Aleksandra Mir

Interview with Aleksandra Mir

By Paola Mosso
Arte Al Limite Magazine, #54, Santiago de Chile, May - June 2012

Paola Mosso: How would you describe the art that you decided to develop when you switched from studying Visual Arts to Cultural Anthropology? What did you see in that career that would contribute to your way of developing your artistic inquietudes?

Aleksandra Mir: The reason I went to study anthropology was to make it part of my art education, not to become an academic or a career anthropologist. I have a very mixed cultural background, I have lived in many different places so from the start I had the notion in me that culture is something that can be negotiated, a material that can be molded and merged with other materials, like clay. And so there is a seamless flow between creating and studying culture for me.

The process of observation is already an instinctive form of Anthropology, everyone does it to varying degree, even for the purpose of the most basic social orientation. At the New School for Social Research in NYC we read both the foundations of Modern social thought and more recent texts on creative Ethnographic writing that had come out of the crisis of representation. But I eventually spent more time in the cafeteria having informal conversations with my peers about their projects and motivations than in the library studying the theorists. I am really a crap academic. After 3 years, I didn't even graduate, I never paid the full tuition for the course. My peers went on to write their PhDs on everything from witchcraft persecution in medieval Scotland to vernacular drug terminology in contemporary Ecuador, while I returned to my events and exhibitions. What still connects me to formal Anthropology is probably my research methods and engagement with place, the Fieldwork.

Why did you decide for a mix of techniques closer to performance and installation rather than other traditional means?

History to me is a funnel, not a linear track, so I have to assume that I can use any techniques that came before me and that they are all available to build on. I use whatever I have to use to realize any particular work.

What artists have inspired you? And, taking your studies into account, what theorists from philosophy or anthropology have been important in your creations?

The Margaret Mead film festival is a forum for new ethnographic film in NYC and it is the most experimental showcase for anything I have ever come across. In the 90s I would regularly run into Johan Grimonprez there and he would go on to create his Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998) which was a sensation for my generation. Ethnographic film has been really good at paving the way for the visual arts. The quest for and simultaneous manipulation of truth is so blatant in documentary film, it becomes at once a huge problem and a great gift. I am a fan of the French filmmaker anthropologist Jean Rouch who started to make films in Niger in the 40s and there developed his brand of ethno-fiction and a cinema of participation. When he got his African subjects involved in improvisations, editing and direct narration processes and put himself in front of the camera, it was not theory, but his local friendships that dissolved those barriers. The later films where he brought Anthropology home to the streets of Paris closed the circle between the observer and the observed.

Sometimes your artwork becomes kind of a social experiment - like for instance, The Big Umbrella. Is your experimentation aiming at the relation that is generated by society around the piece of art, or is it the process of creation that interest you? Maybe it's both?

My work is not avant-garde in any way, I may be reinventing the wheel as far as I know it, but it is always experimental in the sense that I am always taking myself through novel experience. I spend a lot of time and resources preparing every work, but the outcome is always up for grabs. The Big Umbrella is a meticulously hand crafted sculpture of a very big umbrella that can shield a large number of people from the rain, but it can also make a solitary bearer look very lonely. I used it as a prop for a performance that spun its own narrative as I walked around with it in a number of cities. The work is pathetic, it failed on so many levels, it wouldn't rain and people would be scared of it. So it reflects the failure of building a community, the failures of family life. Even with the best and utopian intentions things don't always work out as anticipated and it is something that I like to talk about and to leave room for.

Do you think that by referring to pop culture elements, or everyday elements (umbrellas, trophies, family pictures), your work gets closer to a mass audience, as opposed to other forms of art that are more hermetic and abstract? Why did you choose this symbology?

I make art about things that are available and in my face, and as such, I assume they are to others. For example, I have made a lot of work about newspapers and the media. There is a historical lineage of artists who have used the press, of course, but my entry point is much more prosaic than that. I had a paper route when I was 11, long before I knew what art even was. I know the weight and the smell of a freshly printed newspaper batch at 5am in the morning. I started making my own zines about the same time and learned simple reproduction and binding techniques and photography and journalism in the process. I have a tactile relation to the things that I make art about, not necessarily a theoretical or historical one, although those things always fall into place retroactively somehow.

In many of your works you've taken the way of collaborative art, what do you gain as an artist by using this approach? Would you say that it has its roots in your sociology studies?

I find it boring to be alone with my work, it is as simple as that. So more social than sociological I would say. If I weren't tone deaf, I would probably be in a band. But visual art is more solitary than music by nature so I do what I can to make it less lonely by inviting others to participate in parts or I work on other people's projects in turn. To develop work where authorship is equally shared is probably the most difficult but can be very successful. In 2008 I was living in Italy and together with artist Lisa Anne Auerbach from Los Angeles we staged Marzarama (2008) a live action of repairing the broken noses, fingers and hands of various antique sculptures at the Gipsoteca di Belle Arti di Napoli with 50kg Marzipan. We took it upon ourselves to resolve the formal incompletion of these pieces and it was of great benefit to be two artists, to stretch our thoughts and to able to bridge the culture of body modification via the California plastic surgery industry with the beauty ideals of classic Antiquity.

