Aleksandra Mir

Open Space

By Martin Herbert
The Space Age, M - Museum, Leuven / Sternberg Press, Berlin, November 2013

28 November – 16 February 2014
The Space Age, M - Museum, Leuven

Even on a budget of precisely nothing, it is possible for a woman to go to the moon. The moon might, of necessity, be a beach in the Netherlands: a lunar span of gray sand that is Europe’s widest. You, the woman, will need to sweet-talk locals and hustle for volunteers, who’ll have their own reasons for joining in. To get the project documented, call Hasselblad—camera manufacturer of choice for NASA, and opportunely based in your Swedish hometown—and ask them to equip you; they have proprietorial claims on the moon and won’t want you to approach their rivals. You will get substantial media coverage if you choose to do this on a major anniversary of that first moon landing, the first male broaching virgin territory; though it’s possible that, in saying this, priorities are reversed—that you’d wanted to make a contagiously sociable, open-ended artwork and found the right place on the right date. You can use the professional TV crews’ footage in your own video documentation of the event, and Hasselblad will also donate you a ready-made soundtrack, drawn from their in-house corporate presentation of the original event (which, of course, employed their camera).

And when the roving diggers have fashioned the ersatz craters and mounds, you scale the highest one at sunset and plant your flag, to a drumbeat, and others follow and become the first this, that, and the other on the moon, and believe it, because in the moment it’s as true as any image. As a former media student, you know that history is produced via images, and you make history here. You even send the resultant video to Arthur C. Clarke and Neil Armstrong, who both watch it, closing a narrative circle since you were raised on their stories. At the time of writing, nearly fifteen years after First Woman on the Moon (1999), and although the Chinese are about to send up an unmanned lander named after a goddess, you’re still the first woman on the moon (and it makes you cringe). And, glimpsing a familiar face in this moon, some people will say—have said, still say—what was that all about? Feminism? The moon-landing conspiracy? Not only, unless you prefer art to shrink to the dimensions of your own issue-driven preconceptions, don’t want it to be organic and encompassing, a receiving structure rife with contradiction and question-inspiring absurdity. The askers’ preoccupation is a big circle to them, and they want to fit First Woman on the Moon within it. That’s exactly the wrong way around.

The moon goes around the earth, the moon landings did too, and drew its peoples momentarily together—even, Aleksandra Mir remembers, those in the Soviet bloc—and when an artist goes around the earth, she finds that our romance with space resonates wherever. It will be received individually, but it will be responded to. This is pragmatism and why Mir, at repeated points in her career, and in diverse countries and continents, has revisited matters cosmic. An engine of collective yearning powered Gravity (2006), a twenty-two-meter-high, junk-constructed rocket built in public at the Roundhouse, London, and then dismantled. It meant what it meant to you, inasmuch as here was a highly loaded object/image being built in a postindustrial country in a post-space-race era. Still, there was a definite interpretative fork.

On the one hand, contingencies in its making—a limited time frame, nowhere for the thing to go afterward—meant Gravity ended up ghosted with plaintiveness, entropy, defeat. On the other, it strained against obstacles (financial, pragmatic, even down to how Mir raised herself up to the roof to document it) and succeeded. And there is something in this—in the ongoing, muscle-developing attempt against countermanding forces, to achieve something, to resist—that twists the work philosophically. (Perhaps note that before watching the documentary video and leaning too hard on phallic imagery, workmen, etc., those men were necessary to get the work done and sometimes a rocket is just a rocket.)

The desire to leave the planet, to outstrip earthly bonds, is also a longstanding one, suggests Mir’s seriocomic collage series The Dream and the Promise (2009), in its Dadaistic interfacing of Renaissance-era Christian iconography and astronaut imagery. Yesterday’s halo is today’s helmet, yesterday’s crucified Christ our era’s spacewalk, yesterday’s theology midwifes modern astrophysics. When Galileo developed his theory of gravity, he was a devout Catholic; the same Catholic Church, of course, thought him a heliocentric heretic and, according to legend, a madman for dropping cannonballs off the Tower of Pisa to prove, contra Aristotle, that objects of different masses would fall at the same speed. “The reason we got here today, was because of a gentleman called Galileo,” said Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott in 1971, live on the moon, before using a falcon feather and a hammer to retest the Italian’s findings concerning mass and velocity. Mir, for her part, staged a more antic investigation via The Seduction of Galileo Galilei (2011), a work that found her at a karting center near Toronto, inveigling engineers to build toppling stacks of automotive tires, demonstrating that what goes up must come down. The piece, as so often with Mir, spun out of control as the technicians, frustrated, were finally allowed to demonstrate the feats they could perform with stacked tires.

Of course, those selfsame specialists “got” Mir’s project immediately, on their own terms—they couldn’t work without Galileo’s innovations—and that’s the motive force of her work. When, this year, she crashed a satellite in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a junk-constructed monster with sci-fi trappings (it appears powered by a speckling of wind turbines), the event was set up in a classically Mir fashion: Let’s agree, because it is more productive than disagreeing, that this has happened. Nobody is claiming the satellite; it’s from out there, from a junk-culture civilization. Or mint your own explanation for what’s indisputably present and as true as anything in the media—and that media semi-authenticates, in the forms of modified newspaper reports, fake press releases, announcements to space centers worldwide. Some of the half-million Brazilian schoolchildren for whom the show is mandatory viewing are going to grow up with memories of a crashed satellite. Some of us are going to see it and unreservedly dream, or filter it through our own agendas and then, perhaps, feel how rigid, how fine-meshed they are.

Aleksandra Mir walked on the moon some years ago. She dragged down a satellite from the sky recently. To buy into these assertions is to secularize Pascal’s wager—that there is more to be gained from acquiescing—though we may well believe anyway because we are being romanced by satellites, rockets, and moons. Sizeable things, these always end up smaller than Mir’s art, which contains them plus the selfhoods, motivations, and unexamined biases of everyone who creates, encounters, or hears about them. You want to build something capacious enough to hold all of that—to encompass indeterminacy itself, art-as-proposition? Nothing is bigger than space.