The first work of Aleksandra Mir's that I ever saw was Cinema for the Unemployed (1998), a project in Moss, Norway, that was exactly what it claimed to be. It was free, only open during working hours, but showed only disaster movies. (This was weirdly prescient: within three years Mir would find herself sharing a name with a Russian space station that crashed and burned and a birthday with the carnage of 11 September 2001.)
Like many people involved in the UK art world, I spent a significant period subsidized by the government, and would have loved a similar initiative in my neighbourhood - the fake devastation of The Towering Inferno (1974) or Airport (1970) are somehow the perfect escape for anyone feeling powerless in the face of certain intractable realities. Then again, I wonder if it might have made me too uncomfortably self-aware. Because Cinema ... is loaded with a layer of obvious irony it is reflexive in a way that a straight community project can't afford to be - critical both of state attitudes to the 'socially excluded' and of its own tokenism.
This is difficult territory for artists. On one side there's the path taken by projects like Bonnie Sherk's city farm in San Francisco. Founded in 1974, it became a living example of effective, artist-initiated community action for nearly a decade - and fell off the art world map in the process. On the other side there are signs that the current tendency in art towards direct engagement with social and political structures could be spawning a kind of off-the-shelf house style that pushes all the right curatorial buttons. You can bet that Mir's work, with its often hyperbolic rhetoric, Romanticism and unpredictable invention, won't fall into that trap - she once suggested cryogenically freezing a certain European curator and waking them up in the distant future, so they could get a sense of perspective.
Mir is, however, very aware of the context in which she works and the activities of her peers. Her book Corporate Mentality (2003), published by Lukas & Sternberg, is a three year long editing project put together with fellow New Yorker John Kelsey that celebrates the diverse ways in which contemporary artists not only critique corporate structures, but adopt them in order to subvert them. The book 'focuses on the complex and ambiguous ways artistic production inhabits corporate processes, abandoning the autonomy of the artwork, in order to elaborate resistant approaches to a world increasingly determined by commercial strategies and market concerns', an essential area of interest as artists wake up to the reality of the Clinton-era fantasy of ethical corporatism. The plan came out of Mir and Kelsey's realization that the publicity industry wasn't stealing artists' ideas, but simply employing artists, like Mir herself, who needed a day job. 'Radical' aesthetics that used to take at least six months to travel from downtown to uptown (we're in New York here) are now transferred almost instantaneously, causing artists to reassess their methods. While many reacted by stealing back the corporate forms of consultancy or advertising, Mir's own work functions very differently. Too close to its subject matter to be called allegorical, it still deals with media themes and images in a way that's more epic than clandestine; rather than inhabiting corporate structures it's mostly concerned with the mechanics of representation, emblems and symbols.
Mir's ambition for her work is obvious. For every project she realizes, there are ten others waiting in the wings, ready to go. Once a piece has begun, she's uncompromizing - willing to work around the clock to achieve the effect she wants and encouraging everyone else involved to do the same. And there are usually plenty of other people involved, because she doesn't think small, at least not often. For example, seeing that Stonehenge has been turned into nothing more than the image of itself - a commercial tourist venture with a history of friction between those who run it and those who claim it as their own - Mir has proposed constructing an exact replica a few miles away. This would fulfil the same function, leaving the 'real' Stonehenge to regain some of its dignity. And she's serious. Of course making a new henge wouldn't require the hundreds of years and thousands of people the first one did, but the task is not trivial - taking on the bureaucracy of UK planning laws (unless you're building a bypass or a shopping centre) involves an effort close to that of dragging a bluestone from the Welsh mountains to Salisbury Plain. (A recent reconstruction of Stonehenge failed halfway through with the 'Millennium Stone' left stranded on the wrong side of the Bristol Channel.)
