For the 53rd edition of the Biennial in Venice (2009), Aleksandra Mir had printed a series of postcards (one hundred versions in a series of ten thousand, i.e. a total of one million postcards), that visitors could take freely from stands placed in the exhibition area, either to keep or to send to their friends and family. Postage stamps were available directly on the spot, at both the Arsenale and the Giardini, with the kind assistance of the Italian postal service, whose employees also installed two mailboxes on the premises, the contents of which were regularly collected. The visual style of the postcards was designed by a graphic studio, with all motifs taken from a commercial image service. They depicted a variety of aquatic scenes: beaches in the Caribbean, surfers on the crest of waves, waterfalls, mountain streams, Nordic fjords, famous bridges, offshore oil platforms and cities built on water. Not one of the hundred images featured Venice, but all were inscribed “Venezia”.
Browsing through a collection of postcards, one sometimes recognizes and sometimes guesses what exactly they represent, and all of a sudden there comes to mind the image of a pipe with the calligraphic inscription “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, this is not a pipe. The philosopher Michel Foucault was so fascinated by Magritte’s painting that he dedicated an entire book to it.
The Surrealist painter broke the received rule of correspondence between image and text, revealing a far deeper, structural discrepancy between the visible and verbal utterance an insurmountable abyss, which devours all meaning that attempts to cross to the other side. Foucault’s acute analysis offers a rather bleak vision, where image and text lead a parallel but isolated existence. Their worlds reference one another, creating affinities, but this is a relationship carried out at a distance. Under what circumstances and whether or not they meet is decreed by the authoritative discourse.
Magritte, partly under Foucault’s influence, would later create several variations of the same motif. By doing so he in fact demolished his own work as a unique original. He preferred to do so himself, before it was devoured by technical reproduction. From today’s perspective, this anxiety seems anachronistic. A world without technological images is something akin to Atlantis, a paradise lost of our civilization. One may try to imagine the circumstances of its demise, studying the archaeological sources, but we may never explicitly express them, or experience them directly. It is in this sense that one should understand the way in which Aleksandra Mir works with alogism or unoriginality. She is not seeking a visionary revelation at the core of the problem, but rather circles around it, expressing herself indirectly, in the form of interplay between displacement symbols and allusions, by the gradual accumulation of associations. Venice is a metonymy, a city whose separate elements carry within them other meanings. Its foundations are built on water, the stagnant water of canals that run into the open sea. The dialectic of self-containment and openness, of movement and settlement, of the ephemeral and the permanent, is undistinguishable here. Its manner of outward display forms a content all its own.
Among the symbols of Venice is the mask, which represents surface, content and self-sufficiency within itself. It also reverses customary meanings and relations. Concealing the identity of its bearer, the mask thus strips him of the aura of individuality. From then on, it becomes a face beneath a mask – interchangeable and transitory – and it is the mask that conveys the aura of mystery and immortality. Though this comes to pass only during the brief period of Carnival, there is still something permanent and immutable in the nature of the mask. The mask, however, played yet another seminal role in the history of Venice – during elections it served as a guarantee of equality before the law, and of the freedom of the vote. It is thus radically egalitarian in nature, as has lately been attested to by the contemporary Anonymous movement. And vice versa – Venice as the site of a Biennial also represents a metonymy of place. Here too, the metaphor of masking particular differences by a display of current tendencies comes into play. But above all else, it brings together a wide variety of characters in the universal role of an audience. Anyone may hide beneath the mask of a visitor – artist, curator, dealer, a novice only dreaming of an artistic career, or simply a tourist seeking diversion in the city. From a different position, the very same system which creates strict divisions between the included and the excluded appears open and democratic. Aleksandra Mir’s Venezia, like her other projects, addresses chiefly the possibility of a shift in perspective. In doing so, she implicitly points to the possibility of change as such.