The Seduction of Galileo Galilei
17 June - 6 August 2011
Mercer Union - A Centre for Contemporary Art, Toronto
Many Canadian galleries are honoured with the presence of international art stars through variously arranged (and, often, dubiously satisfying) commissions, but few receive the kind of direct cultural engagement and interest offered to Toronto's Mercer Union by Poland-born, London-based artist Aleksandra Mir. Mir's summer project for the gallery, entitled The Seduction of Galileo Galilei, took place two weeks ago on June 11, when she staged an action in Stouffville, 45 kilometres northeast of the city. A group of people participated in the event-including Mercer Union director of exhibitions and publications Sarah Robayo Sheridan and its exhibition technician (and artist) Jon Sasaki-which involved the construction of a tower of tires next to Goodwood Kartways, a go-kart track. Aided by a crane and its crew, the group was prompted by the artist to keep stacking tire-towers to see how high they could go. Video footage of the action-the focal point of an associated exhibition which opened at Mercer last week-shows failure after failure, ending with a chaining together of the tires and a lifting of them by the crane, in a ludicrous simulation of what this crowd of people, foiled by gravity, could not accomplish.
Mir's inspirations for the project are declaredly historical, but also appear sensitive to local dynamics. She is probably best known for her First Woman on the Moon action from 1999, for which she concocted a moonwalk for herself in the Netherlands so as to set the titular record before the millennium hit. The Seduction of Galileo Galilei strikes similar chords, making a deliberately pyrrhic attempt to rectify the past's exclusions. According to legend, but not verified by fact, Galileo did many of his experiments in the laws of gravity from the Leaning Tower of Pisa; Mir's tire version of Pisa suggests a literal tumbling down of this myth. Just as Mir accomplished a feminist lunar walk by not doing it at all, so, here, does she try to integrate herself into the masculinist tradition of scientific discovery through toppling tires. That the tires-and the adjacent go-kart tracks-are symbols of "butch" culture makes Mir's attempt all the more hilarious and trenchant.
More intriguing, even, is Mir's interest in class, also reflected by the tires and the go-karts and the sort of rural milieu they represent. The action of The Seduction of Galileo Galilei carries with it the baggage of any number of contemporary art world interventions: city art-types converging, tourist-like, on a small town to do a project that is deliberately futile, a re-creation of industrial work activities in which they do not typically engage. Instead of shying away from this aspect, Mir revels in it. One shot in her video shows Sheridan, wearing a super-cool track jacket with "Barthes" emblazoned on the back, next to one of the crew, who wears a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. A lunch break is catered by Tim Hortons, and Mir takes this opportunity to show someone jokingly stacking donuts, as well as creamers-which end up looking suspiciously like Constantin Brancusi's Endless Column. That the crane company is named "Modern Crane" only heightens the joke. Life of all kinds can mirror conceptualist practice; Mir's noticing of this is as self-mocking as it is astute.
Collages from Mir's 2009 project The Passion appear in Mercer Union's backroom space, in complement to the video. The works show cheap Catholic iconographic prints interspersed with elements of space travel. (In one, Jesus holds a satellite; in another, Mary embraces the world and a rocket ship.) The project is almost identical to one from the same year, The Dream and the Promise, for which Mir asked the question, "If angels and astronauts share the same sky, isn't it time they were introduced?" Such absurdist integrations are central to all her work-imbued, as it is, with what might affectionately be termed a clumsy grace.