Aleksandra Mir

Yesterday's front page turns into today's art

By Simon Houpt
The Globe and Mail, Toronto, October 2007

Newsroom 1986-2000
15 September - 27 October 2007
Mary Boone Gallery, New York

I think this might mess with my head. One of the first things journalists hear when they join the trade is that they're dedicating their lives to an ephemeral pursuit. Sure, reporters get to write the first draft of history, but then - as my siblings like to remind me - our work ends up on the bottom of a birdcage. Or, if we're lucky, pulped and turned into egg cartons.

But a new project at the Chelsea outpost of the Mary Boone Gallery gives hope to the egotists among us that our work may not only have a longer life: It may end up being venerated as art. Since the middle of September, a small team of artists has been huddled in the gallery at the far end of West 24th Street, in a low-tech imitation of a newsroom, churning out large-scale tabloid front pages using nothing but black Sharpie markers.

In preparation for Newsroom (1986-2000), Aleksandra Mir photocopied every front page of the ‘New York Post’ and ‘Daily News’ published over a 15-year period: more than 10,000 in total. Mir then selected about 200 covers that struck her as especially resonant or arresting.

In an imitation of a real newsroom, she has been playing the editor-in-chief, squirreled away in the gallery's corner office - er, its back room - drawing the outlines of whimsical, cartoonish reproductions of those covers.

Lines of type that were straight in the original paper now rise and fall like ocean waves; graphic elements are thrown around the page like houses in a Kansas tornado. Every so often, Mir emerges from her office (as with a real editor, you never know what her arrival will portend) to throw a page at a small team of assistants gathered around a makeshift plywood table. With Motown or other tunes blaring through the space to keep up their spirits, they slowly empty their Sharpies onto the pages.

Every week another series of 20 or so front pages, linked by theme, takes its place on the walls. (When the old ones come down, however, they're not sent to the recycling bin; they're sold, and for certainly more than a quarter.)

Mir's project, which is as much a public performance as it is an undertaking of industrial art-making, provokes questions about the role of the tabloids in defining this city, our relationship with the past, the design and editorial aspects of media, and the social and industrial aspects of news production.

"I wanted to cover a New York City that doesn't exist any more," Mir told me last Thursday afternoon, while her assistants worked up an elaborate checkerboard pattern for a 1998 front page about skyrocketing ad rates for the final Seinfeld episode. She lived here from 1989-2005, and watched the city change.

"It's sort of a different New York since the millennium, or 9/11. The corporate takeover of New York has just changed the town considerably, so this is a place that doesn't really exist but it's still tangible in many ways. I find there's a complexity that's really interesting, that in a way it's a cartoon world, it's a memory world."

But if that exact New York doesn't exist any more, enough of it does to make it seem like the city is caught in a time warp.

"The past is a foreign country," wrote L. P. Hartley, who obviously never visited New York, for if he did he might have instead written, "the past is prologue." Last week, as the city's real newsstands and cable networks were filled with talk about the 20th anniversary of the Crash of '87, Mir's newsroom was adorned with a collection of 20 covers about the ups and downs on Wall Street through the years, including a series of five New York Post pages from the sick-making week of Oct. 19-23, 1987. (More chilling echoes: At the top of the Oct. 19, 1987, late edition is a headline: "TAKE THAT - U.S. Blasts Iran Oil Rig.") Strangely, I found myself much more comforted by Mir's loopy, panicky front pages than the current coverage of Wall Street, which last week added another tireless cheerleader with the debut of Rupert Murdoch's happy-talking Fox Business Network. Sure, 20 years ago the tab editors were trying to scare people into buying their papers, but at least their tack was more honest than the current irrepressible enthusiasm infecting most financial news media like a staph virus: You'd never know that the U.S. dollar is in a death spiral, that the full extent of the sub-prime mess hasn't yet been measured, that the country has record personal and national debt, and that recession may be close at hand.

Previous series by Mir are also head-shakingly contemporary, including ones on cops and teens; weird weather; and Donald Trump, whose tortuous marital and financial antics are prime tabloid fodders. Mir executed about 25 front pages on Trump, most taken from the early nineties when his first marriage and business were falling off the rails. "That happened concurrently with Germany being united, with Nelson Mandela being freed, and those were just sidelines," Mir noted, "so this is also a reflection of centrality and how identification emerges."

This past weekend, Mir and her assistants hung a new series of front pages, about food safety and AIDS. Next Saturday, to end the project on an optimistic note, she'll put up a series on sports victories. With the abrupt endings to both the Yankees and Mets seasons this month, the celebration of previous triumphs is guaranteed to be the one series of Mir's to feel like ancient history.