Aleksandra Mir

Who Cares About Sculpture?

Institute of Fine Arts and Cultural Studies - Kunstuniversitaet, Linz, Nov 2010
By Aleksandra Mir

Transcript of a talk given at Sculpture Unlimited - Uber die Grenzen von Skulptur, symposium curated by Eva Grubinger & Joerg Heiser and moderated by Jakob Neulinger with Jennifer Allen, Nikolaus Hirsch, Martin Hochleitner, Joerg Heiser, Aleksandra Mir, Vivian Rehberg, Jan Verwoert and Anne von der Heiden. November 17, 2010, Institute of Fine Arts and Cultural Studies - Kunstuniversitaet Linz, Austria.

-- What are the sculptural qualities of 1 million postcards that weigh 16 tonnes, arrive to the Venice Biennale in 3 trucks and then are spread to the wind by the public?
-- What are the time and space coordinates for a helium inflatable jet plane, left to hover above the ground in a "permanent state of landing?"
-- What is the level of frustration associated with being stuck with a storage bill for 2529 sporting Trophies collected and called Art?
-- What is monumental about a 22m tall rocket built out of industrial debris that is discarded at a scrapheap after 3 days?
-- What are the legal thresholds and administrative consequences of attaching 50kg sticky marzipan to a series of priceless plaster casts of antique statues in order to "fix" their broken noses, fingers and toes?

These are all works and situations by Aleksandra Mir which she discussed during her presentation:

Who Cares About Sculpture?

When I started making art twenty years ago, I went to New York City to be a student at the School of Visual Arts; and I was looking at other people's work very randomly, like you do as a student. You are very lost, so you go to every show and to the library and try to get all the information that you can get hold of. I was looking at Richard Serra, and I was very impressed with the monumentality of his accomplishments; I was looking at Ray Johnson, and I was very impressed with the ephemerality of his accomplishments. From my student point of view, both positions and the spectrum that they occupied were valid and available to me to build on. But it seemed that being a student, looking at only finished results, I was also quickly absorbing all sorts of myths about these works, personalities, and the circumstances it took to create them.

Now, when I myself started to produce work and enter the realms of negotiation and fabrication and saw it from a backstage point of view, the myths fell apart into complex, mundane procedures. A lot of my practice in the meanwhile has become about showing the process behind a work, very much for practical reasons. I don't have a lot of personal resources and I am not physically strong, so I have to collaborate with people and thus take their qualities and demands into account and to present it as part of my finished aesthetic. For example, in the case of Gravity (2006), the twenty-meter high rocket, I had a tight administration and a big crew of strong men and their machines available to me, but only three days to show this monumental sculpture. So there was a debate whether we should build it without the public observing the construction--which if we had done that, would have limited the time that the audience could get access to it to just one day. So I said, "Well let's just open it up. Let's show them how it is made." People love watching things being built anyway and they love cranes and they love watching masculine men stacking big things on top of each other--I do and I am happily passing that on. So more than a finished sculpture, it also became an event and a performance that the audience could watch. Then the process reversed: you could see it being taken down and eventually this whole massive piece made out of steel was scrapped. So in this case there is complete fluidity between the monumental and the ephemeral. And maybe along these lines, I have also taken apart some of that mythology I inherited as a student in order to believe in this religion called art. The permanence of the monumental or the immateriality of the ephemeral does not hold true for me anymore.

Venezia (all places contain all others) (2009), the project I created for the Venice Biennale, approaches this question of monumentality versus ephemerality from the opposite angle. It is a mail art project taken to its logical conclusion. One postcard by itself may be humble and easily dismissed, but when you print a volume? There is an image of me standing in a storage space at the Ringier print house in Zurich. Ringier is Switzerland's biggest newspaper publishing company and they also collect and commission art. As I was doing a non-profit work in Venice, with zero budget to start with, they agreed to sponsor me by printing 100 different originals in an edition of 10,000 each--i.e., one million postcards--to give away to the public. What you see in the image is the volume of paper that one million postcards are made out of. It took sixteen tons of paper--the volume of a small house--and although it was my own idea, I was shocked when I actually walked in and saw this impressive amount of paper. Still, this is nothing in terms of industrial paper consumption and not altogether that much in relation to what is used on a daily basis at a newspaper plant, or by the postcard industry for that matter.

