Aleksandra Mir

Interview with Aleksandra Mir

Welcome Back To Earth, exhibition guide, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, Switzerland, 12 April - 9 June 2003
By Gianni Jetzer

Let's see what happens and who will be there

Gianni Jetzer: The title of your show at Kunsthalle St. Gallen "Welcome Back to Earth" evokes that you have been away? What is the broader context of this show?

Aleksandra Mir: I collect aviation and space travel memorabilia. The title for my show is taken directly from a commemorative button of man's first flight around the moon, dated Dec 21-27, 1968. Homecoming was an integral part of JFK's infamous speech that launched the space program; "Sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth'. Recent times, with Columbia exploding, have also proved how risky and potentially embarrassing homecoming continues to be. Landing, as opposed to blastoff, which is kind of simple and obvious when it works, has always been more ambiguous and interesting to me. It has been an issue from the earliest days of aviation where daredevil inventors would figure out how to get up in the air with a machine that rested on bicycle wheels, not having the faintest idea of how to get back down safely again, breaking records, but also bones. So the phrase "Welcome Back to Earth" evokes both the thrills and anxieties of life, in a really compact and nicely historical way.

Can you briefly retrace the project Plane Landing from the first idea to the present state?

In the spring of 2001, I was on residency in England and spent a lot of time local trains. One hazy morning on the train from London to Bristol, I saw several back lit planes at a distance, appearing one by one, seemingly suspended, completely still in the sky, but obviously in the process of landing. They made me think about physics, illusions, places, non-places, transitions, travel, tourist cultures, leisure economies, the behavioral patterns of the art world, kite flying, ballooning, park games, escapes, exiles, states, stateless-ness. I thought I could talk about ALL of that while simultaneously further the proud tradition of women in aviation. 

It has been over 2 years in production now, I just signed off on the technical drawings which will be show at the Kunshalle St. Gallen. The launch date for the actual plane is set to July 11th at the grounds of Compton Verney, a stately mansion surrounded by Capability Brown designed parkland in Warwickshire, England. After this, it is planned to go on an international tour to offset a range of cliched geographies around the world; the Manhattan skyline; the Sharjah Desert; the Swiss Alps, etc. We'll see how it goes. The interesting thing of working in the world of developing aviation technology, is that the vision to lift is sustained, regardless of the outcome.

You work together with engineers and the best balloon maker Dan Cameron, from Cameron Balloons in Bristol. What kind of co-operation is this? Do you have precise plans in your mind when you started this co-operation?

Cameron balloons happen to be located in Bristol, regarded the ballooning capital of the world. It was coincidentally on a train to Bristol that I first had the vision for Plane Landing, but in between, I pretty much sourced the world for balloon makers, helium suppliers, etc. Cameron's produce one balloon ever day, have been leading in the development of special shapes balloons and are involved in a range of special high technology projects, most prominently building the Breitling Orbiter II, that was the first balloon to make it around the world in 1999. 

The relationship between the arts and the sciences is fascinating and fluctuating in every detail. Fantasy, vision and pragmatics are interlaced on both sides, affecting, inspiring and challenging each other. The result is an obvious compromise and outcome of a very real and intense dialogue. It has been very slow. I must have visited Bristol 15 times in the last 24 months, for it is not only technology and design you discuss, but the whole framework of meaning and presentation and so on. In projects this complex, it is imperative that the vision on my part is extremely simple and clear, but also completely open ended to the desires and capacities of all collaborating parties. As more and more people are getting involved in various aspects of this production, it adds qualities, flavors and levels of complexity to the work, which is just the way I like it.

To build a balloon in the shape of a steel airplane was a real challenge. What is the image that you have in your mind, when you imagined your plane floating out there?

I wanted a floating, tethered balloon, that would sit completely still in the sky, hovering fairly low overhead, as in a permanent state of landing. A sculpture in the air, that hardly moves. This is not a technical challenge; it is a complete absurdity and a paradox. A balloon has no means of velocity but simply drifts with the wiind, this is what makes it the blissful form of aviation that it is. The best balloon shape to balance and to sustain the elements is therefore a sphere; the worst imaginable is a cross—the shape of an airplane. The cross- shape in turn was designed to propel itself, i.e. 500 ton steel, ahead by aerodynamic force. You fill that shape with helium, and you are basically defeating all physical laws.

