The Seduction of Galileo Galilei
17 June - 6 August 2011
Mercer Union - A Centre for Contemporary Art, Toronto
Aleksandra Mir’s video and collage exhibition at Mercer Union, The Seduction of Galileo Galilei, left me with two distinct and contradictory impressions – a fitting result for a work that, according to Mercer Union’s own didactic brochure, “indulges the delight of failure.”
Mir’s set-up is simple enough. In a tribute to Galileo’s world-changing experiments, and in an act of reclamation of the pivotal roles played by Galileo’s daughters, Mir stages a dicey experiment with gravity – one that allows for limitless play between accident, timing, and the unpredictable.
How the New York-based artist does this is the most fun: Assembling a team of helpers, including two crane operators, Mir attempts to build a wobbly tower out of dozens of spent tires (thus making a ridiculous version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, itself a ridiculous building, and the tower from which Galileo, as the story goes, dropped his feathers and rocks, to measure gravity’s pull). So far, so harmless goofiness.
But other elements are mixed into Mir’s video recounting of her performance pile-up, elements that made me a bit uncomfortable, even cranky.
Now, I am the first to admit that I am overly sensitive to class issues. Coming from nothing does that to you. So, when I see a group of well-educated, privileged and world-travelled artists employing, arguably for parodic reasons, elements of working class culture, I get antsy.
And in Mir’s video we watch a team of classic, straight-from-the-kit artist types (of which, yes, I am one too, nowadays), put on hard hats (uncomfortably and uncertainly), don new construction yard gloves, and proceed to get dirty. But, to them, it is all performance, a game, hardly work.
The setting is the back lot of a kiddy go-kart track, located in a poor part of rural Ontario, which acts as another trigger – what could be more down-market, more outré?
Some local children are interviewed, filmed as if they were Emperor Penguins in Antarctica – look, real live locals! And, after watching the video twice, I am not certain the voices of the two crane operators, the only professional labourers in the video, are ever fully heard, a misstep that negates their very real contribution to the project.
Perhaps Mir has a set of intentions I have misread, or can’t gain access to (the accompanying information contains nothing about her background, other than the usual art/education résumé), but how the work appears to the visitor, informed or not, is what matters – and, from this end, it looks like an act of class tourism.
Other little snide-nesses creep in to the production. Boxes of Tim Hortons doughnuts (the fave snack of the art-hating Conservative party) are shown, and one clever sort tries to pile them into a tower. The landscape around the race track is filmed as a desolate, unlovely spot. And to announce her project, Mir uses one of those ubiquitous roadside arrows, the kind with replaceable letters, signs beloved by fruit stands and adult video stores all over the countryside. Oh, it’s all so ironic, so not-rural-but-about-the-rural, slumming for simulacra. One of the participants even sports a jacket with the name Barthes (as in Roland) on her back. Maybe that’s her last name, but I doubt it. Whatever her goals, Mir’s video smells of smarminess, of a kind of informed idiocy whose ironies only the clinically art-theory-fed can process.
I feel very strongly that when artists invade spaces outside their comfort zone, they need to be cautious about how they later present these spaces – be those spaces developing world slums, or rusting Ontario small towns. It’s just common courtesy.
With that off my shoulders, I will say that, overall, Mir’s foolhardy project is amusing to watch unfold. Of course, the tires can’t be stacked more than 10 or so high, and thus there are tumbles a-plenty. Like any fan of Jackass knows, watching stuff fall over is funny. I won’t give away the ending, but simply say that the “how to” element of the project is eventually, ridiculously resolved.
As a video work, however, Mir’s narrative could use a lot of tightening, and drop some of its stop-motion, halting edits, which only look pretentious given the project’s innate clownishness. And, the less said about Mir’s collages the better. She inserts spaceships and astronomical imagery into mass-produced Catholic liturgical art, beating the Galileo vs. the Church bit to a weary shrug. The results are more Mel Brooks hammy than Monty Python witty.
But the true irony of The Seduction of Galileo Galilei is how much the artists involved, by play-acting labour culture and nudge-wink mocking easy-target, working-class tropes, are behaving exactly like the all-knowing, smarter-than-thou bishops who put Galileo in prison in the first place.
11:12 AM on July 9, 2011
A few points of interest to add to the story—
On the location—Goodwood Kartways represents a dynasty, a serious training ground for elite racers. The site provided a potent background for the artist’s work because of its association with speed, color and precision sport. The track in located in the community of Whitchurch–Stouffville, where, based on 2006 Census data, the median household income of was $95,007, whereas the same data collected for metropolitan Toronto stood at $69,321. Stouffville’s residents also benefit from an important access point to contemporary art—the Latcham Gallery, established in 1979, same year as Mercer Union.
On the labour—A volunteer crew mostly comprised of artists deferred to the crane operators detailed expertise knowing that we were the unschooled novices and, yes, we looked goofy. For the record, Modern Crane donated all the services that day. The resultant video is a record of their spirit of generosity and the courage to experiment. In the end, they get the last word, showing the audience the true capacity of their machines and their skill.
On the artist—Aleksandra Mir wants to assure you that she is of humble origins, has held more labor positions than you can possibly imagine in order to support herself as an artist and has lived most of her life in small town communities. The curious boys who came forward to the cameraman reminded her of her own youth. She found the rural landscape around Stouffville to be very powerful and beautiful and wishes she were dating any one of the intelligent, playful and sexy crane operators
To see the video discussed we welcome everyone to the gallery or to view it online:
Sarah Robayo Sheridan
Director of Exhibitions and Publications
1:58 PM on July 9, 2011
Dear Ms. Sheridan,
Thank you for this excellent information. The trouble is, none of it is readily available to the viewer who wanders in by chance or out of curiousity. As I stated in my article, from the position of the viewer, the video looks and feels more like a snarky visit by a group of artists to a small town, artists who play at being labourers.
The didactics provided to all visitors to the gallery contain none of the information you have just provided, and perhaps the video would have a far more communal, and perhaps even loving, feel and tone, had the didactics given some or all of this information. The playfulness is certainly evident, as I have stated.
My approach has always been to look at art in the same way as the non-journalist, and while I am of course an insider, and could easily gain access to more information, most people are decidedly not art world insiders, and are intimidated or otherwise reluctant to pursue further information from galleries -- that is unfortunate, but it's a real problem.
So, my assessment comes from the standpoint of "what is in front of me and what have I been told about it?", and thus my conclusions.
I hope that many people will now go to this exhibition given the further information you have just provided.
5:41 PM on July 8, 2011
Boxes of Tim Hortons doughnuts (the fave snack of the art-hating Conservative party
The exhibit may have annoyed the writer but this kind of BS pap drives me crazy!