Mir's highest profile scheme to date, and definitely the largest, was First Woman on the Moon (1999), a massive collaborative operation produced by Casco Projects that turned part of the Dutch coast into a sandy lunar landscape, complete with craters: a giant set for the cinematic recreation of an event that never happened. A group of female astronauts planted a flag (oddly enough the Stars and Stripes - an opportunity for extra revisionism overlooked in favour of, I guess, better historical simulation) on the skyline, smiled and waved for the cameras. It is an extravagant but light-hearted polemic that generated equal amounts of admiration and suspicion - suspicion mostly of the size of the undertaking in relation to the low budget norms of critical contemporary art. We're used to the way artists are encouraged to inflate simplistic humanist statements - Antony Gormley's Angel of the North (1995-8), Damien Hirst's Hymn (2000), Bill Viola's Nantes Triptych (1992) - to giant proportions, while anything that smells of activism is made on the photocopier or accused of selling out. But the bombast of Mir's event went not a jot towards redressing the skewed value system it addressed; whereas the budget of a typical Hollywood film is £40,000,000, the production (put together with £2000 and a lot of goodwill) looked like a micro-scale reality hack.
It's clear that Mir sees the publicity industry as something to be faced on its own terms by media literate and ideologically aware art production. You can see she doesn't subscribe to the oft-repeated theory that the global diffusion of these kinds of power structures places them out of reach. Her continuing photo-archive Hello (2000-ongoing) offers a good counter-argument. With the idea of 'six degrees of separation' in mind, Hello links Mir and her friends to movie stars, politicians, presidents and royalty in a dizzying unbroken chain of photographed meetings. Parts of it recall the nightmare celebrity continuum of Brett Easton Ellis's Glamorama (1999), itself more or less a William Burroughs cut-up of the media celeb-world, and the around town round-ups of public air-kissing that feature in magazines like Vogue or, of course, Hello!. As the hundreds of images pile up (and it's important that it is a potentially never-ending project), however, the work reverses the distinction between 'them' and 'us'. Publicity stills of the great and good slowly turn into flat shapes with the meaninglessness of a repeated word; the snapshots of more ordinary folk gain hidden depths, the inverse glamour of unknown lives.
What comes up repeatedly throughout Mir's projects is the gap between the scale and power of art and the scale and power of the other forces at work in the world. Her answer is a double strategy: pushing her work as far into the realm of the spectacle as she can, and simultaneously heading in the opposite direction, trying to find representations or spaces that escape the media economy. The latter approach is seen best in works like Living and Loving #1 (2002), the scrapbook memoir of an unassuming young American called Donald Cappy, or her film-in-progress, Architecture, that will eventually comprise three years' worth of strangers' sandcastles being made and washed away on Coney Island beach.
One of Mir's most recent works, Pink Tank (2002), ended up combining both approaches. In 1992 Czech artist David Cerny gave a coat of pink paint to an old Russian tank in Prague that served as a World War II memorial and stuck a sign on it reading 'Trojan Horse'. Thus he turned it into a post-Velvet Revolution symbol charged with memories of the 1968 Soviet invasion. Mir's redecorated tank - in Bermondsey, London - might seem a little stranded with no comparable context, but it was planned not as a revision of history but as a summertime talking point - the reactions from passers by are collected in the spin-off work, Tank Talk (2002). The combination of breezy comments and the buried fact that popular uprisings in plenty of Western satellite states and former colonial territories met with equally forceful, and often more lethal military reprisals than the Prague Spring, combined to give the work the weird status of an icon that had been forgotten before it was created. Then, in another uncanny Mir coincidence, it was recently reactivated by images of Western armies once again in misguided action.
Mir's next plan, Plane Landing (2003-ongoing), to be realized at Compton Verney later this year, is to make a helium balloon mock-up of a generic jet airliner. This imitation plane, a 20 metre prototype for a future full-size version, will be tethered above the ground as if frozen on its final approach in the image of innumerable similar landings for the past 50 years. Mir plans to tour it to some of the world's most photographed landscapes - from the English countryside to the Swiss Alps to New York's Central Park - where the work could easily be a Romantic tribute to the modern Sublime, a warped update of the early 19th-century vogue for fake-but-picturesque neo-Classical monuments that complemented the beauty of the landscape. While it's certainly intended to underline the way that the technology of international travel has made those landscapes part of a global continuum of natural beauty available to the connoisseur, even that reading, given recent events, comes with a large side-order of hubris. A realisation that the incredible technological ability to reorganise both the world and our mass-produced images of it, could well be just a footnote to a more fundamental social failure.
First published in Issue 75