Aleksandra Mir

Life and Times

Frieze, #75, London, 2003
By Will Bradley

The first work of Aleksandra Mir's I came across was the Cinema for the Unemployed (1998), a project in Moss in Norway that did exactly what it said on the tin. It was free, and only open during working hours, with the one proviso that it showed nothing but disaster movies (which was weirdly prescient, because within three years Mir would find herself sharing a name with a Russian space station that crashed and burned and a birthday with the carnage of 9/11.

Like many people involved in the UK artworld, I spent a significant period subsidised by the government, and I would have loved a similar initiative in my neighbourhood—the fake devastation of 'Towering Inferno' or 'Airport' being somehow the perfect escapism for anyone feeling powerless in the face of certain intractable realities—and then again I wonder if it might have made me too uncomfortably self-aware. Because the 'Cinema...' was loaded with a layer of obvious irony that was reflexive in a way that a straight community project can't afford to be—critical of both state attitudes to the 'socially excluded' and of its own tokenism.

This is difficult territory for artists. On one side there's the path taken by projects like Bonnie Sherk's city farm in San Francisco. Founded in 1974, it became a living example of effective artist-initiated community action for nearly a decade, and fell off the artworld map in the process. On the other side there are signs that the current tendency in art towards direct engagement with social and political structures could be spawning a kind of off-the-shelf house style, pushing the right curatorial buttons, but you can bet that Mir's work won't fall into that trap. Her work, with its often hyperbolic rhetoric, romanticism and unpredictable invention, doesn't fit easily into any obvious movement, and she once suggested cryogenically freezing a certain European curator and waking them in the distant future, so they could get a sense of perspective.

Mir is, however, very aware of the context she works in and the activities of her peers, and the just-published book Corporate Mentality, a three year long editing project that she put together with fellow New Yorker John Kelsey, celebrates the diverse ways in which contemporary artists are not only critiquing corporate structures, but adopting them in order to subvert them. The book 'focuses on the complex and ambiguous ways artistic production inhabits corporate processes, abandoning the autonomy of the artwork, in order to elaborate resistant approaches to a world increasingly determined by commercial strategies and market concerns', an essential area of interest as artists wake up to the reality of the Clinton-era fantasy of ethical corporatism. The plan came out of Mir and Kelsey's realisation that the publicity industry wasn't stealing artists' ideas, but simply employing artists, like Mir herself, who needed a day job. 'Radical' aesthetics that had taken at least sixth months to travel (we're in New York here) from downtown to uptown were now transferred almost instantaneously, causing artists to reassess their methods. But while many reacted by stealing back the corporate forms of consultancy or advertising, Mir's own work actually functions very differently. Too close to its subject matter to be called allegorical, still it deals with media themes and images in a way that's more epic than clandestine, and rather than inhabiting corporate structures it's mostly concerned with the mechanics of representation, emblems and symbols.

Mir's ambition is obvious—not her ambition for fame, or even a solidly commercial artworld career, but for her work itself. For every project she realises, there are ten others waiting in the wings, ready to go. In the projects she does realise she's uncompromising, willing to work around the clock to achieve the effect she wants and encouraging everybody else involved to do the same. And there usually are plenty of other people involved, because she doesn't think small, at least not often. Example: seeing that Stonehenge has been turned into nothing more than the image of itself—a place now run as a commercial venture for tourists but that you can't actually visit, only spy from a distance—Mir has proposed constructing an exact replica a few miles away. This would fulfil the same function, leaving the actual Stonehenge to get some of its dignity back. And she's serious. Of course making a new henge wouldn't need the hundreds of years and thousands of people the first one did, but it's not trivial, and taking on the bureaucracy of UK planning laws (unless you're building a bypass or a shopping centre) is a task close enough to that of dragging a bluestone from the Welsh mountains to Salisbury Plain (and a recent reconstruction of this failed halfway through, the 'Millennium Stone' left stranded on the wrong side of the Bristol Channel).

