Aleksandra Mir

Interview: Aleksandra Mir

By Matthias Ulrich
Triumph, Catalogue, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, May 2009

Matthias Ulrich: When did you have the idea for the trophies, and what was your interest in such objects of power and glory?

Aleksandra Mir: I was visiting a friend of a friend who used to be a very prominent athlete in his – not too far gone – youth. Although he was visibly ageing, and maybe because of it, he maintained a room in his house as a shrine to his former glory. It was full of diplomas, plaques, photographs, magazine covers – and trophies. Passing through this room for a few seconds on my way to the bathroom, I was arrested and struck by the beauty they recalled – all the facets of it: the vigorous energy of a young body in motion, the echo of hands clapping, the sweetness of nostalgia, the pathos of his need to hold on, the inevitability of being replaced by younger talent and, ultimately, the death that would only leave this archive behind. I wanted to capture all these emotions and generalize them as common features in society. I placed an advertisement in a newspaper, asking people to donate their trophies to my art project for a small symbolic fee. In a relatively short time I had collected 2500, which are all on display here.

Triumph is a collaboration with the people of Sicily who contributed their personal trophies. What did the people get in exchange?

Simply speaking, five euros. This is what I offered in my advert in Il Giornale di Sicilia. But as the trophies were collected – either ones people dropped off at my studio or those we collected all over Sicily – and as I came into contact with the people, it became evident that what was offered was a good opportunity to get rid of them. The trophies that are in my collection have all been donated because of an urge to ‘let go’ of an attachment to the past: to clean out cluttered spaces; to shed old, stagnant relations; to free oneself from the material burden or the symbolic power of the trophy itself. This psychological state of ‘letting go’ interests me the most in the project, next to, perhaps, the seemingly unlimited variety of the designs.

A world of winners and losers appears normal in our modern society, at least through the genealogy of sports as it begins in ancient times. Even though one can understand the multitude of sport communities in not so much a competitive spirit as a convivial one – like that of the modern Olympic Games, “To be there, that’s all”. What is the broader sense of the trophy to you?

Well, I am not a historian, sociologist or psychologist, but I have gained a general understanding, by taking myself through this project, of what the trophy might represent. Instant validation, for one thing, a marker of one’s place in the community, for another, and a link to tradition. I am quite sure that most people who have ever won a trophy feel they are re-enacting ancient traditions. Personally, I initially assumed that the trophy harked back to antiquity and the original Olympic games. To confirm this, I visited the antiquities department of the British Museum in London. They have a public service where you can knock on a curator’s door and write down a question on a small piece of paper. Five minutes later a bearded, authoritative figure emerges in the doorway and speaks at you for 15 minutes. He told me I was in the wrong department; that the Greek athletes were never awarded anything but a modest olive branch, and that the glory itself was the award. He sent me to the medieval department where the trophy design emerges as part of church silverware in the form of wine goblets. But it appears that the trophy’s application and service to profane sport is a far more modern invention. It is fascinating to me that the contemporary practice of victoriously raising the trophy to the gods in the sky is based on a misunderstanding, a fantasy of our imagined antiquity.

When they gave you their trophy, people also added, if available, a photograph of the moment when they held the valuable object in their hands for the first time. What do you think about this kind of intimate situation?

I asked the people whose homes I visited to also show me their private photo-albums. Many people willingly shared their stories and allowed me to scan their snapshots. The sports represented in my collection range from football, bowling, Latin dancing and carracing, as well as more esoteric genres such as canary competitions and various civic duties. I have trophies from an old Palermo family of Christmas light decorators that were given to them by the city. I emptied the garage of a man who had been a football coach for 35 years, and who gave me over 100 trophies that his various teams had won. His wife felt the shrine in their bedroom was enough. Most touchingly, the man who gave up his canary competing set his canary free, and then no longer had any need to hold on to the material residue of the sport. One former long-distance runner said that since his kids had arrived, they were his greatest achievements and he didn’t need to bother with his past glory anymore. Generally speaking, it is the trophies cheap fakeness that allows these people to banalize the once-prized objects – and to get rid of them sooner or later.

I would introduce your work in general in two words: social sculpture. Joseph Beuys, who is called the inventor of the “Soziale Plastik”, was chiefly interested in a metaphysical state of social identity achieved through the power of man’s creativity. Do you see your work as related to Beuys’s?

