The Seduction of Galileo Galilei
20 October 2011 - 19 February 2012
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Aleksandra Mir's video The Seduction of Galileo Galilei, 2011, is based on Galileo's fabled experiment with falling bodies. The physicist is said to have dropped objects of different weights from the top of Pisa's famous leaning tower in 1598, in order to demonstrate that they would accelerate at the same speed regardless mass. In Mir's version, the tower itself is the object of experimentation: A group of volunteers piles car tires on top of one another until the stack gives in to gravity and crashes to the ground.
The video - on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in a presentation organized by Carter E. Foster - has a disarming charm, and a heaviness that is worn lightly. It begins with shots of a crane and a cherry picker arriving at the go-cart track where the experiment is to be staged, followed by a brisk montage of still images that show a group of adolescent onlookers gathering, volunteers preparing the winch and crane, and caution tape being strung between chairs. Then the stacking begins: The first ten or so tires are laid down by hand, with volunteers taking turns carrying, rolling, hoisting, and patting them into place; the mood at this point is light and playful, as if the project were a game. As the tower grows higher, things become more serious. A volunteer in a lift corrals the tire, which dangle from the crane, and lowers them rather solemnly onto the growing stack.
The Seduction of Galileo Galilei is shown with a handful of works from The Dream and The Promise, 2009, a series of collages that juxtapose devotional images of Jesus Christ and the Madonna with illustrations of satellites, rockets, and photographs of the universe: halos become planets and satellites become implements of martyrdom. But rather than mocking or privileging one system of thought over the other, the collages merely posit different methods of ascension, one physical, one metaphysical. The video, too, invites us to contemplate the parallel trajectories of science and faith, partly through flickers of religious iconography: the crane and cherry pockier arrive in solemn procession, like bishops during Holy Week; the artist and a crane operator greet each other in an echo of God's creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling; and, in one slow motion shot, a man raises his arms in a helpless gesture that is frankly cruciform. Even the logo on the heavy machinery is drawn into Mir's symbolic system. Although the trucks provide help that - quite literally - comes from above, the company name, Modern, emblazoned on the machinery, bring things down to earth. These moments seem more spontaneous than staged, noticed by Mir and foregrounded in the film thanks to her careful observation of the event.
In the end, the experiment is finally resolved when the tires are chained together and then lifted into the sky in a long, twisting tube before being allowed to drop, awkwardly coiled, in an uncommonly joyful moment. What comes into focus is a sense of ludic collaboration - of strangers coming together - rather than scientific rigor or the pursuit of success. In this sense - as well in its use of tires - Mir's video recalls Allan Kaprow's Yard. When he first executed the work in 1961, Kaprow filled a courtyard with tires and encouraged viewers to play. In this and other works' he called Activities, he encouraged spontaneity, viewer anticipation, and restating by other artists; in fact, he let the works' meaning be constructed from these elements, from mess and happenstance, rather than according to his own direction. Here such spontaneity leads to an interlude in which volunteers make stacks of doughnuts and coffee creamers. The playfulness and, somehow, perfect rightness of this moment suggests that Mir, too, enjoys the invention that cab result from the loss of control. "you have to allow for a good deal of chance," she has said of her working process, "and count on the grace of others." In other words, one must have a kind of faith.