Aleksandra Mir

Gravity - Interview with Aleksandra Mir

By Jes Fernie
Blueprint Magazine, London, Jul 2006

Jes Fernie: Could you outline the basic thrust of the project and your interest in the idea of space exploration?

Aleksandra Mir: It is interesting for me as a woman to take on big projects, a quality worth exploring in and of itself, since for the most part big projects are associated with a lot of power, which I don’t necessarily have. And when I say big, I don’t mean just institutionally big in terms of resources and execution or spatially big in terms of art historical genres such as monumental sculpture and land art, but big in terms of an idea’s resonance with world history.

Global events in popular culture, such as the moon landing, the development of a mass aviation culture, the future of the space program, etc, have massive influence on how we live and perceive ourselves in the world. To contribute to these grand narratives as an artist means that I can attempt to formally mimic their orchestration, play and make believe, but in a scale of David vs. Goliath, also reveal my vulnerability and incompetence, speaking for all those narratives in the backwater of utopia that typically remain untold.

My previous work for example, First Woman on the Moon was originally conceived in 1999 for the 30th anniversary of the original moon landing, in order to beat JFK to his goal of ‘Putting a man on the moon and bringing him back safely to earth before the end of the decade’ (the 60s). I wanted to put a woman on the moon before the end of the millennium, knowing very well this wasn’t going to happen. My woman only climbed a sand dune on a beach in Holland, but everyone who was there joined in on the fantasy for a day. Likewise, the ambitious construction of a space rocket out of mere junk, entitled Gravity and that in effect is going nowhere, is a metaphoric comment on what holds us back, rather than articulating any real intention to go.

My work is often described as ‘feminist’ but I personally know it is more complicated than that. For while the successful realization of a project (and there are so many obstacles and frequent cancellations) is another building block in the professional equality between the sexes (and the art world still has a long way to go in this respect), the content of my projects almost always pulls in the opposite direction, showing frailty, vulnerability and pathetic incompetence towards the status quo. For this I have received criticism from feminists and from space anarchists alike. I guess ambivalence is always part of a good artwork, in terms of not working in direct alliance with a simple and direct political purpose, and it leaves room for others to explore the parameters of what is possible. And as a public art work, it obviously leaves itself open to the public’s projections and uses of it. This for me is a factor unknown and part of the very pleasure of making art.

How does the project relate to the Roundhouse, architecturally and spatially?

The Roundhouse is an incredibly solid and gracious space built in 1846 and originally conceived for industrial use as a steam engine repair shed. It later became a music venue and performance art space that hosted many of the legendary acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s, before falling in to decay. Through its current renovation, the purpose is to transform it to a permanent art space, and so I revert it back again to host my ‘Rocket factory’, much like NASA’s ‘Barn’ at the Kennedy Space Center. The circular stage and 20 m+ high elevation is perfect for the cylindrical shape of my rocket, which is also structurally designed to fit exactly into that space.

What are the dimensions of the rocket? What will be made of and what is the rational behind this?

Twenty metres high. It will be built out of junk, discarded parts from our immediate environment that have already served their purpose in other parts of society and that can be easily traced back to their original and respective functions. The main bottom part measuring 3m in diameter is a tank from a toothpaste factory. There are a variety of other tanks, heavy car tires, pipes and containers of various sorts. The idea of using found objects, cultural residue or garbage stands in direct opposition to the utopia of new shiny things. It also means that to a certain degree I can work with a ready-made aesthetic, using objects that already contain their own stories. This is appropriate and very rewarding since I am not a rocket engineer and I am not looking for that sort of credibility at all.

On the other hand, the pragmatics of working with discarded and old materials is ten times harder than making something new from scratch. The labor behind the scene, to create a viable structure, the sourcing of materials and the meeting of safety regulations alone takes months to research, assess and clear. The production therefore depends on numerous factors and lots of other people having their say. So the result is always going to be the effect of a process of negotiation between my personal whims, engineering factors, availability of materials, their properties and legality, the space requirements, worker regulations and public safety codes. Leaving a big portion of my work in the hands of others is something I have had to do by necessity but is also something I very much enjoy. This way of working always leaves a collective sense of accomplishment and produces a shared labor of love that is infused with playfulness.

What is the research process for making the piece?

The commissioners and executive producers, Art Catalyst, and the people they have employed, primarily the industrial designer Cory Burr, who is responsible for making this thing physically work, obviously do a lot of the research and planning in the UK, since I don’t even live there. I have visited once a month, gone on sites looking for materials, indicated my preferences regarding all aspects of the production and developed technical drawings with Cory. The rest, from planning the choreography on site, to doing interviews like this one, goes via email.

The most amazing part of this experience for me, considering the enormous amount of effort and time we are all putting into something that will only last for five days, is the value it gives to the ephemeral event, a genre of art that has always stood in a minor position to solid material art forms such as painting or traditional sculpture. Because the object itself will be dismantled after the show, and the parts will return to where they originally came from, or be sold off as scrap metal, this rocket is at once my biggest monumental sculpture to date and just another fleeting event that leaves me with nothing but documentation in the end. I am using snapshots taken of myself posing at the various sites of research, the junkyards and industrial sites I’ve seen in the peripheries of urban life, full of heavy and dirty things, places I can only refer to as ‘Man World’. I am printing up a pin-up calendar of sorts. It tells the story of a woman who has landed in what is for her a very strange and exotic place, a place that might as well be another planet.