Aleksandra Mir

How Extraordinary that the World Exists!

Catalogue, CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, 2002
ed. Ralph Rugoff

Introduction by Ralph Rugoff

During the past several years a growing number of contemporary artists have created work that draws on documentary forms and techniques. Utilizing approaches associated with photojournalism or non-fiction film-genres long viewed as the antithesis of fine art—their projects typically focus on "real life" histories, people and places. It is almost as if, spurred by the turn of the millennium, artists have begun to look again at the world around them and to find in its continuing existence something worthy of becoming a subject for art.

'How Extraordinary that the World Exists!' surveys this resurgent tendency in contemporary art. But while the artworks in this exhibition make use of traditional documentary methods and media, they do so in ways that are neither conventional nor straightforward. Indeed, as if in response to Ludwig Wittegenstein's contention that ordinary language is unable to convey the extraordinaires of the world's existence, these artists chronicle their subjects by twisting, skewing, complicating and attenuating documentary conventions. Their use of video, film and photography, meanwhile, embraces a mixed spectrum of intentions, often combining seemingly contradictory aims. A single project, for instance, might use photography to provide a visual record of history: as a medium for portraiture; as a tool for conceptual investigation; and as a way of documenting staged tableaux.

In short, these artists position for their practices somewhere in between documentary reportage and the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of contemporary art. To some extent, then, the work in this show reflects the accelerated blurring of disciplinary boundaries evident in visual culture during the past decade. But whereas many artists in the 1990s were content to simply explore the novelty hybrid genres, the contributors to 'How Extraordinary That the World Exists!' crossbreed conventions as part of a larger strategy designed to broaden the emotional and intellectual terrain of or responses as viewers.

A cautionary note is perhaps in order here: the art in 'How Extraordinary That the World Exists!' does not, by and large, concern itself with the marvellous or the fantastic. Instead, almost all the artists in this show present visual documents that comprise ruptures in our "normal" models of communication. Their work incorporates semantic gaps. Conflicts, and contradictions. Thus, in Daniel Guzmán's droll photographs of banal street scenes, inconspicuous texts improbably proclaim the extraordinariness of the world's existence, as if testing our ability to process paradoxical signals.

We encounter a very different kind of paradox in Mary Lucier's video portrait of John Lado Keni, a deaf Sudanese storyteller who employs an invented language of gesture and sound. His family's sole survivor, Keni relates a harrowing tale of escape from his war-torn country. Yet while his fervent tone and gesticulations evoke an aura of grave drama and urgency, the information we glean from his performance is negligible. The force of his passion, however, leaves us feeling that we can grasp the emotional truth of his story. By the tape's end, our ideas about the presumed relationship between form and content, information and knowledge, have been substantially challenged.

Works such as these take us far from the rewards offered by a culture of sound bites and neatly packaged news. They frustrate our habitual desire for truths that can be served up as discrete bundles of facts. Instead, like Boris Mikhailov's photographs of homeless people in the Ukraine, they invite us to reconsider how we assign meaning to different types of information. For his 'Case Histor'y series (1999). Mikhailov pointedly disturbed the naturalistic codes of photojournalism by paying his subjects to pose for him, often in a state of inebriation or only partially clothed. It is a tactic that produces at least two crucial effects: First, it underscores his subjects' vulnerability. And second, the staged quality of these pictures invokes the unnaturalness of the shocking poverty they depict. Mikhailov's subjects, as a result, do not appear as people wholly defined by their suffering, as mere representatives of an unfortunate class who deserve our distant sympathy. Instead, we encounter them as individuals who—like each of us—are capable of affection, pleasure, and humour.

In unsettling our ingrained patterns of response, the artworks in 'How Extraordinary That the World Exists!' compel us to surrender our routine role as "objective' viewers who remain unimplicated by what, and how, we see. What they offer us instead is the possibility of a more intense involvement—of a closer connection not only with the subject portrayed in a given work, but also with our own responsibility in developing the meanings that circulate around it.

