3Q: Aleksandra Mir
In 2014, Aleksandra Mir began a journey into the unknown. The London-based artist started talking with scientists and engineers about space — a realm in which she was a complete novice. The result of Mir’s dive into the cosmos is Space Tapestry, a vast wall hanging 3 by 200 metres, hand-drawn — in collaboration with 25 young artists — with fibre-tipped pens on synthetic canvas. Inspired in part by the eleventh-century depiction of Halley’s Comet on the Bayeux Tapestry, the work unfolds like a giant graphic novel to explore the unfathomable distances of space, the quest for extra-terrestrial life, and the impact of space technology on humans – from observing Earth to the politics of space. As the piece goes on show at Tate Liverpool, UK, Mir talks about her quest to get under the skin of science.
Why did you choose this format for Space Tapestry?
I wanted to create an immersive environment, almost like a stage set. And I wanted to introduce a new aesthetic. Whenever you see a science illustration you get what I call the “sleazy aesthetic”: supposed to convey fact but made to seduce with their slickness, intense colours and airbrushed surfaces. There are other ways of picturing phenomena that can be as realistic. And some phenomena beyond our technologies or perception can also be portrayed poetically. This is where art becomes relevant to science. My original inspiration for the project was the 1066 Bayeux Tapestry. It features a very early portrayal of Halley’s Comet: you have this little group of characters staring out in horror and fascination, and there’s this simple line drawing of the comet. What was interesting to me is that it doesn’t look anything like an actual comet, but conveys a tremendous amount of scientific information – it has a direction, a velocity and luminosity – which makes it valuable for contemporary scientists. So this became the key to my ‘tapestry’: images with validity for the science community, but also treated in a very poetic, freestyle, emotive and personal way.
You’ve explored many issues over your 25-year career. Why space, and why now?
Space has been a strand of my work for a very long time. My family watched the Moon landing in 1969 in Poland (which was then behind the Iron Curtain), and this left a powerful mark on me. My best-known work is First Woman on the Moon, the transformation of a beach in the Netherlands into a lunar surface in 1999, in response to the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11’s feat. The video of this event has been touring for 17 years now. And I recently realised that while the gist of the work is still valid – no woman has yet set foot on the Moon – I needed to catch up on the achievements of today’s space industry. I attended my first space conference in 2014 and was sold on a world that for me was like an alien planet. I had to learn a new language. I spoke to a lot of scientists about their daily lives. And once you start looking at that from my perspective as an artist and anthropologist, a natural philosophy and sort of magic embedded in these practices reveals itself. I was never interested in science fiction. Science has everything of interest to me. I think that the whole scientific project is a romantic project, the chasing for a connection, the yearning for depth, taking on a challenge, risking everything for a passion, the struggle.
What did you learn about scientists and science?
Working on the Space Tapestry project has given me access to some extraordinary scientists, locations and visuals. Among those I interviewed was Jan Woerner, director-general of the European Space Agency. Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory Greenwich has been one of my main advisors, and molecular astrophysicist Clara-Sousa Silva has been a huge inspiration. I visited high-security sites such as Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK; and saw the network control centres at Inmarsat and the Satellite Applications Catapult, both depicted in my drawings. I was allowed to ask tons of naïve questions, be critical, playful and absurd at times, which has connected and educated me in a big way. I can now hold a conversation in this realm, and in 2015 I was invited as a speaker at the UK Space Conference myself.
There is a newfound dialogue with scientists who are reaching the understanding that they also have been working in isolation. I have also realised that the sophistication of their projects, the enormous budgets and the long timespans can in no way ever be comparable to what I, as one artist, can do. So, if anything, I have gained a greater respect for science. One conversation I’ve had with scientists, though, is that you don’t always have to be heroic and successful to garner respect. To struggle, fail, be tired and dirty is part of our nature and a fundamental part of all human exploration. Artists know how to draw power from it and I think my project both humanizes and makes science more credible.
Interview by Elizabeth Gibney, a reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @lizziegibney.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Space Tapestry is on display in two parts: Faraway Missions will be at Tate Liverpool until 15 October; Earth Observation & Human Spaceflight will be on display at Modern Art Oxford until 12 November. An accompanying book forming part of the Space Tapestry project, We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future, is also available, and includes 16 interviews with space professionals.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.