In works like Living and Loving there is a shared effort between the protagonist and the artist: you. In this work, one of my favorite series, not just you come through everyday objects, but settle your work on anonymous or ordinary characters. Would you tell me more about this process and what caught your attention about the character that led you to create this new piece of work?

Living and Loving is a series of publications, biographies about ordinary people that I put out with my friend and curator Polly Staple. In the first edition, Living & Loving: The Biography of D. C. (2002), I had met a security guard in San Francisco art school where I was staying for a residency. One night I found myself in danger and he was responsible for my safety. We started talking about his life and he reveled an incredible story of transitioning from a small town Punk to a Marine who went to war and ended up a security guard at an art school, A proclaimed pacifist who could as easily resort to sadistic violence and back. As much as a biographical portrait of an incredibly honest man, it was also a revelation of the society that had formed him at every step of his life.

Do you feel you are breaking or expanding the boundaries regarding contemporary art? For example, by developing your artwork in non-formal or usual ways? For instance, in Living and Loving you act more as a journalist than a formal artist.

No, I wouldn't take credit for anything like that. Everything I do was always available to me in the broader cultural realm I am already living in. One of the most important pop-cultural icon for me is the Swedish actress Lena Nyman in I am Curious (Yellow/Blue) the films directed by Vilgot Sjoman in 1967, the year I was born. In the film, Nyman is a young inquisitive woman who walks around her hometown with a microphone and asks people questions on the street, "why, why, why, why does our society look this way?" Her curiosity allows her to come to the world without preconceptions, forces her to look closer and to participate it full, with body and mind. Of course Jean Rouch's influence is all over this film, but is also so quintessentially Swedish, the Sweden I arrived to from Poland myself at age 5. Lena Nyman's explorations of her role in this new society correlates very closely with my own.

The film became a huge box office hit in the US where it had successfully challenged censorship rules and her unsentimental nudity became the issue, ahead of all others in the film that were really more pressing. Lena did not get any extra cut from the earnings, so in many ways it backfired, she was let down by everybody, the director, the media, the public of the day, and that is why she is a hero in my mind, a pioneer who really did break new ground. The film is 45 years old now, Nyman died last year, but if you watch it today, her questions are as relevant and as burning as ever. The film could be remade for every generation and place. I was very influenced by it when I made my own film, Movimiento Organizado in Mexico City in 2004. I was invited by the art organization Perros Negros to take part in 'Localismos's a collective exploration of the gentrification in the Centro Historico and in my film, I depict myself as an international artist trying to make sense of globalization while being stranded in a place where I can't even speak the local language. The body language of dance takes me on a journey where the power relations between myself, my friends and our surroundings become clearly illuminated.

You constantly use symbols of power at your work, such as trophies, rockets or catholic imagery. Similarly, the concept of victory - as in First Woman On The Moon -, is also revisited. From what perspective do you want to approach the concept of power? Are you looking for a reflection, irony or criticism of the social structures generated around power? Do you think that victory is important in a global system based on consumerism?

It is all those things. Growing up in Sweden of the 70s it seemed we were in the most radical moment in the most radical country on earth. Sweden was the model state if you remember. In it, we were fed an odd mix of leftist critique with a blooming consumerism. Disney movies were seen as capitalist propaganda and served to us only at Christmas, which of course only increased our thirst for them. So by the 80s we had become genuinely saturated with these contradictions and rendered an apathetic generation. I remember my high school teacher dragging a bunch of us blasé teenagers to our local city hall and demanding that we all exercise our democratic power to ask to see a public record. First Woman On The Moon laconically acknowledges the fact that no woman has been to the moon, then grants me the power as an artist to stage the imaginary version and to ask myself, Why not? And what if?

Sometimes I really can't be bothered with politics, I doubt I have any influence at all, while in other cases it is a thrill to aim at shifting a monolith. I built a moon landscape in the sand on a 200m2 beach in one day, and because of its massive scale, the work has been associated with the land art movement. But in trying to beat JFK to his words of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade (the 60s) by putting a woman on the moon before the end of the millennium, I was not aiming at art history, but world history. If you google First Woman on the Moon today, my name comes up, which is ridiculous. I really wonder who she will be. My bets are on a Chinese girl.

"Facing the statue, it is as if you can hear the crowds screaming", you said about socialist realist sculptor Irena Sedlecka's depiction of Freddie Mercury in your work Freddie on the Plinth (2011). How can we compare the masses that faced previous sculptures of socialist heros made by Irena, and the ones that face this one? How can we associate a rock icon with a socialist icon?

Last year I met and befriended Irena who is now 83 years old. She granted me a series of interviews and I was eventually able to put together and publish her life story. When I asked her if she had any problems depicting Freddy Mercury in a victorious pose at Wembley Stadium, she blinked and said that she had created so many raised arms in the socialist period that from a sculptural point of view, they were the same. The startling correlation is obviously there, you can draw a simple analogy between two such opposing systems by one and the same artist having created monuments to both with equal success and satisfaction.

