Aleksandra Mir is best known for expansive, eruptive, frequently collaborative projects designed to play open-ended havoc with fixed beliefs: staging and filming a mock lunar landing on a Dutch beach in 1999 and claiming to be the first woman on the moon; crowdsourcing Westernised names for Tokyo’s streets in 2003-4; or printing a million postcards of global waterways in 2009 and declaring them all to be in Venice, mocking the city’s obsession with tourism. Yet she has, since 2001, also found time to make some 26 discrete series of drawings, unified by her demotic use of a Sharpie pen and her tendency to base them on – and radically reframe the purpose of – existing informational media, including maps, newspapers and, most recently, vinyl records. The earliest works in this continuum adopted the unfussy style of the Polish satirical cartoons Mir grew up reading, and displayed the anthropology-trained artist’s interest in normative systems and unconscious groupthink: see, for example, Female Curator Hairdos (2001). Two years later, The World from Above (2003) revealed an implicitly sociable side to her drafting. These maps, at wildly differing scales, seemed to invite knowledgeable viewers to fill in the information missing in them.
By The Church of Sharpie (2006), Mir had merged her collaborative tendencies with her drawing practice. Gathering 16 assistants for ‘a Sharpie drawing marathon’ in New York resulted in 20 190” x 120” drawings that took handmade maps of the US as a framework for wide-ranging, handwritten commentaries on everything from the Civil War to the Space Shuttle to flowers to the baby boom. Such projects suggest that Mir’s metier is exponentially generative, spiralling systems, simple starting points expansible to epic scales. (See, for example, HELLO (2000-), repeatedly remade in different cities: a six-degrees-of-separation daisy chain of photographs from the given locale, snapshot to press pic, in which a person in one photograph reappears in the next, and which equalises celebrities and the anonymous and jumps wildly around in time.) And the World Maps (2009) series reinforced this, while at the same time operating as a kind of refusal of the potential editorial bias and spurious claims to authority in mapmaking: works like the World Map of Natural Hazards and the World Map of Obsolete Technologies refused to make a stab at accuracy in favour of a mute abstraction: ovoid fields of tessellated squares.
For the drawing series Mandalas (2007), the format was primarily a decorated circle. Mir, though, sought to create objects of contemplation for a Western, secular audience, resulting in rounds featuring Op-art patterning, bricks, ballerinas, and disco records. The latter, in turn, seeded Dessins (2011): hugely enlarged Sharpie drawings of record sleeves and records by anyone from Lou Reed (seen in ridiculous Quasimodo caricature on the copied sleeve) to Beethoven to easy-listening string ensembles. These monuments to dead media, like Mir’s earlier faithful copies of out-of-date newspapers in Newsroom 1986-2000 (2007), end up being, in various ways, about time and collective change: temporality is encoded into the laborious Sharpie infilling, even. Treat them as pseudo-mandalas, gaze slowly and contemplatively into them, and they start to speak of a culture whose spirituality might be hitched not to meditation but to mediation, that needs a familiar icon to catch its eye long enough to slow it down. If Mir has never stopped being an anthropologist, then, she’s one who wants not only to reveal unremarked cultural habits but also, if only temporarily, to alter them.