Aleksandra Mir

Conversation with Aleksandra Mir

Situations lecture series, Bristol, 15 October 2003
By Claire Doherty

Claire Doherty: Plane Landing occurred at Compton Verney in July 2003, some two years after your initial idea and proposal. Could you describe the process through which this project was realised?

Aleksandra Mir: I had the idea and started doing research into ballooning and aviation whilst on a Delfina residency in London in 2001. It was then realised through a commission from the Compton Verney House Trust on the initial invitation of curator Michael Stanley who also raised a supporting grant from the Art Council of England that effectively paid for the bulk of the production of the project. The present curator John Leslie brought it to realisation in the grounds of Compton Verney in the summer of 2003. I had by then written around 3000 emails and made about 15 trips to Bristol for meetings with the factory, Cameron balloons, who built it. I am now continuing the active negotiation with hosts around the world who are interested in bringing the plane to new locations and add to its journey that way.

With a project such as this, are you able to articulate where for you the work resides? Are there aspects of the project that are purely production or is every aspect of the process another facet of the work?

I get this question more and more often which may be indicative of how all aspects of my practice are naturally blending into one seamless flow. Plane Landing is an object, which functions both as a sculpture and as a prop for a performance, situated in a ready-made landscape. I allow the audience as much insight into the process of preparations, the inflation and deflation as is practical and safe. I photograph all stages of the production and this material is made public, both as documentation and promotion of the event. Recently, documentary material of my past ephemeral works have also started to enter museum collections, as art history.

So in effect, there is really no distinction for myself between doing the research, drafting proposals, attending meetings, negotiating aesthetics, physics or money, travelling, being available for press, capturing the process as it happens or staging shoots to show it off from a particular angle that is of interest to me, following up in educational or gallery contexts, or doing interviews like this one. It all requires the same effort. So if I focus the question back on myself, my activity and engagement, I would say that as long as I am needed on the scene, as long as there is a resonance between me and the world and I am actively involved in the work, I create work.

If the plane in this project was to act (as you have said) as a "catalyst to talk about landscape", could you give an indication of how and whether you think that occurred or is still occurring?

It occurred live and it is apparent in the photography. The plane is situated outdoors in an open-air situation. It is surrounded by a landscape; in this case, the Capability Brown-designed parkland of the Compton Verney House. My further intentions are to travel the plane to a variety of different surroundings; California desert, Manhattan skyline, Swiss Alps, Dutch flower fields, to offset these environments and make them apparent. As small human bodies we often take our surroundings for granted as natural entities, their size and permanence in relation to ours, more or less demand that we adapt to them and not vice versa. But every landscape is also the result of previous human intervention and I am interested in making this resonant.

Your practice is often focused around an idea that must capture the imagination of a diversity of publics, media, producers and partners. Have there been moments during the development of a project when the idea has not been strong enough to carry that throughdo you have a sense of the direction of a project and how to control the process or when to let go?

My ideas are constructed as paradoxes that will always evolve around themselves, so as far as my philosophy goes, it can't really be corrupted or fail. I can easily let other people project their desires, engage their opinions, use their economies and form their own meaning through individual or local relationships to the work without ruining my intentions. In fact, I completely rely on all these relations to be able to pull anything this complex off at all.

But of course communication also breaks down for many different reasons: human factors, money, and politics, often prompting the premature cancellation of a work. I'd say my success ratio is around 50%. If the process is already far-gone and I have lived with it for a long time, an aborted project can be very painful, but it's also fair enough. The successful realisation of a work is also the demonstration of a whole set of circumstances and relations that have been strong enough to sustain it. It is real that way. And if things don't work out, I may have a cancelled proposal in my hand that reflects on its own impossibility and hopefully makes it clear why. But then again, there is always the possibility to revisit cancelled ideas under a different set of new circumstance. I never really stop trying.

You mentioned in your lecture the unexpected resonances of a piece like 'First Woman on the Moon', could you indicate what some of those have been and whether you seek those out?

First Woman on the Moon was conceived as a direct commentary on the 30th anniversary of the original moon landing. It was in essence a joke on the lack of the advancement of gender equality in our society, as reflected in my pathetic demonstration of a simulated moon landing. JFK turned his nation on to the space race by saying he wanted a man on the moon before the end of the decade (the 60s). I said I wanted a woman on the moon before the end of the millennium, knowing very well this wasn't going to happen. The documentary of the work has now been touring art institutions for five years. In the beginning it was used to comment on anything from gender and land art to conspiracy theory, but in quite an academic, and I would say, detached way from its populist origins. It had been very quiet around space exploration since the anniversary in 1999, but now suddenly, there is feverish interest again. The Mars landings and Bush's pronouncement of revisiting the moon, have all suddenly resonated back to my work in new unexpected ways. And this spring the tape of the work was shown at the launch of a new report on the future of the British Space Industry, as an example of how space can be democratised.

What has been your experience of working within group exhibitions; would you rather confine your participation in such projects to the documentation of projects such as 'First Woman on the Moon' and 'Plane Landing', or do you think it's possible to produce a new work within the complex dynamic of a group project such as a biennale?

I participate in all sorts of exhibitions, high and low, central, peripheral, solo, collective, 'prestigious' or not. They all offer me very different things and very different work comes out of them. But those two works you mention could not have happened in a biennale context. In both cases the production structure was built up around the works themselves and not vice versa.

First Woman on the Moon was in effect a zero-budget punk production orchestrated from the tiny, non-profit office of Casco Projects in Utrecht. I worked according to a real world context — the 30th anniversary of the original moon landingso I was able to define the time in which my work happened, using that as a context and making reference to world history in that way. I could take weeks site scouting the Dutch beaches before settling on my location. I got to know people in the villages personally who were then instrumental in clearing an enormous amount of red tape that no bureaucratic art institution or 'big deal' show in the world would have had the capacity to do for me. I spent five months raising the goodwill needed and in the end we had a zoo of volunteer collaborators, ranging from a steel factory to street musicians, all indispensable to the result.

On the back of this experience, I was able to realise Plane Landing, which is a serious commission from Compton Verney and the Arts Council of England, on a budget totaling around £60,000. But again, the idea was defined before there were any budgetspeople got turned on and we had to go out and find the money to meet the project's requirements. The timing here was also left completely open to the extremely experimental process that was going on at the factory. If they needed four months to order silver fabric, well that meant we had to postpone the intended launch date another six months and that was not a problem. PR and educational projects were directly derivative of my work, not the opposite. I defined the aesthetic for all the publicity myself. So you can riff endlessly in a commission like this where the work itself is allowed maximum integrity.

My experience with biennale culture (I will have taken part in a total of five by the end of this year: Moss 1998; Sydney 2002; Sharjah 2003; Whitney 2004 and Liverpool 2004) is quite different, not better or worse, but just very different way of working. It is obvious that when in a biennial you are part of huge preconceived scenario where you are asked to fill a slot, a pre-fix economy and a bundle of rhetoric you may or may not necessarily agree with. The amount of organisational labour on the part of the curators means biennial artists in general need to be disciplined into an artificially democratic entity, or they come to internalise some sort of uncanny discipline themselves to be able to co-exist at all. There is rarely room for spontaneous effects as everything pretty much needs to be clear up front. But even this seemingly constricted scenario can be useful for particular works.I just made a piece for the Whitney Biennial that cost $30, a set of small plastic ready-made No Smoking signs placed out all over in the galleries of the museum. I am very happy with this work. It works.