Seducing Galileo: Aleksandra Mir’s towering achievement in Toronto

Aleksandra Mir: The Seduction of Galileo Galilei (location photography, 2011): All images courtesy the artist and Mercer Union, Toronto.Aleksandra Mir: The Seduction of Galileo Galilei (location photography, 2011): All images courtesy the artist and Mercer Union, Toronto.

Interview by Romas Astrauskas

This summer, Mercer Union has commissioned a new video work titled The Seduction of Galileo Galilei by internationally exhibited artist Aleksandra Mir. Born in 1967 in Poland, a dual citizen of Sweden and the U.S., but now based in London, Mir is interested in the specific dynamics of popular myths and technologies. The work produced for Mercer Union is inspired by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the Italian physicist, astronomer and mathematician who, as the legend goes, dropped objects of differing weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to observe their rates of acceleration thereby formulating the Law of Falling Bodies.

According to the gallery, The Seduction of Galileo Galilei is “an intellectual affair with the scientist”. The video is accompanied by a selection of Mir’s collage works from the series The Passion, which juxtapose religious and space-age imagery. Magenta contributor and artist Romas Astrauskas conducted the following interview with Mir by e-mail in late May as preparations were underway for the production of the exhibition.

Romas Astrauskas (RA): Your upcoming project for Mercer Union seems like quite the production. Could you describe it?

Aleksandra Mir (AM): On June 11, we will meet very early at the gravel pit of a racetrack about an hour-and-a-half drive outside of Toronto in Stouffville. Soon after, we will be met by a crane and a cherry picker truck. A stack of 150 tires will have been delivered the day before. The crane operators will start by laying down a steel plate on the ground and proceed to stack the tires in a vertical tower. They will add tires as high as they can go, until the tower topples over, only to start over again. The action will go on all day.

In the background there is the race car track, which is open to the public, along with a concession stand, and people and cars coming and going. So, we will be in a wide-open landscape with lots of activity and motors and masculine energy.

Myself, I come from a background of public art production. This means I plan and direct the live events up until the point that they are left to develop spontaneously through the expertise of everyone else on the set and the power of nature itself. At that point, I step back and cover the still photography. I also direct the video editor in cutting the final film, which will be shown at Mercer Union.

RA: You have a long resume of creating interactive, concept-based projects.  What interests you in this form of "art production" as opposed to the more traditional and comparably solitary endeavour of studio-based object making?

Aleksandra Mir: The Seduction of Galileo Galilei (location photography, 2011)Aleksandra Mir: The Seduction of Galileo Galilei (location photography, 2011)AM: I could not afford a studio after school and, during my 15 years living in New York City, it didn’t seem a priority. So, I developed a practice that was more conducive to my lifestyle and the economy at that moment. I also took advantage of available technologies as they developed around me. The Internet and e-mail just happened and that made it very easy to work with people from a long distance in obscure locations. I was also doing a MFA in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research that I never completed but, after three years in that program, I was already deeply affected by the methods of fieldwork and research that my colleagues were pursuing, much more so than anything I had experienced in art school. Working in a ‘studio’ at the School of Visual Arts where I got my BFA meant locking yourself up in a closet. And, I needed air.

Going on location in the provinces also proved cheaper and a much more generous place to be, politically. It is always easier to get support from plenty of welcoming locals who are happy that my circus comes to their town, as opposed to keeping up the struggle in a big centre where I am just another nuisance and where there is nothing but obstacles in my way. The difference in goodwill I have been able to generate in the first type of place as opposed to the second is spectacular. First Woman on the Moon (1999), which took place in the small village of Wijk aan Zee in Holland, ran on a zero budget but involved over 50 volunteers and ten bulldozers. I had the blessing of two municipalities and police escort to the beach. Everyone was more concerned with clearing red tape rather than reinforcing it. I had the same experience here at the Goodwood Kartways. You should try to come on June 11. It will be fun!

RA: The Seduction of Galileo Galilei seems to immerse itself in what I refer to as a "strategy of failure".  You know beforehand that the stacked tire structure will eventually topple over, yet you proceed to build it anyways.  Is your position on this sort of failure one related to empathy, a type of sad commentary that alludes to the weakness inherent in the human condition or do you situate yourself as inhabiting a position of distant amusement, a situation where failure is orchestrated simply as a means of personal entertainment, experiment for the sake of experiment as noted in the Mercer Union press release?

AM: Both.

RA: Obviously, the Tower of Babel comes to mind, but also the doomed fate of Sisyphus, where the same action is done over and over again regardless of the outcome.  What interests you about occupying this position?

AM: The re-enactment of the obvious in a situation that is completely new and yet unexplored.

RA: Stacking objects skyward seems to be one of the most basic and ancient of human impulses.  What does it mean to you in this context?

AM: An opportunity to confirm that thesis, that we are human.

RA: Is the industrial bleakness of the setting in this piece (a gravel pit, race-track, used tires, etc.) related in any way to an environmental message or commentary?

AM: My locations are not bleak to me; they are sexy. This one is a place of motors and engines and working class men doing exciting things with their hands and machines out in the raw of nature. For me, as a female artist, that is nothing but a huge turn on and inspiration. The banter between us during preparations makes this clear. When I asked the crane operator if I could fit a cameraman in the cockpit, he replied that there was only room for one person, but if the cameraman was a woman and willing to sit in his lap, it could be arranged. So, now it is up to me do decide on how desperate I am as a photographer to get that angle and what the price to pay for it might be.