I used the Getty image bank for the motifs for the postcards--I sourced commercially available photographs of waterscapes from around the world, overlaying them with a graphic that spelled out "Venezia" in various typical postcard styles. The idea was pretty simple: I was making a mockery out of the tourist industry, mimicking and polluting the flow of information that Venice produces about itself. Venice is the world's most popular tourist destination and the postcard is the smallest token to carry the experience of a visit around the world for a great many people. Water for me was the unifying element connecting Venice across every border and geopolitical territory. Venice is in our bodies; Venice in every molecule of the rain.

In Venice proper, the project was presented in two locations: indoors, in boxes at the Arsenale, and outdoors, in classic postcard stands near the cafeteria in the Giardini. People were naturally interacting with the work, mailing the postcards or taking them home. Normally they don't have postboxes at the Venice Biennale site, so it took months and months of bureaucratic wrangling to get the official Poste Italiane to collaborate on this project by installing two operational postboxes that would be emptied by a real mailman every day. I wouldn't have been happy without them. Without the authentic mailboxes I would have felt this work was just a stifled, demonstrative, symbolic act, rather than the project being truly inserted into the general economy of postal circulation. Thus, I contributed my bit to the tradition of mail art, and also provided a practical tool for people to disperse these things around the world. But it is important to know that this ephemeral project would have been impossible without a monumental stack of paper, and these two postboxes--beautifully designed metal objects in themselves, akin to readymade sculptures.

I was living in Italy for the last five years and an artist friend of mine from Los Angeles, Lisa Anne Auerbach, came to visit. Together we realized the project Mazarama (2008) at the restoration department and the Gipsoteca of the Academia De Bellas Artes as part of the group exhibition "Fare Una Scenata / Making A Scene," curated by Joerg Heiser at the Fondazione Morragreco in Naples. I thought if I had studied in a very old art academy with a restoration department and a Gipsoteca (rather than a young, hip art school in New York City), I would have had another idea of what happens in the long run to the art objects that we create and how fragile they are from the beginning. To start our research, Lisa and I took photographs of ourselves, embodying the broken bodies that we found lying around the Academia that was to host our performance--we had been talking over Skype for almost two years about being international artists on the road and how much that resembled being members of the "tribe" Doctors Without Borders. Like them, we are often asked to travel to faraway places to comment, share, or somehow fix, help, or remedy a situation.

We got the permission to work on a number of restored plaster casts of Roman marble sculptures, which are in turn copies of sculptures from Greek antiquity. There is a tremendous amount of history and debate concerning each and every single one of these pieces, especially in regard to their undocumented original status, what they actually are supposed to have looked like, and whom over time has claimed authority over them or has had the expertise to decide which way they should be restored and look. For example there is a well-documented discussion around the missing arms and hands of Laocooen and His Sons--to quote from the comprehensive Wikipedia entry:

The statue of Laocooen and His Sons ... is a monumental sculpture in marble now in the Vatican Museums, Rome. The statue is attributed by the Roman author Pliny the Elder to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes, Agesander, Athendoros and Poludorus. It shows the Trojan priest Laocooen and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being strangled by sea serpents.

Various dates have been suggested for the statue, ranging from about 160 to about 20 BC. ... It is not known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture. It has been suggested that the three Rhodians were copyists, possibly of a bronze sculpture from Pergamon, created around 200 BC. ...

It was unearthed in 1506 near the site of the Domus Aurea of the Emperor Neo, in the vineyard of Felice De Fredis; informed of the fact, Pope Julius II, an enthusiastic classicist, acquired and placed it in the Belvedere Garden at the Vatican, now part of the Vatican Museums. Michelangelo was called to the site of the unearthing of the statue immediately after its discovery. In 2005 Lynn Catterson argued that the sculpture was a forgery created by Michelangelo. Richard Brilliant, author of My Laocooen, described Catterson's claims as "noncredible on any count".
When the statue was discovered, Laocooen's right arm was missing, along with part of the hand of one child and the right arm of the other. Artists and connoisseurs debated how the missing parts should be interpreted. Michelangelo suggested that the missing right arms were originally bent back over the shoulder. Others, however, believed it was more appropriate to show the right arms extended outwards in a heroic gesture. The Pope held an informal contest among sculptors to make replacement right arms, which was judged by Raphael. The winner, in the outstretched position, was attached to the statue.