But it would be too easy to leave it at that. Irena's work exemplifies not just a series of (contradictory) political positions or gestures, but a narrative, and hers is an incredible life story. I have written about how she was formed under her rigorous classical training and how she matured and aged an artist, woman, wife and mother. From being a celebrated superstar to having all of her work destroyed in the Velvet Revolution to making souvenirs for the British Museum gift shop and eventually landing the Freddie Mercury commission. The drama follows her journey through nearly a century of European geography, as it is literally shifting under her feet. It highlights the decisions she voluntarily makes, and the ones she is forced to take to support her three children whilst keep making art. What makes the project so compelling and her person so appealing is her grace in managing all these thresholds. I am continuously drawn to people who display this kind of complexity and who are willing to share it with such clearheaded logic and without embarrassment.

The craft and talent that Irena is in command of is obviously lost on my generation, which came of age in the era of conceptualism, minimalism and ready-mades. It seems we have even lost the ability to look at and to judge figurative work altogether. I wanted to shake up our investment in figurative art a little by proposing for more people to see this statue and bring it back from Montreux where it was sent after its rejection in London.

So I created this campaign, an independent, unsolicited proposal to bring the statue of Freddie Mercury back to London, on loan from the city of Montreux for one year and to place it on the empty 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square. By now over 1000 people from all over the world have signed my petition but contrary to what I and the Official Queen fan club originally had expected, many Queen fans who celebrate Freddie's birthday in Montreux every year, do not want it moved to London. They refer to the bronze as 'him' and so it appears Irena was very successful in capturing a dead man's spirit. So much more credit to her, her masterpiece and to the tradition in which she was working and why perhaps this masterpiece should be shared. But there is a split of opinion about this and anyway, there is no official sanction, or invitation to bring it to London, so it may be a futile exercise all the way. But, at the same time, my own work is about voids, so the longer there is an empty space on that Plinth in Trafalgar Square and the longer Freddie is in exile, while this story is being circulated, the more potent all those factors become.

With this work, once again you deal with iconic situations of the modern era, the Cold War. Are you looking to evoke an image of the masses following or being part of an event or figure? Even by means of reverence or love.

In making this project I have come in close contact with the Freddie Mercury fan base, which 20 years after his death it is probably stronger than ever. Fans who saw every live Queen concert and fans who were not even born when he died, look up to Freddie like a God, while at the same time being overtly familiar with him. I believe that because he was such a non-didactic character, a singer, entertainer and a sex symbol, he is probably more susceptible to projections than any political hero who will always fall from grace when the systems change. Every woman and every man, from the past, present and future can be in love with Freddie (he did not even officially declare his sexuality until the day before he died of AIDS) as he appears continuously available. I am friends with hundreds of women on Facebook who claim their second name is Mercury and my project recently had a very positive writeup in BUTT magazine. I think I am only the second woman to have a profile on BUTT.

You also mentioned in an interview that you observed the importance behind letting go of nostalgia. Is nostalgia a stepping point on to your artwork or are you also trying to let go ?

My family left Poland with two suitcases in 1972, I left Sweden with two suitcases in 1989, I left NYC with two suitcases in 2005, and I left Palermo with a backpack in 2010. In between those moments of transition, I have produced exhibitions and whole households have been built up and dismantled again. I am pretty good at letting go of material things, and memories don't have to be declared at customs, so whatever is not a burden is welcome to stay.

You are currently showing your work in 'Print/Out' at MoMA in NYC and 'ArtandPress' at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. In both of these exhibitions, you refer to globalization and consumerism with the mass produced formats of newspapers, maps, tourist guides and postcards. Why did you choose these canvases to develop your work? What do they represent?

The ephemera I accumulated on the road were the first canvases or visual culture I started looking at, and that still features heavily in my own production. In Venezia (All places contain all others), my project for the Venice Biennale 2009, I produced 1 million fake postcards of Venice. It was an ephemeral gesture of monumental proportions. The paper stock weigh 16 tons and arrives on 3 trucks to Venice and the public spread the cards to the wind. It will be interesting if a century from now, the postcards will appear in the shoeboxes of antique shops and whoever finds them will ask themselves what the hell is going on in those pictures.

I notice that you are exhibiting in a group show curated by Andrea Pacheco at Sala Gasco, here in Santiago. What are you planning to exhibit and how do you relate to the exhibition title 'No es chiste (It's no joke)'?

In 2005 I was on a scientific vessel for 6 weeks. It sailed from Ushuaia to Antarctica, back through Patagonia and the Magellan Strait via Punta Arenas and up to Buenos Aires where I disembarked. The Antarctica leg of the journey was an invitation by Pierre Huyghe who shot a very ambitious film on the boat and who generously invited a few artist friends to join him with no directives or obligations. I entertained myself with small ephemeral gestures, one where I stand on a small iceberg that could have flipped around at any point. SALE (2005) is a nod to David Hammons snowball piece, updated and on a global scale and according to current environmental concerns. I was oblivious to the danger and risked my life for a silly performance but it seemed like a good idea and made for a good laugh at the time.