I must admit that in Aleksandra Mir I’ve chosen a subject to write about that leaves me scratching my head. She is an artist who for thirty years has used a variety of media to delight the senses, ask questions, make you laugh, and make you think. She enjoys collaborations with other artists, and with non-artists. She carries out performances, gathers objects together, makes objects or oversees their production, works with print media and with words. She has been called a conceptual artist and a feminist artist.
She has worked extensively with words and print-based media, and she has the good conceptual artist’s skill of taking a small, simple idea and making from it a big piece of work with a big idea. “Venezia” was a project for the Venice Biennale for which she organized the production of 1 million postcards of seaside or waterside vacation spots from around the world with the word Venezia printed on them. These were given away to visitors to the Biennale, with the intention of making them think about the interconnections of place to place and person to person.
This would seem to be a common theme in her work. She likes collaboration, and has created works in which groups of people weigh themselves together, or help build things, or help her draw things. She has carried out many projects which involve words, too, and this brings me to the subject of that artist-writer-artist cross-over, the point at which we see an artist working extensively in another medium and we can ask questions about the written work.
Mir has produced thousands of drawings in which she has transcribed the front pages of newspapers using a Sharpie marker. Sometimes she has produced these drawings in a gallery, working every day on a fresh batch of headlines, assisted by interns.
She has made dozens of books consisting of collages of words and texts. Here, we are very much in the world of the concept, similar to how Fiona Banner works. The words, like the images, operate on two levels—the individual meaning of the words, which is emptied out by the act of quotation and transcription and replaced with the larger meaning imposed by the artist, the meta-meaning, which is like a voice in the background whispering: “Don’t take this at face value. Stand back and discern the power structures.” It’s work that is meant to be admired rather than read.
This is not the case with her “Living and Loving” series, which Mir describes as “an ordinary man/woman’s extraordinary lives.” They are extensive interviews with the subjects, or with people who know the subject, illustrated with pictures from the subject’s family albums. Handsomely produced and printed, they are indeed absorbing, often moving documents, akin to the transcriptions of interviews from the great oral history projects of the past. I read them looking for a hint of the patronizing, the suggestion of the grand artist slumming it with the little people, but there isn’t a trace of that about them. My only criticism would be that they could be edited more, the way a journalist might arrange the material to emphasize the most dramatic incidents. However, this would probably contradict Mir’s aesthetic, one part of which is to present the documents of human existence, whether they be objects, actions, or words, with as little mediation as possible, in order to preserve for the spectator/reader the sensation of realism, or at least a realism rooted in a distrust of mimetic art.
This leaves the field open, therefore, for a discussion of artists who drop the “meta” when they write, or who do more than documentary work. In the next post, I will present the first of a series of interviews with artists who do indeed use writing as a means of reflecting on and extending their creative process.
Final note on Aleksandra Mir: she is an extremely significant artist, with an amazing website to match. And almost all of the texts and publications she has created are available as free PDF downloads.
Subscribe to Praeterita in a reader