The Big Scale: a work in progress @ INDEX

Mir installation view @ INDEX

Reality, once transformed and demonstrated as mutable, returns more vulnerable 1

Aleksandra Mir’s The Big Scale was originally created for the GLÜCK HAPPENS exhibition held in Erlangen, Germany (2010), where over 40,000 people experienced it. As a result of these large numbers, Aleksandra felt that the scales needed to be able to weigh more people at a time and asked the original fabricator, Cory Burr Designs Ltd, to increase their capacity.

In May 2012 an opportunity arose to test the modifications, as part of the SITE festival in Stroud, Gloucestershire, turning aspects of the rework into a performance event. It was agreed that INDEX (a newly formed artist-run gallery) could host this event, billing it as “a mass weigh-in”.

On Friday 4th May, Aleksandra Mir checked the efficacy and accuracy of The Big Scale with an audience of local school children, artists and neighbours. The result was a playful research experiment where artist and collaborators came together in an atmosphere of celebration and discovery.

As people arrived, they were greeted by assistants, digitally weighed, assigned a letter and logged. Each letter was then called up individually until everyone had moved from the floor to the sculpture. Each increase in weight was marked on to the dial of the scales by Aleksandra. This logging/scribing process enabled subsequent verification of accuracy and consistency and showed how the scales performed under different loads. The result of this activity was a giant set of bathroom scales where the graphic relationship between people and numbers was replaced with a system that was contingent, relational and spontaneous.

A low-status plywood OSB (typically used for hoardings) was chosen for the steps, ramps and backing for pictures, imparting a sense of immediacy or practicality; the pictures were printed off at the standard fly-poster size. The four A0 prints consisted of collaged images taken from CAD illustrations, working drawings and documentary photos. Through being offered views usually denied to museum or gallery visitors, the audience were able to grasp the work’s development and to understand the gallery space as an extension of the workshop.

Alongside these images was a whiteboard where illustrations of the inner-workings were drawn in response to questions from visitors, later co-opted by the gallery’s smaller guests as a zone-of-free-expression, for drawing pictures, writing messages and generally messing about.

The Big Scale was accessed via a set of steps and ramp for wheelchairs that inadvertently rendered the work enticing to younger visitors, who were able to run off, up and around the work. The scales became part of a route around the gallery, acting as an impromptu stage which allowed opportunities to reconsider relationships to the space and to other visitors. This awakening of playfulness and participation expressed an underlying simplicity of the work, the shared moment, something to be experienced, as opposed to a singular, solipsistic moment of reflection.

The curatorial decisions for the show were stimulated by Lars Bang Larsen’s discussion of Palle Neilsen’s 1968 work The Model – A Model for a Qualitative Society in a conference paper of 2000.

Nielsen’s analysis of the white cube differs from many others in his emphasis on the project’s direct impact on behaviour.‘There is no exhibition. This is only an art show because the children are playing inside an art museum. This is only an exhibition for those who are not playing. That is why we are calling it a model,’ stated the press release.

…Creativity and experiential contact were thus declared human priorities, ‘the qualitative human being’ defined as a social individual with a strong need for group relations and the necessity to work collaboratively as an alternative to authoritarian society. 2

On the other hand, when first encountered, Aleksandra Mir’s The Big Scale fits neatly into a canon of art as defined by Duchamp, Oldenberg and Koons. An ironic approach to the ready-made that toys with visual aesthetics and issues of taste that invite the spectator to interrogate the object; the artwork behaves as a proxy capable of channelling projected anxiety or political desire. Claus Oldenberg stated back in 1965:

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.

I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.

I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.3

Positioned to one side of the space were the original shop-bought scales – on a plinth, under a Perspex cover. A Koons-like homage to the mass-produced, reminding us of Duchamps’ provocation – the artist’s will versus the Museum object. The commonplace was preserved as cultural artefact to be considered in anthropological terms, whereas the Art object was jumped and walked on. This tension becomes an invitation, an incitement for participation and interaction. Through transforming the art object into an object of play, Mir begins to humanise the museum environment, desanctifying the art object. The work, however, is not a Dadaist destruction of meaning but a proposition of a more constructive, egalitarian version/model for art and gallery. The sharing of elements within the authorship of experience means the work is positioned as anti-elitist, not anti-art.

