RIO DE JANEIRO – From the ground, Vik Muniz's new studio looks like a landfill, scattered with discarded bottles, tin cans and trash of all sorts.
Rise above it though, and Rio's iconic landscape begins to take shape: There's Guanabara Bay, pretty as a poster, and Sugarloaf Mountain standing proud over sweeping sandy beaches and azure waters. All of it made of trash.
The Brazilian-born, New York-based artist is turning Rio's detritus into a unique portrait of the city in his new "Landscape Project," a meditation on the ever-quickening pace of consumer culture that he is creating on the margins of the United Nations' Rio+20 conference on sustainable development.
The idea is to build a giant collage out of trash and then take a photo of it from a bird's eye view. The resulting fine-art print, as with others he has done before, will likely look so realistic that many viewers will not realize it's not a photo of the Guanabara Bay itself, but rather a photo of garbage.
Visitors carrying empty soda bottles, juice cartons, jugs of water and other trash line up outside the tent where Muniz' landscape is being assembled. Inside, a projector set atop scaffolding casts a shadowy image of the bay, a slide taken earlier this month by Muniz himself from the nearby Santa Marta favela, or hillside slum.
Project coordinators instruct visitors on how and where to place their contributions: blue plastic water bottles for the sea and sky, for example, and green bottles for the hills.
The project that opened its doors on Friday has proved a hit among visitors to the "People's Summit," Rio+20's sister event, an open-to-the-public forum on the environment. On Sunday, alone more than 1,000 people streamed through the tent to donate their trash. Few resisted the temptation to stand atop one of the collage's jutting hills, their arms outspread like Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue.
After painstaking deliberations on where to place the dainty plastic cup of water he'd just guzzled down, 14-year-old aspiring biologist Victor Hugo de Aguiar struck a pose as his mother took a snapshot.
"I've never been part of a piece by a famous artist before, so I want to do my best to make sure it turns out great," said Aguiar, who eventually added his cup to the sea of blue bottles, yet another drop that would eventually make an ocean. "This is a day to remember."
An estimated three to four tons of trash will be needed to complete the project, and the visitors' contributions are being supplemented by a donation of generally bulkier items from a recycling group. X-rays, tin cans that once held tomatoes or green peas, detergent boxes, motor oil jugs, abandoned cassette tapes, Nescafe capsules and Styrofoam peanuts round out the collage. Bird's eye TV cameras capture tape the evolution of the piece, and Muniz's assistants shift around the visitors' contributions and add other bits of trash according to the artist's instructions that are piped in through their earphones.
From up close, it's almost impossible to see the method behind Muniz's madness. From the ground-level, the tent looks more like a recycling center than an atelier where an acclaimed artist is hard at work.
But viewed from the elevated scaffolding above, the piece comes into focus.
"We have a chance to meditate on our place in nature by making the representation a symbol of that from within," Muniz told Associated Press Television News. "It may not solve all the problems but it puts you in a state to meditate on our own decisions."
Muniz has worked with trash before. The 51-year-old artist is best known for his portraits of garbage pickers at a Rio de Janeiro landfill made, using the same large-scale collage technique, out of trash. That project was chronicled in the 2010 documentary, "Waste Land," which was nominated for Academy Award. Some prints from the project were sold at auction and the profits donated to an association representing the garbage pickers. The prints from the new project might go to an environmental organization, said Daisy Santos Soares, one of three of Muniz's assistants working on the collage.
The piece was commissioned by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture and is partially underwritten by corporate sponsors including Coca Cola and Rio-based newspaper O Globo.
Normally, each collage takes about three weeks to complete, but the "Landscape Project" is slated to wrap up in just seven days, by the last day of the Rio+20 conference on Friday.
"I think this is a good idea to try to make people realize what we're doing to the planet," said teenage visitor Aguiar. "The politicians can talk all they want, but if they don't convince people to change the way we're living, we're not going to be along for much longer."
Associated Press Television News producer Flora Charner contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.