Sometimes this approach results in an almost harrowing intimacy. In his 'Tähtelhäinen' (The Star Dweller) (2001) installation, Veli Granö introduces us to a woman who believes her unborn daughter had been spirited away to a distant star. Because Granö records her extraordinary tale with neither judgement nor ironic distance, we cannot simply dismiss her as a madwoman; we instead empathize with her loss of a child or the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Meanwhile, the emotional proximity we feel to the subject of Rachel Berwick's 'Living Fossil' (1995-2002) installation may be more surprising, but it is no less intense, Berwick's ostensible subject is the coelacanth, a rare sea creature. Incorporating research footage of a living (and dying coelacanth, her installation prompts us to experience a scientific film— that most relentlessly neutral of documentary genres—as a macabre and heartrending drama in which our pursuit of knowledge is disturbingly linked with a morbid voyeurism.

Berwick is less interested in creating pathos, however, than in propelling us to reflect on the consequences that arise from how we look at the world around us. Unlike traditional documentarians, Berwick and the artists in 'How Extraordinary That the World Exists!' continually remind us that perception is never disinterested nor impartial. But instead of rejecting the value of documentary media for this reason, these artists seek to expand and elaborate on their possible uses.

In serial photographic projects by Aleksandra Mir and Gavin Hipkins, novelistic strategies compete with the photographs' testimonial function. Mir's Hello (2000-ongoing), a linear sequence composed of mass-media celebrity images and family snapshots, is at once a peculiar form of documentary and a kind of picaresque epic. In both guises, it chronicles an implausible chain of meetings between public and private figures, unfolding a tale of extraordinary coincidences and absurd encounters that is held together only by the social fiction of celebrity. Hipkins' suite of photographs, 'The Next Cabin', addresses another cultural narrative—that of the Western Wilderness. Including our faith in the photograph's ability to stand alone as a definitive, self-enclosed statement. By presenting his work as a series of disparate pictures and inviting us to make connections between them, Hipkins calls attention instead to the viewers own interpretive activity.

Trisha Donnelly's 'Blind Friends' (2000) also speaks to issues that revolve around reception, while seeking meaning in the tensions between our inner and outer worlds. To create this lyrical image Donnelly invited a group of blind people to visit the seashore and then asked them to walk in the direction of the wind— a difficult task in an exposed landscaped. Derived from a video imaged, Donnelly's colour photograph depicts the group as individuals begin to wander off in various directions, each tracking and deciphering clues in alternative realms of experience and meaning.

On at least one level, 'Blind Friends' can be seen as a metaphor for the contingent and variable process of responding to a work of art, which can propel us down opposite paths of inquiry at the same time. If the artworks in this exhibition prompt us to closely examine this process, they do so not to celebrate the virtues of self-reflexivity, but in order to more fully involve us in our speculative endeavours. Encouraging us to take in and interpret information from across multiple channels and from competing perspectives, and to remember that pictures can function in contradictory ways, they also suggest that we dispense with despotic notions of truth—which in their absolute certainty preclude all questioning and debate. This kind of work instead reminds us that asking questions constitutes the very essence of art.

In the end, of course, whether or not we perceive the world as "extraordinary" has less to do with its intrinsic qualities than with how we look at whatever we are seeing. Indeed, by mixing oblique narratives strategies and theatrical devices with documentary forms and genres, the contributors to this exhibition ultimately insist that art gets at the truths of things not necessarily by employing fictions (as Pablo Picasso famously quipped), but by showing us facts as we have never seen them before. This allows us to feel provocatively removed from the familiar and uncannily connected to the strange. In either case, the world then begins to appear truly extraordinary, and our awareness, rather than existing as a compromised refuge of daily life, can expand into something truly inclusive.

Catalogue texts by David Spalding


In Ludwig Wittegenstein's 1929 "Lecture of Ethics," the philosopher argues that exceptional experiences are beyond the realms of representation. Since they fall outside our given frames of reference, they are, by definition, unspeakable. "When I wonder at the existence of the world," he writes, "I am inclined to use such phrases as... 'how extraordinary that the world should exist.'" Yet such formulations merely reveal the limits of language" what is extraordinary is always extra, exterior to our modes of communication. "The verbal expressions which we give to these experiences are nonsense!" Wittengenstein continues. "Words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour a gallon over it..."

