AS THE CONTEMPORARY ARTIST UNVEILS HER HUGE HAND-DRAWN WALL HANGINGS EXPLORING SPACE TRAVEL AT TATE LIVERPOOL, SALLY HALES ASKS WHAT INSPIRES HER BOLD AND GROUNDBREAKING WORK IN FELT PEN
Can you tell us about the Space Tapestry project?
It is a 3x200m wall hanging that relates the history and recent debates around space exploration and earth observation. It is inspired by the 1,000-year-old Bayeux Tapestry, which carries one of the first known depictions of Halley’s Comet. The work has been three years in production and involved 25 young artists in the process. There is also a companion book that interviews 16 people who work on space today – engineers, doctors, historians, geologists, and biologists. Inside the book, a speech bubble says, “Space seems to be everywhere.”
What attracts you to the subject of space?
I saw Neil Armstrong land on the moon on TV when I was two years old. My family lived behind the Iron Curtain, but we shared the experience with everyone else in the world. Few subjects are as unifying as space, which is actually all about our lives on earth – for example, as rovers are surveying Mars, its newly discovered geological features are named after existing features on earth because we are limited to what we already know or what we can perceive. In 1999, I staged the art installation, called First Woman on the Moon, on a beach in Holland. I sent Neil Armstrong the video and he acknowledged it with good humour.
Space Tapestry is a monochrome drawing. What draws you to black and white? How do you use it as a medium?
I only use Sharpies, which were invented in 1964 so they’re contemporary to my lifetime. In the 15 years that I have explored this simple marker, I have yet to see the same stroke repeated twice or get bored with it. I have even achieved watercolour-like washes by violently destroying a thick Sharpie and using the innards like a delicate brush.
What are the challenges of working with a large team on such a big scale? Is the choice practical, or is it intrinsic to the work’s meaning?
I was a New York artist without a studio for more than a decade when a friend lent me his large apartment and empty floor space. I had all these big works in me, so I simply needed extra hands to finish the projects before he returned. In the process I discovered the diversity of the strokes my friends helped me to produce was much more interesting than the uniformity of my own hand. When I was offered a solo show in a Manhattan blue-chip gallery, I used it as studio for two months, recruited 17 assistants (some off the street) and showed the work process live. Space Tapestry is partially funded with grants that have a strong diversity criteria and that widens my scope for the work even more.
38 Artists & Illustrators
You’ve worked across a variety of media, eschewing traditional art practices.
Do you think there is a unifying theme to you work?
An exploratory approach and the fact that I am doing it all – although not at the same time, obviously. One thing has organically led to another, ideas have looped back on themselves over time, and experience and skill has accumulated across media. A lot of the time I just adapt to my resources and run with it. If I am on a beach in India, I try to capture the energy of sleeping cows and wild dogs on a small drawing pad. If I am offered a museum show with a budget and massive wall space, I will want to fill that.
You were born in Poland, have American and Swedish citizenship, and live in London. Does this feed into your work? And how?
Some aspects I can trace to a particular location while others just reflect a general sense of being in the world. I have maintained a relationship with London since I was a teenager in the 1980s, when we had to take a 24-hour ferryboat from Gothenburg, where I grew up, to go to Camden Market to buy shoes. I have travelled the world extensively and lived for five years in Palermo, Sicily. My schooling in Sweden in the early 1970s celebrated socialism – as articulated in a productive group dynamic – above individual achievement. But my art education is steeped in American art history and art’s complex relationship to capital as I encountered it in New York at the School of Visual Arts and in galleries in the 1990s. Communist Poland itself barely features since I was only five when my family was expelled following the 1969 political turmoil, but the experience of migration and the cultural relativity that comes with it has probably formed my brain more than anything else.
You studied communication, media art and cultural anthropology. How do you feel they relate to your art? And to art in general?
Art is often talked about as just making, yet a big, but invisible, part of it is that of looking at the world and drawing conclusions from it. My communications background is a support structure for publishing and talks, while, in the studio, we explore very basic mark-making and, in that, we enter in dialogue with the Neanderthals. It is essential for me to be aware of these often-anonymous people and vernacular practices alongside celebrating the great masters in art history.
Aleksandra Mir’s Space Tapestry is on display at Tate Liverpool from 23 June to 15 October 2017. www.tate.org.uk; www.aleksandramir.info