In 1906 Ludwig Pollak, archaeologist, art dealer and director of the Museo Barracco, discovered a fragment of a marble arm in a builder's yard in Rome. Noting a stylistic similarity to the Laocooen group he presented it to the Vatican Museums: it remained in their storerooms for half a century. In the 1950s the museum decided that this arm--bent, as Michelangelo had suggested--had originally belonged to this Laocooen. The statue was dismantled and reassembled with the new arm incorporated. The restored portions of the children's arm and hand were removed. In the course of disassembly, breaks, cuttings, metal tenons, and dowel holes have suggested that a more compact, three-dimensional pyramidal grouping of the three figures was contemplated or used in Antiquity before subsequent ancient and Renaissance restorations were made; the more open, planographic composition along a plane, familiar in the Laocooen group as restored, has been interpreted as "apparently the result of serial reworkings by Roman Imperial as well as Renaissance and modern craftsmen".

There are many copies of the statue, including a well-known one in the Grand Palace of the Knights of St. John in Rhodes. Many still show the arm in the outstretched position. The copy in Rhodes has been corrected.

So we entered this debate as rather naive present-day tourists, walking into this space and asking, "How can we help?" Our proposal was to fix the broken body parts with marzipan; the way doctors support broken bones or amputated limbs. And to mimic the original Greek quest for an ideal beauty, we also wove in an aspect of the California plastic surgery industry in our work--the quest for an ideal beauty through Hollywood nose jobs and all sorts of absurd modifications. In this spirit, we improved, among others, Laocooen and His Sons. We thought these human shapes could morph endlessly into new and exciting forms and so approached our quest as if there were no aesthetic rules whatsoever. Marzipan is also of course a very unstable medium and the joy of this project made me feel like I was brought back to my childhood, when I was three or four years old, when there were no restrictions to what you could do, what mess you could create, and what you're allowed to do because you didn't know better and because nobody would take your claim seriously anyway.

But we are serious artists and so we had serious problems. Marzipan is basically almond oil and sugar, and it doesn't go very well with priceless plaster casts. So to get permission to do it took almost a year of administrative wrangling--we eventually were permitted to do it only with the assistance of the Professor Augusto Giuffredi, who is the Head of the Gipsoteca and a very respected restorer who basically vouched for us, convinced the authorities, and applied a preserving and reversible transparent film onto designated areas of the plaster casts that we were then allowed to interact with.

Popular culture in Italy circulates very much around sport; the installation Triumph (2009) involves 2,529 sports trophies, collected from the general population of Sicily. I was interested in how much symbolic power and emotional valued these trashy objects had held for a moment before they were forgotten, put away in storage, and eventually given away, ending up in my collection. A lot of people who raise a sport trophy reenact what they think is a tradition from Antiquity, of saluting the Gods. I went to the British Museum in London, to the Antiquities Department, and spoke to the curator--he laughed at me and said, "You are in the wrong department." The Greeks never had any of these trophies. He told me I had to go to the Medieval Department, where these kinds of silver cups first show up as part of the Catholic liturgy. So it is a modern invention that this silver trophy somehow goes with profane sports. It is our fantasy about Antiquity.

My collection of trophies was first exhibited at the Kunsthalle Schirn in Frankfurt. During installation I asked them to pull out all the plinths that they had in storage and not fix them up and not clean them, just to show them as they were--some of them still had labels of older works attached to them and all of them had been knocked around, so they all came with scratch marks and bumps that show their own history, just like the trophies. When I arrived, seventy-one plinths were available to me and I incorporated them into the installation--I eventually bought them from the Schirn. And what didn't fit on the pedestals ended up in two big piles in the corners of the room, by sheer necessity. So a lot of the final aesthetic of my works happens by default, depending on who helps and what we are doing with what is available that day, rather than by design or preconception.

