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Brazilian artist Muniz examines the soccer ball

Sunday - 6/8/2014, 7:48pm  ET

In this June 6, 2014 photo, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz speaks during an interview at his studio in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Muniz is making his directorial debut with “This Is Not a Ball,” a documentary that chronicles his quest to “draw” with soccer balls. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

JENNY BARCHFIELD
Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- Vik Muniz has made images out of everything from sugar to confetti to trash, and with World Cup fever reaching a rolling boil in his native Brazil, the artist has turned his attentions to the object of his nation's collective obsession, the soccer ball.

Muniz, who starred in the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary "Waste Land," about re-creating masterpiece paintings out of garbage in a Rio de Janeiro landfill, is making his directorial debut with "This Is Not a Ball," a documentary that chronicles his quest to "draw" with soccer balls.

Shot in nine countries over nine months, the film is a meditation on the creative process and an intellectual inquiry into the history of the ball and the role it plays in societies across the globe.

"I am not an athlete -- I'm terribly inept at sport, which is probably why I became an artist," Muniz said at his Rio de Janeiro studio.

The idea behind the project was to place 10,000 soccer balls on the pitch of Mexico City's Azteca Stadium in such a way that when photographed from air they'd form a recognizable image. Muniz has used a similar technique throughout his career, "drawing" portraits of sugar cane workers out of sugar, reproducing an image of action painter Jackson Pollack out of chocolate syrup and recreating Caravaggio's Medusa in spaghetti and tomato sauce. But soccer balls presented their own challenges, he said.

First, the 52-year-old Muniz had to create his own ball, bone white on one side and pitch black on the other, to act as a sort of pixel. But the real difficulty was to decide what to draw with the balls, and the movie chronicles Muniz's struggle to find a soccer-related image that didn't feel like the logo of a sportswear label.

Although soccer has a global following, Muniz said, it's all but absent in fine art -- begging the question, "Why are we artists missing out on a subject that's so rich and complex?"

In a bid to answer the question, Muniz delves into the history of not only the ball, but the sphere itself, interviewing astronomers from Harvard University and New York City's Hayden Planetarium about the great round clouds of gas that formed after the Big Bang. He also talks to the head of M.I.T.'s self-assembly lab about the spherical shapes of viruses, bacteria and carbon atoms.

Muniz also visits locations with ball game traditions, from Mexico, home of the Aztecs' "juego de la pelota," where the player who managed to bump the rubber ball through a stone hoop with his hip was sacrificed, to Japan, where men in elaborate kimonos still play "kemori," a dribbling game dating back to the 9th century.

"It's not a traditional documentary . It's more a movie about curiosity," said Muniz, who co-directed the film with Juan Rendon and compared his own role to that of Jerry Seinfeld. "It's just a guy there, so things sort of like happen around him but if he wasn't there, none of that would be happening."

The movie also explores sport as a vehicle for social change, examining the role of organized soccer fan clubs in Egypt's revolution and the massive street protests that swept Brazil during last year's World Cup dry-run, the Confederations Cup.

Muniz said he understood the reasons, like corruption and misuse of public funds that pushed the demonstrators onto the street, adding that he expected more protests during the tournament starting Thursday.

"They will take advantage of the limelight that the World Cup will provide and will come to the streets to manifest - pacifically or violently, I don't know," said Muniz.

"But within these protests," he added, "there will be the sad voice that they (the protesters) are going against something that is so dear to them and such a subject of pride -- football -- something that normally unites Brazilians and has united them against a government that's not doing its job."

Asked which team he was betting to win, Muniz responded with a laugh, "Brazil, of course. Any Brazilian would tell you that."

"This Is Not a Ball" premieres on Brazilian, Latin American, British and U.S. Netflix on Friday, the day after the monthlong World Cup kicks off in Sao Paulo.

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Follow Jenny Barchfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jennybarchfield


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