Suppose Wittengenstein was right: normal language I unable to effectively convey our experience of objects that provoke astonishment and wonder. What, then, are we to make of Mary Lucier's Portrait: 'John Lado Keni' (2000), a video installation whose subject relates extraordinary experiences in a language that is largely his own invention? John Lado Keni is a deaf Sudanese refugee now living in the United States. An astonishing storyteller who is unfettered by the constraints of conventional communication, Keni combines pieces of American Sign Language with a signing system he devised own his own, enhancing his harrowing tale of flight with striking facial expressions, emphatic utterances, and sound effects.

Panting, clapping and snapping his fingers, Keni describes his journey through the jungles of southern Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya. Travelling on foot through a region home to lions, hyenas, and perhaps armed soldiers, Keni seems to traverse a gauntlet of often-unseen dangers. At one point in the tape, he tells of the deaths of his immediate family members; later he appears to be climbing a steep mountain, his bare fingers clinging to grooves in the rock face.

Requiring his audiences full attention, Keni' tale demands that listeners attempt to construct a story from clues that remain open to myriad interpretations. But the results of our efforts are condemned to remain frustratingly imprecise, as ultimately we have no way of knowing exactly what Keni is expressing. What surfaces, then, is not a narrative so much as Keni's intense need to share his experience, despite (and perhaps because of ) his inability to use a common mode of communication, Lucier underscores Keni's incapacity to communicate effectively by electronically manipulating the video's sound to emphasize his incomprehensibility while superimposing two images of the storyteller onto one another. The dual images amplify the sense that we are witnessing a private dialogue, one that cannot be fully translated for others.

Finnish artist Veli Granö also introduces us to individuals who seem to inhabit extraordinary worlds, all their own. In the past, Granö has photographed self-taught artist flanked by their fantastic backyard sculptures and filmed a man determined to depart fro out space in a rocket of his own design. Granö's projects offer viewers and invitation to enter what he calls "tangible cosmologies," comprehensive (and eccentric) personal visions given physical form.

Tähteläinen (The Star Dweller), a multimedia installation, tells the story of a woman who hopes to travel to the star Sirius. On one of Granö's video monitors we watch her hand-sketching an image of the little girl she claims was taken from her by aliens during her pregnancy. As she traces the outline of the missing child, whose large, round eyes and elongated head suggest and extraterrestrial life form, the Star Dweller's story becomes increasingly chilling. "They did it secretly," she tells us. "The baby was taken to Sirius and placed inside of an artificial womb." She adds finally, as if to explain, "They can walk through walls."

Granö's installation also includes a semi-formal photographic portrait, in which his subject appears dressed in regal homemade space attire, apparently waiting for the aliens' mother ship to beam her aboard. Her silver-sequined suit and bejewelled crown seem out of sync with the earthly household clutter that surrounds her. Looking out at us with a knowing simile and a sideways glance, she becomes a tin foil Mona Lisa or a dethroned space princess harbouring secrets of the Dog Star. Does she sense our disbelief? Granö, in any case, does not pander to our penchant for ironic smirks but suspends any sense of judgement. Like his other projects, 'Tähtleläinen' never devolves into a freak show. Instead, with the artist's help, viewers are temporarily permitted entry into an alternate universe, which for all it's oddness, reveals something about how our own personal worlds are constructed.

Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov' 'Case History' series documents and dramatizes the sudden appearance of a new class of people created by the dismantling of the former Soviet Union. The 'bomzhes'—the homeless subjects of Mikhailov's photos-live in extraordinary poverty. Taken in the artist' hometown of Kharkov, these often harrowing pictures make visible the teratology of poverty and ill health on the surfaces of his subjects' bodies.