RA: A lot of your projects seem to involve the democratization of the art-making process where the actions and the input of hired hands play a significant role in the outcome of the piece.  Could this be considered a critique of the traditional view of the individual artist as being the singular source of creative input?

AM: This is a common misunderstanding in the reading of my work. My artworks are not hippie communes left to dissolve in a haze of smoke. They are tight arrangements that depend on a number of focused and skilled individuals who know their own place within a larger constellation, and who willingly perform their duties towards a shared objective that I have assigned and described to them in advance.

This is no different than being an auteur film director where everyone on set has an underlying script to follow. But, it is also a place of learning for me. There is really no point in being a control freak of actions you have no knowledge of. For example, I don’t know anything about cranes, so I just let the crane operator do his job and I know I will get the best result that way. I do leave a lot up to the others and let circumstances unfold, akin perhaps more to a classic happening or improvisational theatre that way.

Coming as close as possible to the tipping point between maintaining control and letting go is really what interests me here. I also welcome the audience to participate to the extent that we can guarantee their safety, so their involvement naturally gets embedded into the work. My job is to have a big enough vision to encompass them and it all. It is still my work in the end.

I also have to mention that Sarah Robayo Sheridan, the Director at Mercer Union, has shaped this work with me to a very large degree. She is an artist’s dream of a producer, a great partner for debate, and has been able to channel my vision through to her local context. She is very brave to step outside of her own personal comfort zone against an incredibly tight economy. She has really taken on a huge chunk of the effort here. Cheers!

Aleksandra Mir: The Passion (2009): Photographic collage on board with metal leaf frame.Aleksandra Mir: The Passion (2009): Photographic collage on board with metal leaf frame.RA: In the end, after all the sound and fury of the "performance" is over, all the audience has left to contemplate is your video documentation of the project.  Much of your past work (First Woman on the Moon, for example) seems to delight in blurring the line between fiction and the straight forward documentation of "fact".  When editing the documentation of your live event or performance, how do you decide on the degree of creative embellishment you will apply?

AM: I was raised on the merits of 70s performance art in art school in NYC and those artists always used blank and white, ‘poor’ documentary photography to illustrate the point that you were looking at something authentic that broke away from a commercial object in a sanctuary space. By the time I was looking at them in the 90s though, their documentation had already become fetish objects by their own power to be so. I remember the first time I saw a Vito Acconci photograph in a gallery as opposed to in the books. That was when I realized the pointlessness of a ‘neutral’ aesthetic. It was clear to me that Vito was a magician and, no matter how humble his photos, his presence in them is always going to emit power and be desirable that way.

So then, when I started working, I pushed my own documentation in the complete opposite direction, beyond the point of what I felt was even acceptable as art at that time. I didn’t want it to look like 70s art; I wanted it to be part of the world I was in. I collaborated with several commercial TV crews on the documentation of  First Woman on the Moon mainly to get hold of their aesthetic for free as I could never have been able to afford anything like their quality equipment. They came on set to produce straight TV that was broadcast on their channels and I traded them the footage in return to mix my own video. So, I got an over-the-top aesthetic that matched the bombastic aspirations of the first moon landing, which was originally televised. This also allowed me to ride the wave of conspiracy theories, the idea that the original never happened but was only on camera. When I first showed the video back in New York, it was billed next to Neil Armstrong’s feat and both were compared on aesthetic grounds, as performances, seen through the lens of a TV camera.

In Holland, there had been a lot of scrutiny in the art press about this strategy. I was criticized for aspiring and catering to the media rather than maintaining the dire "Society of Spectacle" complex that artists are assumed to take seriously. But, I had already gone beyond that stale point, making TV work for me instead. I was always more interested in placing myself in actual world history and popular culture than aspiring to an avant garde, or to land artists like Robert Smithson or crater builders like James Turell who has wrapped his project in secrecy. Figures like JFK and Neil Armstrong, and the mass media that made them, are much more relevant to me. I sent Neil Armstrong my video and he acknowledged it very positively via e-mail and so everything in this work has come full circle.

At Mercer Union, the approach to documentation is more relaxed. Amateur technology today looks no different than professional, so there is no drama about the aesthetic anymore. I have the support of three hired cameras and the direction is just for them to be present. I will then make decisions of what to use by splicing it up post-production. The video documentation and the event are closely related, of course, but they can’t stand in for each other. You have one chance as a viewer to witness it live and if you missed that…well, I feel sorry for you, but that doesn’t mean I will bore you to tears with a dull black and white video just to prove the event happened. The video has to stand on its own, be entertaining by itself and look of its time.

RA: Finally, in terms of having the power to shape minds and ideas, what do you consider to be the more potent of the two, "fact" or "fiction"? Or, are the two inextricably linked, one always leaning on the other for support?

AM: Yes.

Aleksandra Mir’s The Seduction of Galileo Galilei runs until August 6 at Mercer Union. Readers can keep abreast of Mir’s upcoming projects on Facebook or by visiting her website.

Romas AstrauskasRomas Astrauskas is a Toronto-based artist and writer. His paintings, sculptures and collages have been exhibited widely throughout the city, including shows at Greener Pastures, Clark & Faria, Clint Roenisch and LE Gallery. An exhibition of his newest work, Fate is a Fool, opens at Ruins (960 Queen St. West) on July 28, 2011.