Wow, I haven’t really considered Beuys since I went to art school 20 years ago. He is an academic footnote, of course, but hardly a direct influence on me – there is too much of a distance between us in time and space to nail it down that simply. I could just as easily connect my practice to almost any practitioner in the past or any one of my contemporary colleagues, depending on what strategy of self-representation I wanted to take. While I had the last 500 trophies collected in my studio this past winter, I had the great privilege to host Jannis Kounellis, who was visiting Palermo, for a cup of tea. We had a brief exchange, and, clearly, he is a key historical influence to the legitimacy of throwaway trash via Arte Povera. His significance goes without saying, but with him alive right there and then, there was no discussion about art history. He talked about popular culture, about the silverware of the church, which struck him as the most vital connection made by the work. Art history is only a distillation of everyday practices in popular culture. I prefer honouring those directly.

Your work weaves together many different practices and many skills, as, for example, in the aforementioned case of Joseph Beuys. To the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud, such temporary collaborations are models of sociability, and are much more concerned with inter-human relations than with the production of eternal objects. How important is a good working system to you, and what is the role of the artist within that network?

I was never comfortable as an isolated studio artist. I thrive on communication in every form, and this is how I meet my challenges and take advantage of my resources. I have become quite efficient in working with large groups of people, in processing information, in managing complex productions and in keeping the relations within these dynamic, risky, safe and fun. But things do break down for a variety of reasons, and this can be interesting as well.

In Ms Langen’s essay, we learn that the European gymnastics movement was not so much a competition as it was an event of and for the masses. Do you personally have any experience with sport, and for what reason do you think sport should be part of our lives?

Throughout my school days I was the kid who drew, who sewed my own clothes, who built things out of cardboards and wood, who wrote and directed plays, who told jokes. But in gym class I was the weakest, most pathetic, most afraid of the ball, always-picked-last-for-every-team student. I hated the sweat, the stink of the changing rooms, and I really didn’t get the point of sport at all. It all seemed insipid to me, not even worth a try. I have come to sport very late, in appreciating it as yet another articulation of popular culture. I now like it for its rituals, performances, codes and concrete philosophical dilemmas. For example, how can we judge the achievements in the Paralympics when no two athletes share the same handicap, and should in fact all race in a personal league of their own? I have only recently started exercising in a way that is actually rewarding to me; I have just completed an intensive yoga teacher training course in India which had more to do with a competitive spirit than spirituality proper. I even find it playful to spar against others, if only to break the rules in a game in bowling. Maybe I am finally starting to get it.

The art system of the last 20 years has developed into a much more popular but at the same time more competitive field: award competitions such as the Turner Prize or the Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst, or the more than 50 biennials all over the world. You, for instance, once mentioned that a female artist has to work twice as hard as a man to get the same respect. Would you agree that to some degree the sporting world is similar to the art system?

Sure! It doesn’t take much to see the analogy between sport and art on the level of their respective social orchestrations. Artists are as much driven by their internal demons as their power relations to their colleagues of the past and present. The biennial is modelled on the Olympic games – the awards speak for themselves. A female artist’s opportunity and price tag is still half of a man’s. The art world could perhaps be understood in the light of the Paralympics, where everyone naturally is in league of their own but have agreed to race together according to artificially set standards.

Some of your sculptures, such as Big Umbrella (2004) or Plane Landing (2003/2008), are unique efforts of handicraft labour and mechanical engineering. Do you ever receive feedback for their technical qualities?

Very rarely. These are hidden, invisible accomplishments of masterful engineering and craft that have taken years to develop. You would have to be an umbrella-maker or an aeronautic engineer to understand them fully. In the art world they are simply validated for their symbolic qualities. This is okay.

Perhaps because you work in many media – for instance, the happening piece First Woman on the Moon (1999), in contrast to, let’s say, one of your drawing series such as Switzerland and Other Islands (2006) – your work in total is quite heterogeneous. I have the feeling that this is primarily about the energy you generate in creating situations where every participant is a part of the game, and part of the community. Moreover, it is not an accident that a lot of your work refers to objects and symbols of power.

No, it is not an accident, power is central in human relations, and I don’t think it can be left out of art.

This show, which is entitled Triumph, is also the triumph of our ongoing discussion, which we started about three years ago. Within that time several of your ideas failed or were not able to be realised for various reasons. Does failure capture your thoughts, and would you relate it in a more general sense to what is called "collaborative art"?

I am involved in many projects with many production scenarios at many speeds and plenty of people all the time. It goes without saying that not everything always works out according to my wishes, or right there and then when I want it. An art that involves the cooperation of external circumstances in particular can be tricky or slow. That's just life. I am used to it.