Collecting is an interesting psychological feature; the editorial decision of what you keep and what you get rid of says a lot about who you are. I had placed an advertisement in the Sicilian newspaper announcing that I was buying these trophies for five euros, which is really only a symbolic token in exchange for someone's hassle to pull it out of their garage and bring it to my studio or phone me up and ask me to pick it up. People that gave me their trophies had already resolved in their minds, or emotionally, that they were no longer attached to these objects and that they would be pleased to let go of their attachment to them. So in a way what I offered people was an opportunity to get rid of their junk, to clean out their cluttered spaces, to help erase memories, and to move on with their lives. And so it was a really a beautiful exchange that can't be easily quantified in terms of monetary value.

Duchamp gave me the license to work with found objects, but he never told me about storage. I am now personally responsible for the storage bill for Triumph and it amounts to what a small apartment would cost me. Because of storage costs a lot of museums would not even want this kind of piece if you gave it to them for free so the ultimate fate of the collection is yet unknown. The burden to maintain Triumph is so great that I sometimes toy with the idea of trashing all the trophies again, unmaking the art, so to speak. What I am hearing a lot from my artist colleagues today is about the continuous problem of storage, especially now, in a recession. A lot of galleries are scaling down their storage spaces, while a lot of artists can't afford to pay the big storage rents for their own artworks. And so a lot of bulky works are actually, as we speak, being trashed. Therefore I would like to introduce the term "Unmade" for when the magic of an artwork is consciously withdrawn or simply lost, and the objects that embodied that magic by the spell of the artist are returned to being mere disposable objects again.

A piece like Plane Landing (2003-) is, among other things, an answer to this storage problem. It is a sculpture of a blow-up airplane frozen in the air as if in a permanent state of landing. I had once experienced the optical illusion of planes preparing for landing at an airport, and at a very long distance in a hazy light they looked as if they were standing still. I thought it was a beautiful image and it made me want to recreate it in the form of an object and a situation. It took four years to create. It fits into a large canvas bag but when inflated with cold air and helium takes on the size of a small jet plane. It is tethered to the ground with ropes and sandbags; it is not meant to fly away but to sit a little bit above the ground. Again, as with the rocket piece, you see some crew--putting it up and deflating it becomes part of the experience: the piece takes on all these different shapes in the process of it.

The idea that it is not supported in any way by any plinth or mechanical suspension was really the challenge in fabrication here. It is very easy to prop anything up, but it is very difficult to keep something suspended in the air. The only physical substance that would do that is helium, which is lighter than air and a very expensive natural resource. It is impossible to preserve after it has been let out of the tube, so once you have inflated something with it for one day and at the cost of thousands of pounds, as in this case, at the end you just open a zipper and let it out. So, obviously, it is very hard to find anybody interested in supporting a project like this. Even building it was very difficult in the beginning, as even the engineers who made it first did not believe it would be possible.

I first approached a company in Bristol called Cameron Balloons in 2003. They had managed to build a balloon that broke all records when it flew around the world in 2002 by employing a technology called Roziere ballooning which combines different gases in different compartments. The pilot can keep the balloon inflated with air continuously and make decisions to inflate or deflate the helium, thus hitting the jet streams in a calculated way and so brings a complex system of navigation to this age-old technology. But when I came to them a year later and said, "Can you build this inflated joke airplane that will just sit still a few feet above the ground," they told me, "You are crazy. It's impossible." But we did it. And so it is actually a feat of engineering both in terms of aesthetics, ballooning, and aviation--the piece is a strange anomaly of sorts in all these worlds. To drift with the wind and not to wobble too much--a balloon is built as a sphere, which is the most stable form for an object that has no means for velocity. An airplane has the opposite purpose, it can propel itself forward by its own fuel and force and so it is built as a cross in order to take advantage of aerodynamic forces and defeat most normal wind conditions. So, what I have done here is to combine two technologies into one--a paradoxical challenge.

