Aleksandra Mir

Hello, Luxembourg, 2003
By Ralph Rugoff

'Hello' is the most basic form of greeting in English, a word that has no real meaning other than its use in acknowledging and initiating an encounter. In Aleksandra Mir's Hello San Francisco, discourse is seemingly stalled at this introductory enunciation. Part of an ongoing photographic project that also includes versions made in London, New York and Sydney, Australia, among other places, Mir's Hello presents a pictorial daisy chain in which one person meets another, who meets another, who meets another, et cetera. Some of these people are famous, some are not—but all regard each other, or the camera itself, as if uttering this ubiquitous phrase.

Mir's project is at once a type of documentary and a picaresque epic, employing existing photographs to unfold a tale of extraordinary encounters and unexpected twists and turns. Making use of family snapshots as well as diverse forms of celebrity and archival photographs, Hello presents a far-ranging sequence of meetings between both public and private figures. An unpredictable rhythm informs its transitions from images of the famous to the anonymous. Starting, say, with an image of rock singer Jim Morrison and his lawyer Max Fink, we find ourselves proceeding through pictures of various Fink family members until in one image Betty Ford (former U.S. First Lady and founder of a notorious celebrity rehab clinic) makes an appearance. The succeeding photographs jump into the realm of politics, while taking us back in time: from President Gerald Ford and the royal families of England and Japan, we move through history to Jackie Kennedy, the Mercury astronauts, and a press photo of John F. Kennedy greeting a teenaged Bill Clinton. Further on in Hello San Francisco, a trip through the home photo album of the Quinlan family ends up leading us to photographs of Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo.

We are accustomed, of course, to looking at images of the famous (thanks to tabloids such as the British magazine 'Hello') as well as images of leading historical figures. Mir's project, however, disarms us with its uncanny linking of celebrities and unknown individuals. In our media society, these two groups constitute distinct classes, conjuring separate orders of reality. Their repeated entanglement thus takes on a surreal quality. Indeed, the improbable connections and disorienting jumps in time and space that characterizes Hello's parade of encounters seems designed to play with, and wryly question, our faith in the credibility of photography. Yet while Mir occasionally includes images of fictional characters (such as Santa Claus and Miss Piggy) as well as publicity stills from films, Hello's raw materials are never invented or forged by the artist. Instead, they are gathered through a painstaking process of archival and field research. Essentially, then, Hello would appear to be a hybrid form of documentary reportage—a fabricated non-fiction.

More specifically, Mir's artwork suggests a strange kind of ethnographic survey, a contemporary kinship chart of coincidental relationships that is made visible—and perhaps even fostered by— our photographic culture. Mir's version of social anthropology, however, is propelled by a delirious logic. In tracing unlikely connections between people, Hello follows the basic 'modus operand'i of conspiracy theories, and in the process evokes a world tied together by secret knots.

At the same time, it is worth noting that Mir's informal kinship chart does not chronicle historical lines of affiliation—as does a conventional family tree—but instead proceeds horizontally, moving sideways, as it were, from encounter to encounter, irrespective of their chronological order. Rather than ever approach the possibility of resolution, it unfolds in such a way that each segment of its photographic chain is at once a provisional conclusion and the beginning of a new sequence. In this way, Hello evokes a potentially endless landscape of connections—an information age version of the sublime.

In exploring this territory, Mir's work indirectly echoes a certain strain of conceptual art from the late 1960s and early 1970s that took the form of open-ended series, and, in deadpan fashion, often invoked either the infinite or the sublime. Among other works that come to mind, I think of Douglas Huebler's long-term project, begun in 1971, to photograph everyone in the world. But compared to Huebler's enterprise, which mocked the totalizing aspirations of modernism while humorously engaging with a task that was clearly endless, Mir's Hello is less conspicuously absurd. At first glance, most of the images that Mir employs appear to be absolutely straightforward. But just as a simple idea, when pushed to extremes, may begin to seem extraordinary, so Hello becomes more and more ludicrous as it expands in size. As the individual images link up into longer and longer sequences, their appearance is denatured and they take on an increasingly uncanny aspect. The unremarkable scenes that they depict gradually begin to strike us as curious and enigmatic. At the same time, their serial connections present evidence of a preposterous alternative universe in which everyone is somehow associated with everyone else.

Hovering in the background to Mir's project is the popular notion that we are separated from any given stranger by no more than "six degrees of separation"—in other words, by a chain of six acquaintances (e.g. a friend of mine has a friend who has a cousin whose sister-in-law works with someone whose neighbor knows you). But rather than simply call attention to the haphazard chains of association that link people in different social domains, Mir's project addresses the world as it exists in photographs. It plays on our fascination with images of the famous, and extends this voyeuristic relationship to the realm of home snapshots. And it focuses on the flattening of difference that occurs in media culture, underscoring the estranged banality shared by both publicity images and anonymous family photos. Each of these genres is a form of common cultural property, as instantly recognizable and seemingly transparent as the word Hello itself. In Mir's hands, however, they are transformed into elements of a narrative code that not only evokes an endless horizon of images, but also turns upside down our conventional pictures of the world. Deceptively innocuous, Hello provokes us in the end to rethink the routine distinctions we make between objects and series, public and private, fact and fiction, and beginnings and endings.