Aleksandra Mir

Pursuit of Perfection

By a-n
a-n.co.uk, London, August 2012

Triumph London
27 July - 14 September 2012
part of Pursuit of Perfection: The Politics of Sport
South London Gallery, London

I'm not really interested in sport itself, but found both these shows fascinating - possibly influenced by the fact that I'm inhaling Olympic mania with every breath at the moment.

Visited SLG first and loved the overpowering sense impression, experiencing the relationship between the work and the space around it. The show goes beyond the gallery to the recently gutted Southwark Old Town Hall, and extends to a range of local settings as part of 'SLG Local'. The town hall is a beautiful sturdy municipal building. John Gerrard's work, 'Exercise' (Djibouti) 2012 works conceptually (a former site of power) and physically/emotionally in a former council chamber. The comfy leather seats are arranged in a series of semi-circles, each seat with its own set of voting buttons: Yes, No, Abstain (perhaps there's a mini-bar under the seat panel). A central floor-to-ceiling screen shows red and blue teams of super-fit runners tirelessly running figures-of-eight in the expansive and gruelling desert sun (thirst-quenching refreshments provided). The mesmerising endurance and sense of team commitment is tangible, alongside an odd sense of endless and timeless time. Another room has a domestic feel with wallpaper, showing Lucy Gunning's video, 'The Footballers' (1996). Two women in white coats tackling a football in an empty gallery space.

The main SLG gallery, showing Aleksandra Mir's Triumph (2009), is a garish spectacle of 2,529 personal trophies, piled high and clustered around plinths. Cheap, mass-produced tack with heavy symbolic significance, spanning 40 years of different designs. Reminded me of Indian wedding shops in East London; cheap gold overload, a mockery of original intentions. Mir collected these trophies over a year in Sicily, advertising in the local press and offering a token 5 euros: people were clearly happy to part with these symbols of a once-victorious moment. Playful responses to football are shown in the upstairs galleries.

Wellcome Collection. Superhuman: exploring human enhancement from 600BCE to 2050.

The Wellcome show is more philosophical than some of their previous over-literal interpretations of ideas. The artworks and objects are given the space and context to communicate for themselves, allowing for complexity and without being killed by over-wordy explanations. The show asks questions and presents ideas about the moral and social implications of human enhancement technology; interweaving artists, scientists, ethicists, philosophers and policy-makers. Ideas include: immortality; the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs to boost brainpower in healthy people; the impact of human enhancement on competitive sport; the wider benefits to society of becoming 'better' people. Questioning whether we should always strive to be as 'normal' as possible, it presents the aftermath of the Thalidomide disaster, which left thousands of children born with shortened limbs. The government responded technologically, providing artificial arms and legs. But the children largely rejected these and preferred adaptation - learning to use their bodies in a ways that might seem unusual to the able-bodied. Rebecca Horn's finger extensions from the performance 'Scratching Both Walls at Once' (1974-5) are displayed in a cabinet nearby. Horn comments that she felt a tangible sense of her body's limits being extended when demonstrating these enhancements.

Matthew Barney's Cremaster series is shown, with model Aimee Mullins (a paralympian) in roles with different prosthetic legs. Challenging society's assumptions about disability, she says '...it's no longer about overcoming deficiency. It's a conversation about augmentation; ...about potential. A prosthetic limb does not need to replace loss anymore. It can stand for a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space, ...architects of their own identities.' A disturbing performance by Regina Jose Galdino, 'Cut Through The Line' (2005) shows a surgeon directly 'marking up' the body of a naked model standing on a lawn; illustrating the 'improvements' he would make.

So perhaps art and sport can mix.