The 'Case History' photographs, however, are not straightforward documentary images. Violating the etiquette of photojournalism, Mikhailov paid the 'bomzhes' to take his direction, arranging scenes and poses and often encouraging his subjects to undress—outdoors in the middle of winter. Mikhailov's intent in staging these pictures was to emphasise the vulnerability of the 'bomzhes'. "Manipulating with money is somehow a new way of legal relations in all areas of the former USSR. I wanted to copy the same relations which exist in society between a model and myself. " Mikhailov has explained. And given the photographic evidence of the 'bomzhes' abject living conditions, it is apparent that, as Mikhailov has noted, his subjects "didn't have a choice: either you pose or you vanish."

What is not always immediately clear, however is how much liberty the artist has taken in directing a given scene. Yet Mikhailov's relationship to his subjects is a continual subtexts of these images, as if denying the possibility of authentic or unmediated representations of the 'bomzhes'. In shaping his photos so deliberately, the artist highlights the tension that exists between exploitation and ethnography, drama and documentary.

If Mikhailov's portraits survey people at the borders of social invisibility, Rachel Berwick's work focuses on the margins of natural history. To create her recent projects, Berwick has forged a visual vocabulary from the missing pieces of the natural world, often digging through the bones and fossils of endangered and annihilated species in order to explore how meanings and form evolve.

Berwick's installation 'Living Fossil' focuses on the coelacanth, a fish that lives at a depth of nearly 1,000 feet and that has remained relatively unchanged for nearly 400 million years .Though to be extinct until 1938, when one was discovered near the mouth of South Africa's Chalumna River, coelacanth is categorized by natural historians as a "living fossil." Berwick's installation probes the contradictions inherent in this term (coined by Charles Darwin) and in a scientific mode of inquiry marked by a fatal voyeurism.

Viewers of Berwick's installation initially encounter an amber cast of an actual coelacanth specimen. Like an elegant artifact from a natural history museum, its translucent body hangs suspend from the gallery ceiling. Behind it, through an opening too narrow to pass through, viewers cans see into a darkened room in which a black-and-white research film is projected on the far wall; shot by a marine biologist, it show a coelacanth being brought to the water's surface for study. But the fish cannot withstand the change in atmospheric pressure, and so the film proves to be a record of its gradual death. Berwick ahs superimposed a clock onto the archival footage; it painstakingly counts down the nearly two hours it takes for the coelacanth to die.

Living Fossil is a melancholy document of desire and loss. Because scientists believe that the coelacanth may be a missing link in the evolutionary chain that traces the movement of sea to land, Berwick's installation is also a meditation on misrecognition. Looking into the mirrored eyes of her cast specimen, we struggle to locate ourselves within an epic history, to find in the coelacanth's elusive and peculiar existence a clue to our own.

The works discussed thus far deal with subjects that seem isolated from our everyday world and its representational conventions; by contrast, with her photographic installation Hello, New York-based artist Aleksandra Mir draws on the familiar visual syntax of celebrity photos and personal snapshots. To create Hello, Mir has amassed and arranged a large collection of publicity stills, newspaper and archival photos, and pictures from private albums, all depicting grouping of at least two people, to form an elaborate, unbroken chain of chance encounters and shared experiences.

Fashion models, famous athletes, artists, film stars, musicians, and political leaders—along with "ordinary" people and the artist's friends—come together in a sequence of surprising unions. Who knew that President George W. Bush and Jimi Hendrix, or Yasser Arafat and Naomi Campbell, were only one link apart in the great chain of being? Connections between Santa Claus, Hilary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Björk, Miss Piggy, and Sylvester Stallone suggest countless untold narratives that materialize before the viewer's eyes. Indeed, Hello's parade of linked images could fuel the flames of a bizarre celebrity conspiracy theory. Yet in moving between the famous and the anonymous, Hello also calls attention to the strangeness of stardom as a social construct.

At the same time, Mir's work seemingly makes the extraordinary claim that our diverse cultural worlds are all contiguous and interconnected. Working your way through the potentially endless series of photos in Hello, you may begin to imagine photographs from your own personal albums interwoven among the images of the rich and famous. Indeed, given the resources and a lifetime commitment, Mir's project could potentially encompass the entire photographed population on Earth. In the end, we are left to wonder not only at the curious meetings Hello chronicles, but also at the infinite landscape of photographic culture.