The highest profile scheme to date, and definitely the biggest, was First Woman on the Moon (1999), a massive collaborative operation produced by Casco Projects that turned part of the Dutch coast into a sandy lunar landscape, complete with craters, a giant set for the cinematic recreation of an event that never happened. A group of female astronauts planted a flag (oddly enough the Stars and Stripes, chance for extra revisionism overlooked in favour, I guess, of better historical simulation) on the skyline, smiling and waving for the cameras, in an extravagant but light-hearted polemic that generated equal amounts of admiration and suspicion—suspicion mostly of the size of the undertaking in relation to the low budget norms of critical contemporary art. We're used to the way artists are encouraged to inflate simplistic humanist statements—Gormley's Angel, Hirst's Hymn, Viola's Nantes Triptych—to giant proportions, while anything that hints at activism gets made on the photocopier or accused of selling out. But the bombast of Mir's event went not a thousandth of one percent of the way to redressing the skewed value system it addressed, and when the budget of a typical Hollywood film is £40,000,000, the production (put together with £2000 and a lot of goodwill) looks like a micro-scale reality hack, a small step forward on a long road.

Still, it's clear that Mir sees the publicity industry as something to be faced on its own terms by a media literate and ideologically aware art production. You can see she doesn't subscribe to the often-repeated theory that the global diffusion of these kinds of power structures places them out of reach, and her ongoing photo-archive Hello (2000-) makes a good counter-argument. With 'six degrees of separation' in mind, Hello links Mir and her friends to movie stars, politicians, presidents and royalty in a dizzying unbroken chain of photographed meetings. Parts of it recall the nightmare celebrity continuum of Brett Easton Ellis's Glamorama, itself more or less a Burroughs cut-up of the media celeb-world and the around town round-ups of public air-kissing that feature in magazines like Vogue or, of course, Hello. But as the hundreds of images pile up (and it's important that this is an open-ended, potentially never-ending project) the work reverses the distinction between 'them' and 'us', publicity stills of the great and good turning slowly into flat shapes with the meaninglessness of a repeated word while the snapshots of more ordinary folk gain hidden depths, the inverse glamour of unknown lives.

Throughout Mir's projects what comes up again and again is the gap between the scale and power of art and the scale and power of the other forces at work in the world. Mir's answer is a double strategy, pushing her work as far into the realm of the spectacle as she can and simultaneously—in works like Living and Loving #1 (produced by Cubitt, 2002), the scrapbook memoir of an unassuming young American called D. C., or her film-in-progress of a year's worth of strangers' sandcastles being made and washed away on Coney Island beach—heading in the opposite direction, trying to find representations or spaces that escape the media economy.

One of Mir's most recent works, Pink Tank (2002), ended up combining both approaches. In 1992 Czech artist David Cerny gave a coat of pink paint to an old Russian tank in Prague that served as a WWII memorial, putting a sign on it that read 'Trojan Horse' and turning it into a post-Velvet Revolution symbol charged with memories of the '68 Soviet invasion. Mir's redecorated tank—in Bermondsey—might seem a little stranded without a comparable context, planned not as a revision of history but as a summertime talking point, with the reactions from passers by collected in the spin-off work, 'Tank Talk'. But the combination of the breezy comments and the buried fact that popular uprisings in plenty of Western satellite states and former colonial territories met with equally forceful, and often more violent and lethal, military reprisals than did the Prague Spring, combined to give the work the weird status of an icon that had been forgotten before it was created—then, in another uncanny Mir coincidence, reactivated by images of Western armies once again in misguided action.

Mir's next plan, Plane Landing (2003 and ongoing), to be realised by the arts trust at Compton Verney later this year, is to make a helium balloon mock-up of a generic jet airliner. This imitation plane, a twenty metre prototype for a future full-size version, will be tethered above the ground as if frozen on its final approach, the image of innumerable similar landings for fifty years past. Mir plans to tour it to some of the world's most photographed landscapes—from the English countryside to the Swiss Alps to New York's Central Park—where the work could easily be a romantic tribute to the modern sublime, a warped update of the early nineteenth-century vogue for fake but picturesque neo-classical monuments that would complement the beauty of the landscape. It's certainly meant to underline the way that the technology of international travel has made those landscapes part of a global continuum of natural beauty available to the connoisseur, but, given recent events, even that reading comes with a large side-order of hubris: the realisation that human sovereignty over nature could well be just a footnote to a more fundamental social failure.