Aleksandra Mir

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Photograph, New York, Sept/Oct 2004
By Mia Fineman

If you're reading this, chances are you know someone who knows someone who knows the Polish-born, Swedish-raised, New York-based artist Aleksandra Mir. Maybe your chiropractor also treats her website manager's bad back; maybe she went to art school with your college roommate's brother-in-law. The world is small, but the art world is even smaller, and sooner or later you're bound to chance upon a mutual acquaintance, once or twice removed.

The Harvard sociologist Stanley Milgram called this the "small world phenomenon" and in 1967, he devised an experiment demonstrating that every person in the United States is connected to every other person by a chain of six people at most. In 1990, the playwright John Guare dramatized the idea in Six Degrees of Separation, a play based on the real-life story of a con man who bilked an Upper East Side couple by convincing them that he went to college with their children. "It's not just big names," remarks one of the characters, reflecting on the myriad links that bind us one to another. "It's anyone: a native in a rain forest, a Tiero del Fuegan, an Eskimo. I am bound—you are bound—to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It's a profound thought… How everyone is a new door, opening onto other worlds."

This complex web of social connectedness is also the subject of Aleksandra Mir's ongoing photographic project, HELLO. For each installation of the piece (there have been eight so far, most recently at the Sydney Biennale in 2002), Mir collects thousands of photographs—family snapshots, film stills, paparazzi shots, news images—and arranges a selection in a long row on the gallery walls. Each photograph features two people posing together, one of whom appears again in the next image, which connects to the next, and so on, tracing a meandering daisy-chain of human encounters. In one picture, we see John Glenn with John F. Kennedy; then JFK shaking hands with a teenaged Bill Clinton; then Bill and Hillary, decked out in wigs and cowboy hats; then Hillary and Santa Claus, until eventually we arrive at Harry Belafonte and Miss Piggy by way of Joseph Stalin.

Mir, 36, studied cultural anthropology at the New School for Social Research; like most of her projects, HELLO is the result of countless hours of field work. Many of the photographs are drawn from archives or image banks, but she also rifles through troves of personal snapshots, linking the rich and famous to ordinary individuals. "The potential depth of this is scary because it covers all of photo-history," she said recently, "but the emotional depth is scary, too. People start to get involved and the next thing I know, I'm visiting their grandma and looking through her photo album. Every time I finish a chain my head is like a trash can of other people's lives."

The chains in HELLO are teeming with celebrities, but the real star here is the ubiquitous presence of photography itself. The project is both an homage to the radical democracy of camera culture and a warning about its leveling effects. The world of HELLO is a world without borders, where holidays at the shore are no more or less important than political inaugurations, and where characters like Santa Claus, Miss Piggy, and Ronald Reagan are no more or less real than you and me. For more information on HELLO and Mir's other projects, see her website: www.aleksandramir.info.