Daniel Guzmán's 'Que extraordinario que el mundo exista' (How Extraordinary That the World Exists) documents the artist's 1997 incursion into the everyday street life of Mexico City. Guzmán had five-gallon buckets printed with the work's title, then placed them inconspicuously around the city. In photographs that document this low-profile intervention, the buckets can be seen easily blending in with the scenery, sitting atop a vendor's makeshift table of on the countertop of a tiny, outdoor food stand. (Guzmán's installation also includes a stacked column of the buckets bearing Wittegenstein's phrase; seen in the gallery, they take on the deracinated aura of forensic evidence.)

If it is difficult to gauge the nature of Guzmán's experiment, this may be precisely the artist's point. Best known for creating art that plays on the power of popular culture, his work travels between the gallery and the streets in order to sidetrack the gaze of passing pedestrians in ways that leave them wondering. Yet as with other projects such as his 'EL ultimo concierto sobre la tierra' (The Last Concert on Earth) (1997), a poster series advertising an imaginary rock concert, 'Que extraordinario que el mundo exista' interrogates the relationship between the mundane and the extraordinary. While the people in Guzmán's street photos appear oblivious to the buckets' presence, the viewer is invited to speculate on the humorous and the contradictory relationship between these banal scenes of daily life and Wittegenstein's provocative comment on the world's exceptional existence.

New Zealand photographer Gavin Hipkins, who focuses his photographic series on places and artifacts that embody cultural myths, also prompts us to revisit the ordinary. His ongoing series 'The Next Cabin' describes the North American West Coast in images that conjure an unsettling dream sequence. Taken at sites of pilgrimage where nature is packaged for the tourist's camera, they drift between real and fantasy landscapes, evoking fragments of memory, folklore, and media imagery that we routinely use to piece together a sense of place.

More Twin Peaks than Sierra Club, Hipkins' pictures often evince an atmosphere of foreboding. In one photograph, a tree-lined road extends into darkness. This is juxtaposed with another, more ominous image depicting the head and shoulders of a figure in a dark, hooded sweatshirt, seen from behind. Providing a visual echo, yet another photograph in the series features a spooky display of a hooded, fur-lined jacket, leaving viewers to gaze into the black hole where one would normally expect to find a face.

These ghostly pictures engage with what Sigmund Freud called the 'unheimlich', that uncanny state in which the familiar becomes frightening and foreign, and the lines begin to blur between the natural and the artificial. But if Hipkin's commonplace subjects appear oddly denatured, the artist's intent is not to unnerve viewers but to disarm their preconceptions. Like his 1999 photographic series The Unhomely, in which photos of decaying national landmarks in New Zealand and Australia composed what the artist called a "post-colonial gothic novel, 'The Next Cabin' ultimately documents a cultural corpse that haunts the popular imagination: namely, our fossilized fantasies of the western "wilderness."

In a more playful vein, Trisha Donnelly's work quiet and gradually surprises us, like a gentle experiment in cognitive dissonance. At first glance, her photographs may appear mundane. One blurry print, Blind Friends, transferred from video footage, show a cluster of people on a sunny beach. Improbably dressed in heavy winter coats and hats, the figures in the crowd seem lost, wandering about in various directions as if trying to get their bearings. Who are the overdressed and off-kilter members of this dazed group? Are they really blind? The fuzziness of the imaged undermines the photograph's ability to bear witness; it frustrates the viewer's search for clues, condemning us to a perpetual double take.

Subtle and slightly disorienting, Donnelly's works in the exhibition—like those of her fellow contributors—serve as a reminder of how fascinating our surroundings appear when we move outside our comfortable frameworks of perception. As if reminding us of this phenomenon, her sound installation Untitled (bell) (2000/2001) can be heard chiming from time to time in the gallery. Looking at one's watch is no comfort: the ringing happens without reference to any hourly schedule. Rousing us from our routine investigation of artworks, Untitled (bell) triggers a moment of self-consciousness in which we may reconsider our actions and surroundings. Confusion is thus transformed in to something liberating. Our perception becomes more expansive, making room for experiences of awe and curiosity. And in the process, out picture of the world becomes extraordinary once again.