Aleksandra Mir

Interview with Aleksandra Mir

By Ana Ibarra
Elephant Magazine, London, January 2012

Ana Ibarra: Date and place of birth. Where do you live nowadays?

Aleksandra Mir: 

Born September 11, 1967 in Lubin, Poland. I have moved around a lot but live in London at the moment. My citizenship is Swedish-American.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? Were you from an artistic background?

Not at all. There were no artists in my family. First time I visited an art museum, Jeu De Paume in Paris, to see the Impressionists, I was 17.

Did you like drawing as a child? How did your parents react to your efforts?

My mother tells me I was drawing on the walls when I was 2. I don't know what that means, if anything. I wouldn't give childhood drawings much credibility as art unless you believe in reincarnation.

Do you remember when was the first time you told yourself: 'I think I want to be an artist?'

Very late. I had staked out a career for myself in publishing and graphic design before I had any faith in myself as a fine artist. My opportunities also came quite late.

When did you sell your first picture? Was it a drawing?

I sold a photograph from a performance to a fellow artist when I was about 33 I believe and my first drawings to an architect when I was 36.

Did you go to art school? How was that?

I went to School of Visual Arts in NYC for 2 years. It was a great way to start a new life and to make friends in Manhattan, but as an education I don't know. I did Avant garde film theory, Opera set design, Typography, Animation, Semiotics, Calligraphy, Illustration and Digital silk screening - all at once and never for long. I had to get out of that environment to become an artist. So then I went on to study Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Faculty, The New School for Social Research, also in NYC. This is where my first original ideas about culture and what I wanted to do with it began.

Did you attend life drawing classes? Do you feel that they were useful?

I had done some life drawing in my teens already but it mainly confused me as I never really learned proper physiognomy or anatomy to go with it. My course only did gestural sketching of quick poses for a couple of hours every week and the setup was very traditional so that already put me in a very predetermined relationship to the nude model, which is also loaded with another whole set of issues related to seeing. In retrospect I believe that this type of academic training has to be either taken to its full logical conclusion, be very rigorous, or dropped altogether.

How did you develop your drawing technique?

It came to me one day, just like so. In the spring of 2001 I had a residency at Delfina in London, the room so small I only used it as an office. One day I received a phone call from Polly Staple: "Mark Leckey and I are doing a fanzine called Saturday and we want you to make a drawing for it!" I grabbed a Sharpie and an 8x10" sheet of copy paper, office materials that I always had lying around my desk for taking telephone notes and made my first conscious Sharpie drawing while we were on the phone. Polly was a dynamic and emerging curator at that point, so I created the a brief history of female curator hairdos inspired by and for her. They printed it and there it was. Saturday had fantastic bite. It took the piss, out of ourselves, our contemporaries and our seniors, but it was very tender at the same time, as was all our humour in those days. One page was a shag wish list that included many of the admirable but aging YBAs. My drawing to Polly was made in the style of the satirical cartooning I had come across very early as a child already in Poland. Maybe this was my first visual influence and I had always felt that what could be achieved with a single black line was more powerful than the complexity of any painting. I was always drawn to graphics for its simplicity. Polish poster art was in fact very conceptual, based on an absurdist humor, irreverent to the film industry aesthetic it often advertised and always seemed like a fine enough fine art to me.

How did you develop your own personal style? Did it come easily, quickly, or did it take a lot of work?

Once I found my medium and my true reason to draw, the style was there automatically and never changed. I think personal style is the composite effect of everything that you are, that you have experienced and felt and it is only a matter of that coming into zenith, which is magical. You can't adopt or fake a style, then it seizes to be true style. But it is continuous work to be refining it. Once I had done my first conscious Sharpie drawing, I knew this was 'me' and I know this holds true for every time I pick up the pen and make a drawing now. I have been drawing with the Sharpie for over ten years now. The drawings got bigger and bigger and more and more elaborate. They have required helping hands, turned into live events and publications. I have explored my medium, the fiber-tipped pen, to its fullest. I can get a full range of tonalities out of the fading marker and I can dance around with the line at any size. The large scale drawings that require other hands have turned me into a choreographer of sorts, where I can orchestrate other people's energies into a very tight scheme I lay out in advance, but still appreciate individual strokes, spontaneous variation and nuance within this system. And I can go back to the letter size paper and the one line anytime. It all holds together within my style.

Did other artists inspire you? Which ones?

