Have you been thinking about space lately? Many of us had our curiosity in the universe reignited by the total solar eclipse that swept across America in August. Artist Aleksandra Mir, however, has long been fascinated by space travel and its associated innovations, appropriating futuristic concepts to make satirical comments on humanity’s past endeavours. She staged an alternative, female-led moon landing, supported by big corporate sponsorship, much like the real thing, but on a beach in Utrecht (First Woman on the Moon, 1999); charted obsolete technologies, social networks and ‘overlords’ (‘World Maps’ series, 2010); and juxtaposed iconic images from NASA and Catholicism (‘Astronauts’, 2008, ‘The Space Age Collages’, 2009).
Her new work, ‘Space Tapestry’ – two exhibitions showing concurrently at Modern Art Oxford and Tate Liverpool – resembles a long, verging-on-abstract graphic novel. It dips into a wide spectrum of space-thinking: our perceptions of the universe versus the almost obscenely humdrum reality of the space industry. The project follows a very similar production process to her 2008 work News Room 1986–2000, in which Mir temporarily converted a New York gallery space into an editorial office and directed a group of in-situ assistants to reproduce real tabloid front pages using reams of paper and black Sharpie pens. In ‘Space Tapestry’, Mir is inspired by the work of the anonymous artists who stitched the Bayeux Tapestry (c.1070–80 CE) and, in particular, their emblematic depiction of Halley’s Comet. ‘Space Tapestry’s collective labour, by comparison, involved an apprenticeship scheme – as Mir termed it – for 18-to-25-year-old art students and graduates in her London studio, over a period of three years. Mir set the schematics and content, and the assistants could be as involved as they wanted to be – from filling in the tapestry-scale drawings with Sharpies to learning how to film to accompanying Mir on visits to places like Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.
She refers to the group members, including herself, as ‘human robots’. Recruited through the University of the Arts London website, the students came from a range of disciplines – including animation, textile design, painting and printmaking – resulting in ‘Space Tapestry’ benefiting from a variety of mark-making techniques. This can be seen most clearly in Get on da Spaze Buz(2015–17): a fleet of double-decker buses travelling amongst the stars, and Halley’s Comet. The piece is collectively inked with feverish squiggles and crosshatching. Sharpies don’t age well: ebony blacks fade to blues, greys and browns as the ink runs out while the loose fibres from fraying pens make chaotic, scratchy textures. Could the Sharpie be considered democratic? Cheap and mass produced, it pairs easily with the graffiti-style font and tongue-in-cheek angle of the title. This is space travel normalized by the young, who perhaps see a near future of Virgin Galactic-style transport as being as mundane as getting on the bus. The wonder, fear and mysticism ignited by Halley’s Comet passing Earth in 1066 has been replaced by something approaching triviality; a big speech bubble declares: ‘Space seems to be everywhere!’
The other works don’t translate as well. Messages like ‘And from here you look so small’ or ‘How far from Hackney is Jupiter?’ might have served as a starting point for a studio discussion about the relevance of a vast cosmos, or the ‘Faraway Missions’ and ‘Earth Observation & Human Spaceflight’ of the subtitles. In the gallery, however, they are vague: greetings-card statements that struggle to move beyond their creation via an artist’s professional development project into a genuinely thought-provoking artwork. The potential for critical engagement here is huge: the cultural influence of space technology design since Sputnik, the impact and ethics of colonizing planets, the militarization of innovation. Yet, although both exhibitions provide helpful, albeit rather limited, explanatory material (a wall text at Tate Liverpool; a hand-out at Modern Art Oxford), this potential critique is only fully explored in Mir’s accompanying publication. We can’t stop thinking about the future: ARTIST ALEKSANDRA MIR SPEAKS WITH THE SPACE WORLD is a collection of riveting current debate with 16 space experts, including Public Astronomer Marek Kukula and Space Law Expert Jill Stuart. But, as you have to buy it, the average visitor will likely miss out.
Mir’s This is not a Satellite, this is an Educated Nation comes closest to articulating some of that current debate: the title originates from a real (and patronizing) industry slogan aimed at selling orbiting communication devices to low-income countries. Behind it, pixelated satellites from history, including Sputnik, float by. Thoughts turn to why governments buy into space at all: surveillance, connection, status, the socio-political benefits of technological advancement. The most recent data from the Goddard Space Flight Center reports that 2,271 satellites – or artificial objects – are currently in orbit, while NASA states that, on average, a further 200 are launched each year. Funded by public and private organizations with their own agendas, this begs the question: who owns space? Mir’s work poses a statement about serious issues in the present, not the speculative future: the politics of low-orbit and where they are steering us.