Mandalas and Incense Holders: an email conversation with Aleksandra Mir

(originally published by Lisboa 20 Arte Contemporânea for Aleksandra Mir's solo show Mandalas and Incense Holders, from November 14 to December 31, 2008, Lisbon)

Mandalas are of Hindu origin, but their principles can be found in a few other religious systems. They may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tools, for establishing sacred spaces or as an aid to meditation and trance induction; Carl Jung saw them as representations of the unconscious self... what interested you in this subject?

Their universality, really. The Mandala can be seen as a scientific map of an expanding universe or of a tiny molecule, or as the very center of one's soul. It's graphic principle -- a central focal point around which other matter is revolving through an actual or seemingly gravitational pull -- is well represented in nature. Think of a flower's stigma, surrounded by petals; a star and it's planetary system. In our bodies, the iris of the eye and the nipple of the breast are designed in a way to draw in our attention and focus. Every culture through the ages has riffed on the theme through elaborate and decorative representations of the divine (Catholic stained glass rose windows stand next to the Tibetan ephemeral version made out of sand), but this heritage doesn't seem to make being serene and centered any easier today. My own kitchen-sink Mandalas are for the alcoholic in all of us. The first one I made was made up of Jack Daniel's Bottles.

Despite this poetic underlying tone, two things, constant throughout your body of work, come to mind when looking at the Mandalas, a certain political (or critical, if you prefer) position, and derivative or not from the previous, a humorous and playful (or ironical, perhaps) approach to the subject. Is this something you like to achieve in a conscious way or can it be considered a by-product of your artistic concerns? Do you consider yourself a skeptical?

The humor is central in my own work and to the art of other artists that I appreciate the most. The construction of a great joke makes for masterpiece in my mind. It is therefore not clear to me why we have chosen to banalize humor, or to see it as anti-intellectual, when we all agree that the best jokes contain the sharpest and quickest analysis of our societies and selves. And sure, skepticism or irony or at least an attempt to try things out, only to fail, but still be able to laugh, makes for a big part of my method.

How do the Incense Holders relate to the Mandalas series?

They are these little accessories I made, unique for this show, to accompany the Mandala drawings. They are basically these spontaneous paper sculptures in all shapes, with bends and folds that are held up by nothing but the memory of my drawing paper. Their function is to hold up a colorful incense stick. I thought it could be pretty and fragrant in the gallery.

Since you use all media available to you, why did you choose drawing for this project? The title "The Church of Sharpie" comes directly to my mind.

Drawing is the most immediate way for me to work out an idea and have it speak back to me. In art school we learn to associate drawing as a preparatory method for painting. I couldn't be further away from that idea. For me, drawing is an extension of writing and of performance, the physical trace of movement and the direct imprint of language.

Is there any connection between the spiritual aspects of Mandalas and the community (a certain togetherness) aspects explored in that project?

That is a little far fetched but OK. I often hire assistants to help in my work and we do form a type of community around the labor, the conversations we have while we work, the food and music that we consume, but this is not particularly unique to the Mandala project.
The 'Church of Sharpie' was a title born out of the recognition of a devoted community, but it is hardly spiritual in its impetus, simply kept together by a social (capitalist) contract of work between myself, my galleries and my assistants. The development of my concepts also precedes the collective work in the studio. I do most of the thinking alone, in front of the computer.

Sharpies became a signature mark of your work, despite the fact your work is so hard to categorize in terms of traditional artistic disciplines. You've written that they are the marker of your time and the trace of a frail act of performance. What is it that interests you in these marker pens?

Using a marker pen that is simply part of my daily environment is a handy way to make something contemporary and to demystify the artistic process. Art can be made with anything, anywhere at anytime. So "traditional media" seem quite limiting to me.

The demystification of the artistic process seems to be a very central aspect of your production. Departing from contextual social practices and personal histories and arriving to open systems that people can relate to, you undermine pre-established conventions of art-making.
Once a critic told me " walking with a big umbrella in the middle of the street isn't art". How come did this this become a concern and what would your answer to that critic be?

I have nothing to hide, nothing to lose, and I sleep well at night.