The Delicate Aggression of Mira O’Brien
Mira’s work impresses the instant you look at it. There is a tension between perfection and chaos. All is perfectly intended yet unconventional and impulsive.
Entering her wide and spacious studio in Berlin, my eye was caught by the two large-scale paintings on paper hanging on the wall. Fences, broken glass and panels with translucent surfaces, are the subject matter used in most of her work. A couple of these elements are found at her studio.
There is not much there at the moment because she is about to ship her work to Switzerland for her next exhibition. I asked her to tell me about her ideas, her future plans, and to share her artistic and creative process with us.
YT: So first, what brought you to Berlin?
MO: I moved to Berlin in 2008 directly after completing my MFA at Yale. I wanted to try living in another country and I thought it would be a good time go before getting settled somewhere. I chose Berlin because I heard a lot of artists from all over the world were moving there and I already knew some people there. I thought it would be a good place to develop my studio practice for a year or two, but I ended up staying!
How do you come up with new ideas and manage your creative process from this incredible workspace?
MO: I work in a couple of different ways. I do large scale works on paper and I also do installation sculptural work with glass and projecting shadows.
I use all kinds of media to create my work. I start out looking for specific forms in the urban landscape. I photograph them and then I recombine different elements from different places. I manipulate the source material through drawing, both by hand or on the computer. There are a lot of different layers. I combine, change and reinvent the source material and it ends up on tracing paper. The compositions are quite large, so I have to plan it.
The colors that have the general feeling of shadows and reflections; they are connected to elements of urban landscape,like concrete or reflections of water on asphalt.
I also work with performance, such as in the ongoing collaborative project “if-then-else” with choreographer Tarren Johnson. The projects all overlap and I let them influence each other.
You mean, form or concept?
I am really interested in working with materials and what is specific to each material, so yes, that would obviously change depending if I am working with watercolor or glass, but then a lot of the ideas behind the work, are kind of consistent from one medium to the next.
I have been always really interested in architectural forms that are in the process of losing their rigidity and becoming more organic, or when structures go from being diagrammatic to having to confront the limitations of materiality and use.
Fences are forms that you use recurrently in your work. What is your motivation to do so?
In the paintings there are places where the fences have been cut open and then stitched back together. The starting point is a more formal analysis of the diamond grid becoming more organic. The disruption of a perfect pattern.
I focus on these places where the fence has been cut open and then put back together, because it is showing interaction from the two sides of the fence, ‘an unwilling collaboration’ because it shows the tension and the conflict between the two sides. The context is removed.
Is there a special historical or personal relation to the fence?
One reason is more formal. I am really interested in the disruption of geometry, and then on the other hand, I think about what it actually is, it also relates to landscape and I think a fence is almost the most minimal architectural structure that you could have. It is literally only just a division within the landscape. From one space you have immediately two.
You do remove the evidence of a presence. How is transparency considered as a language to create this phenomenon?
The glass panels are part of the performances and installations that I make. I am doing a lot of research about the idea of transparency in glass architecture. I am tracing the connection between the origins of glass architecture starting with green houses, which connected landscape and architecture, overlapping civilized space and nature, with the current state of corporate architecture and mirrored glass skyscrapers. I think the opposite of transparency is not opacity, but rather reflectivity. Whereas transparency has the connotation of openness and truthfulness, the one way mirrors of reflective windows reinforce a power structure.
Why is architecture so important for you and what is your connection to it?
Architecture always starts with a plan, and this is the most perfect that it will ever be. And then you build something by following the plan, but it cannot be the plan because it is made out of materials, and materials have their own demands. Gravity, weather, forces of conflict, process of decay or entropy of a system, are always influencing materials. So you are always experimenting with something new, and that is part of creating new work based on processes after a plan. My work has usually a tactile quality, I do love the trompe-l’oeil effect, which I incorporate to my work.
Does this have also a relation to your performance and installation work?
My performance and installation work is very experiential, like my installation in 2013 here in Berlin at the General Public space. I used panels of laminated glass that were rolled up and pushed against the wall, then they where gradually sinking throughout the exhibition so you could hear them like ice crackling. I recorded the sound of rolling up the panels, and it was like bones breaking. It was very violent and visceral while at the same time sparkling and fragile.
You have a project called The Berlin Drawing Room. Can you tell us something about that project?
It started in 2011 with two students and it grew pretty fast. I started to provide classes for adults. The main connection is a little bit broader, I am not teaching classes specifically related to my artistic practice, and the idea behind this is not teaching to make art., but more about developing specific skills.
The drawing workshop is focused on drawing from observation and has a lot to do with perception and retraining the way people see. My students are very international and come from all types of professional backgrounds which makes it very interesting.
At the moment I teach the workshops in my studio, but maybe in the future I will need to look for another space and to hire some instructors to work with this project with me.
We have plans, in collaboration with The Studio Visit, to host their Critique program this coming June 2016.
What are your future plans regarding your work. Do you have some ideas how can you manage your personal production and managing The Berlin Drawing Room?
At the moment, I am in execution mode for my work because I have three exhibitions opening in Switzerland within the next month, so it is a little difficult for me to answer that question. From Zurich I am going directly to Venice to a residency in printmaking for one month. After that, I am going to have the time to reflect a bit more. It is actually the first time that I will show a lot of the work that I am bringing to Switzerland, and I always have the feeling that until something leaves my studio it is not finished.
Do you consider yourself a successful artist at this very moment? What does success mean to you?
I don’t know, I don’t think I could answer that definitively. I guess, I always think about what more I can do for my art. I have never had the feeling to say that I am satisfied and to stop creating or doing things. I am very self-critical.
Does your art have something to say about gender issues?
Yes, definitely. It is beneath the surface, but not far from it. The thing is, it is hard to talk about without just sounding really general. There is a phrase that describes my work: a Delicate Aggression.
It is like with the broken glass, it draws you in because it is beautiful and glittering but on the other hand it can be threatening and dangerous, and I think that it is not a far stretch to see that through a gender lens. Feminism is very important to me personally.
Your work has a contraposition between these two tensions. You as a woman can recall it, but your message is aggressive and disturbing sometimes. Is this your intention for your art production?
That is a quality that I try to balance in my work. I always have to have both. It cannot just be pretty and decorative, but it also cannot only be harsh. The tension between the two creates something new. It is the reflection of the way I see things.
For more information about Mira O’Brien, please follow the link