You have chosen different landscapes to launch Plane Landing in all kind of different settings, from the English Parkland, the Manhattan skyline, the desert of Shariah to the mountains of Säntis. What is the importance of the landscape for the project and how get local people involved?

The plane offsets the landscape that it is placed within, which is how I want to discuss 'location' and invert site specificity by. Local hostship is developed on every site so that the meaning of the work becomes associated with local desires from the very start. When you and I met around this for example, you mentioned what's on the Swiss mind at the moment, the collapse of the national airline Swissair and its significance to the national identity. In Manchester, it adds to the history of industrialism; In NY, we had a meeting immediately after September 11, to assure the necessity to produce the work in Manhattan and maintain its openness.

The first prototype has a length of 19 meters is already rather big. You nevertheless plan a 1:1 plane as the real thing. When will it be finished?

I don't know. It is not really up to me.

In your installation Aviation Archive you bring together over 100 books, composing a panorama of heavenly iconography. What is the link between the Aviation Archive and the Plane Landing piece?

In between my Bristol meetings, there is very little for me to do, so to sustain my interest in aviation, I started to collect plane reference material and memorabilia which is collected in the Aviation Archive and that I can exhibit independently or in combination with the plane. The Aviation Library is the gathering of hundreds of book with skies and airplanes on them. The contents of the books range from technical manuals to spiritual guidance, cheesy novels and success stories. A sky is such a useful image.

First Woman on the Moon was an incredible happening attracting people and media on the very day on a beach in Holland? Is Plane Landing a similar event?

Yes, I hope so. This time an object is the protagonist, but it is intended a similar full on public spectacle and local hosts are already thinking about their frameworks, how to get people involved and what entertainment can be offered on the side to complement the work. At Compton Verney, we will have a garden party with a silver band, at the Manchester Museum of Science of Industry, a steam locomotive to match.

The painting of the Icelandic painter Erro is another icon in your show Welcome Back to Earth. Erro shows the astronauts as heroes. Three women's faces are shown inscribed in the circle of a planet as mute admirers. What do you like about this painting? Did you inverse somehow the passive role of the women in your First Woman on the Moon?

Erro is just such a lovely artist. This particular painting I have a very special relationship to. It belongs to the Nordic House in Reykjavik, an Alvar Aalto designed center for Nordic culture where I was invited to show my moon landing video in 2000. The painting, which originally was hanging in the director's office, was found back in the Xerox room, put there by the female director who had found it offensive. My video was showing as 'TV' on a monitor, with relaxed Aalto sofas around and I brought the painting out on the wall and in public, to complement my piece. We now have it on loan from Iceland for this show as well, and I am very happy to see it again. 

Regarding the supposingly feminist element in First Woman on the Moon—it's open-ended. I received both congratulatory telegrams from Australian gender studies departments, as well as hate mail from American feminists who opposed my conflation of gender issues with imperialism (The use of the American flag in Holland). I also received severe protests from the Association of Autonomous Astronauts who are contesting NASA's monopoly on space travel, saying that my work was showing the mere impotence of regular people's capacity for space travel, in that I wasn't really intending to 'go anywhere' but muck around in the sands. I get all sorts of readings and that is my point, keeping the ball in the air.

Do you see yourself as the pilot of Plane Landing or as the "master of ceremony"?

I usually see myself as a hostess in my work. It all about inviting people to participate and make them feel part of it. It can get sinister, but mostly, it is very sweet.

You plan to do a film documenting the plane landing-launches all over the world? Can you tell some more about the making of this film? Who will be the key figures? What will be the atmosphere?

Film, photo, writing, I take documentation seriously and invest a lot of time and effort in it. Plane Landing has been so demanding to create and while it is effectively a very ephemeral piece that I don't know the outcome of yet, I am naturally concerned with having it documented. The atmosphere and people that are at work when we stage it, is the atmosphere and people you will hopefully find in the documentation as well. Let's see what happens and who will be there.