Living artists, my contemporaries I actually have had valuable exchange and conversations with are also my most influential. Lisa Anne Auerbach, Christian Holstad, Bernadette Corporation, Andrea Crews, Perros Negros, Andrea Zittel, Adriana Lara, Daniel Knorr, Pierre Huyghe, Jim Lambie, Richard Wright, Mark Leckey, Jenny Saville, Adam McEwen, Matthieu Laurette, Jens Haaning, Josephine Meckseper, Henrik Plenge Jacobssen, Eli Sudbrack, Jes Brinch, Jeremy Deller, Pierre Bismuth, Jim Drain, Antje Majewski, Paul Noble, Jeffrey Vallance and Joel Sternfeld is only a short list. I have also published an interview with my idol Jim Fitzpatrick who created the Che Guevera poster and I spent the last year documenting the life story of Irena Sedlecka, an 82 year old Czech Socialist Realist sculptor who escaped Communism and came to London in 1966 to support herself making souvenir models for the British Museum and 30 years later landed the commission to create the statue of Freddie Mercury. Both their life stories and artistic trajectories are hugely inspirational to me.

Do you carry a sketchbook? A camera?

I carry a stack of copy paper and a bunch of Sharpies when I travel to make small drawings on if I get restless or bored. I have drawn dogs and cows in India, penguins in Antarctica and lots of plants in Sicily.

Do you draw from life, or from photographs?

I use all sorts of sources. The end result is always a mix of typography and other signs, live plant or animal life, photographic reference, historical decorative elements and imagination.

What materials do you work with? Pencil? Ink? Charcoal? Others?

Sharpie markers only. Everything else is too stifling, too loaded with art history.

Do you see drawing as a tool, a means to an end, or as an end in itself?

And end in itself. I don't sketch. All my drawings are first hand and end results.

What are your favourite subjects?

I have spent a lot of time on naive cartography, drawing being a journey of sorts and the hand leading me backwards from this GPS era when everything is perfectly explored to a realm where there are still things unknown and dots unconnected. The question of geographical and cultural displacement is probably the one single most subject that I dwell upon.

When do you decide that a picture actually works as a drawing?

Before I even make the first line. I have the idea, the space worked out and I know what I am after.

Do you always work from a studio? How does that work?

I have always adapted the size of my drawings to the space available to me. If I am on the road, it is just a letter size pad. In my small NYC flat in 2004 the drawing size was 48x48". When I got a big studio in Palermo they grew up to 8 meters. When I returned to NY and was offered a show at the Mary Boone gallery in 2007, I used the whole gallery as a studio, working live in public view for two months which allowed me to use the full floor and wall space and to produce over 240 large drawings in a relatively short time. This last year I have been travelling a lot, staying in friends guest rooms and the drawings are down to a manageable 85x60cm. The conditions of labour determines the outcome very much.

Do you do something to 'warm up', or do you just get going, just like that?

The opposite. I try not to draw at all for at least 6 months every year. There is a danger to acquiring too much skill for me. I don't want to become an academically trained illustrator. And so every time I start a series I go back to a zero point of sorts, a complete reset, to keep my line just as 'naive' and awkward as I want it to remain.

Do you have music playing in the background? What kind of music? Does the rhythm of drawing ever follow that of the music?

Music is very much part of it. Whenever I have assistants in a studio I let them bring in the music. I have drawn to everything from C&W to Satanic Rock. I don't see it reflected in the drawings though, it is just a way of making the social experiences more pleasurable and the solitary ones less solitary. If I am alone I have a few playlists with monthly favourites, it varies a lot.

How do ideas come about?

If you are curious about the world you will always have a lot of questions and when you try to answer those questions to yourself, they become ideas. Looking is key. Travel definitely spurs imagination and culture shock automatically forces you to re-evaluate everything you know. I try to remain as naive as possible. There could not be a better point of departure for an artist than hitting the road, even if it means walking to the next village.

Did you find a market for your drawings? Do you find selling drawings easy? How do people in the art market or in the creative industries react to your drawings?

I have staged a drawing show in every gallery I have every worked with, they have been shown in plenty of art fairs and I have also done a solo museum show with only drawings. They functions very well in the white gallery space and in collections. It is a natural fit I would say. Other types of work of mine may be better suited outdoors and in the public realm, be funded through commissions or run on pure DIY.

Is drawing a less profitable activity than other, bigger, more colourful formats (such as painting)? Is this something you will sometimes think about?

Of course it is. If you take the one and the same artist, there is no comparison between a work on paper and an oil painting or a sculpture by them in the eye of the market. It is only reasonable if you want to use the market as a measure of quality. But if you are not concerned with profit that way, you are free to value the respective works any way you like. Drawing has been fully satisfying to me in every regard.

How would you define, in your own words, what it is that you do?

I am trying to answer my own questions about the world by giving them tangible form and then test how that form sits in the same world.