In Paris, the piece was shown in a sculpture context, next to other sculptures in the garden of the Louvre, with a museum guard watching over it. You might wonder what makes an inflated airplane a sculpture. I think one way to define what makes a sculpture is to see how people behave when they are near what they think is a sculpture. So, if they're comfortable enough to stand next to it and have their photograph taken, then it probably is a sculpture. Or art students drawing it--you see all this classic art viewer behavior taking place, which is really funny and sweet. Nobody was fazed by this in Paris; but in New York City, which was my hometown for many years, and where I attempted to work with two public art foundations, the realization was cancelled. It is simply not feasible to have an airplane-balloon in Manhattan next to buildings without freaking a lot of people out. So the external connotations are as important to the successful or failed realization of a piece, and there is nothing I can do about that.

But when it does work, it can be magical. There was one interesting moment that happened in Paris. I had been working with this project for years and the process is always very pragmatic: to assemble a team of varying nationalities and personalities, spend months on fundraising and on clearing permissions, then on the inflation days, get up at 4 a.m., to wake the hotel manager to wake the crew, make sure there is coffee, and brief everyone, be on site at 5 a.m., lay out the deflated plane, position the photographers, start inflating the helium, go through the day, deal with the public, authorities, media, and weather, deflate the helium, unpack, return the crew to the hotel, download and back up all the photography, prepare for the next day, check on the equipment and handle crew disagreements, make sure everything works and everyone is happy, crash at 2 a.m., get up at 4 a.m. and go to a different location, etc. I am used to going through these motions like a donkey on steroids, being a visionary and a mother, a diplomat and a warrior all at once--and then on this one occasion, on location at the dry fountain between Palais de Tokyo and Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris I had a spiritual epiphany. At the point when we had completed the day's work and the plane was almost deflated, only its "head" still sticking up, I was sitting underneath it holding the ropes and looking up at the eyes (the pilot's windows) and I suddenly felt an intense connection with it that I had never experienced before. This soft sculpture had achieved a personality, a consciousness, and something akin to a soul. As we were facing each other I was having an understanding and a relationship with it. We knew it was going to be deflated and packed up again for an unknown time and there was a ritual saying goodbye between us. One of my photographers captured the moment and it was so powerful it made the cover of a magazine. What I think happened that you go through these very, very exhaustive, labor-intensive situations--there is a lot of wrangling, tension, and struggle and I think what happens in your brain, or my brain at least, is that you reach a certain level of exhaustion and fatigue and it is all driven by love and somehow that can get translated to an inanimate object that achieves this soul, a translation of humanity's struggle and passion. It is very hard for me to speak about this because it doesn't really fit into anything I really believe in or look for, but it does happen occasionally and I am very grateful for it. Obviously it is nothing I can direct or set up. Finally, the plane fits into a canvas bag, the crew walks away with it and puts it in storage and that's it.

There is a reason I don't teach at art academies--I can only show you the conclusions I have come to and tell you not to try this at home unless you have some insane drive in you that tells you to go out and do it. For me, the question, "Who cares about sculpture?" is not just a throwaway question; it relates to the respect I have for traditional sculptors who do actually care, staying in their studios every day and thinking through form. Some of my projects have been supported by the Henry Moore Foundation--and considering what Henry Moore was all about, I sometimes think, "God, this man would be turning in his grave if he knew what I was doing with his money." The way my works arrive at a certain form is often completely by default and has nothing to do with his kind of concern for the design of form; it can just happen, say, with the rocket piece, that one part turns out to be too tall, so we cut it down three meters, or it stars raining and the deflation of the airplane is rushed and it gets scrunched. I am dealing with it as it goes. That said, realizing a project is a very serious issue for me. If I approach somebody with a proposal and the first thing they tell me is, "No you can't do that," then I know I am onto something and then I will get obsessed in finding a way. "Taking care" for me is a secondary problem in terms of, as discussed, storage and restoration. What I am really after is trying to bring something impossible into the world.

Wikipedia, s.v. "Laocooen and His Sons," Nov 2010