By scaling up the mass-produced, Mir introduces a bespoke constructed element, a paradoxical subversion of the ready-made concept through the engagement of a skilled fabricator to engineer the one-off item. The work re-values the hand-built, romanticising a mechanical, pre-digital age – now seen as redundant. The sculpture represents a contested territory: the struggle to open art up to broader-based social narratives and participation versus the stricture of formal gallery settings. It is at this point that the work departs from the relativistic mores of postmodernism to engage with what is in essence a structural, quasi-anthropological acceptance of a functionality within art.

Artworks are like social agents, in that they are the outcome of social initiatives which reflect a specific, socially inculcated sensibility. 4

That is to say utilitarian and relational objects may be retained by contemporary society as art due to their dislocation or isolation in the gallery space – thus the avant-garde desire to dissolve art into life is called into question.

The exhibition reflected the aims and objectives of its setting and also of its time, with the Arab Spring running as a backdrop to the show and Cameron’s Big Society persisting in the lexicon of British politics. Indeed, the gallery itself was set up as a cooperatively run, artist-led initiative to harbour principals of collectivity and shared goals. Within the work is the ambition that the scales could weigh an entire community, becoming suggestive of something more compelling – our collective weight, our critical mass, a desire for people power.

The work also exposes a fault line between genders, albeit one that is becoming increasingly blurred. In general terms males, wanted to know how it worked, its capacity. Women, however, saw it not as a threat per se but as a potent symbol that tapped into semi-conscious anxieties surrounding body image. There was not a single male with any concerns about getting on to the scales, but a total of three women point blank refused! The work could therefore be understood as an expression of latent anxieties held by many women. The work can be understood as a reaction to an ambivalent mass media that propagates fantasy and spectacle; a mass of media that all too often displays shocking disregard for the physical and psychological harm caused by misrepresenting (faking) men’s and women’s bodies 5. The Russian theorist Boris Groys has referred to the effect of this process in public life as the designed self, positing that we are all, to differing degrees, burdened with an aesthetic responsibility to present a fictionalised persona/image ready for consumption 6.

In terms of The Big Scale these ideas could be interpreted as a trade in insecurities and self doubt – the enforced commitment of women’s bodies to an ideal propagated through the spectacle or the vehicles of the mass media. In this way the female body becomes an area for political concern; the inadequacies of the human body are ridiculed and judged against a synthetic “reality” or hyper-reality which, in truth, no one could or should aspire to. Mir has berated certain portrayals of women, saying

The fashion industry’s insistence on impossible beauty ideals and novelty verges on fascism. 7

These anxieties naturally lead to the propagation of a sister industry – dieting, a co-option of socioreligious processes that focuses on the capitalisation of neuroses despite having been proven to be deleterious and ineffective 8. The Big Scale sits in opposition to this ‘norm’ as a spectacular subversion, a mechanical détournement; the scales are rendered useless when confronted by the weight of one and generate fun and alternative meaning when confronted with the weight of many.

The Big Scale therefore is a reflection of societal anxieties and shuffles them over into a mutable and constructive mode. The work represents a move away from an obsession with the self and unreasonable versions of humanity to a point where positive choices can be made, a place where “maxing out the scales” is greeted with a cheer, not medicalisation.

Gavin McClafferty June 2012.

1 Thompson. N. A Psychic Magic Act, catalogue essay. Mike Nelson: A Psychic Vacuum (2009). Creative Time

3Oldenberg. C. 1961/70 source; Harrison & Wood. Art in Theory (1992) pp727. Blackwell Publishers Ltd

4 Gell. A. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998) pp220. Oxford University Press

2 Bang Larsen L. Social Liability, paper presented at Momentum International Art Conference “Questioning the Social: Ethics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Art” (May 26th 2000). online @

5 Real Women Campaign, see briefing paper The Impact of Media Images on Body Image and Behaviours: A Summary of the Scientific Evidence (2009). online @

6 Groys. B. The Aesthetic Responsibility, keynote lecture, Frieze Projects, (2008). online @

7 Mir WOW blog 21st March 2011. online @

8Mann T. Tomiyama J A. Westling E. Lew A. Samuels B. Chatman J. American Psychologist, Vol 62(3), Eating Disorders, (April 2007), pp220-233. American Psychological Association//


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