniz's work looks like trash. That's the point.

As captured in Lucy Walker's documentary Waste Land, Muniz is a master at taking ordinary discarded objects and turning them into gorgeous and heartbreaking works of art that invoke the spirit of their subjects. The film revolves around Muniz's work with a clan of garbage-pickers who comb a landfill in Rio de Janeiro (one of the largest in the world) for things that still have some life in them. He creates complex but engaging large-scale works of art drawn from photographs of the Brazilians draped in their decaying discoveries. On paper, it doesn't sound like it could work, but as the documentary shows, the art and the people come together in unexpected and moving ways.

"It's very uplifting," says Marian Luntz, curator of film and video at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which is screening the film several times beginning Saturday, January 22. "It's about the art and the human interaction" between artist and subject.

The film is also a tie-in with an MFAH exhibition, Cosmopolitan Routes: Houston Collects Latin American Art, which runs through February 6 and features the work of Muniz along with dozens of other artists. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg situation with the film and exhibition. Luntz and others had been tracking the documentary since it played the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010, and when an opportunity arose to bring the film to the MFAH, she jumped at the chance.

"It's worth of all its acclaim" she says, noting that it's on the short list for the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Although this isn't the first time the MFAH has screened a film with a tie to a current exhibition - an exhibit a while back on American painter Alice Neel was paired with a documentary about Neel directed by her grandson - the Waste Land screening does provide Houstonians with the chance to see a critically praised film and then experience more work from the artist in question. It's something Luntz says the MFAH is open to continuing in the future.

"We want more people visiting to be aware that there's a movie theater here," she says, and, once they've enjoyed the one-two punch of quality filmmaking and engaging artwork, to say, "OK, we're gonna come back." And they should.

For showtimes, visit the MFAH's website.

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