Helen Mirra


Helen Mirra lived at the Gardner as an Artist-in-Residence in November 2013. Mirra uses walking as a method to create work, often recording her journey through printmaking or collecting materials along the way. The activities are interdependent: the walking structures the work, and vice-versa. Her daily walks that November led her to discover the Museum’s galleries by both day and night. Walking in the galleries, Mirra looked for the plainest things in the collection, the ordinary among the extraordinary in the dense and elaborate complex of artworks and artifacts Isabella Stewart Gardner installed. Through a letter, she invited Museum staff to join her in identifying and sending her objects they felt fit this category.

Mirra visited the Conservation Labs, where she learned about work on two Japanese lacquer boxes and several stone sculptures. An intricate tea set bequeathed to Isabella by her dear friend Okakura Kakuzo, fabric remnants, and a kimono depicting a badger looking at the moon were pulled from storage for Mirra to examine. In the Archives, Mirra read correspondence between Gardner and Okakura and Gardner and William and Henry James. She also looked at Jack Gardner’s copy of Hales Survey, which documents various measurements in footsteps.

In the months that followed her residency, Mirra developed Standard Incomparable, a project influenced by her quest in the galleries and the instructions she gave to staff to assist her. She sent out an international appeal, in which she asked people of all ages and levels of experience to make a particular weaving. She specified a few simple parameters for the production: the weaving should be made of un-dyed yarn from the weaver’s locale, its length should be equal to the length of the weaver’s arm, and each piece should have seven stripes that are the width of the weaver’s hand. Weavings from fifteen different countries were sent in and sorted by the artist at the Museum. Although each piece had been crafted according to her criteria, the individual weavings differed in structure, color, skill, and scale. Each piece has its general and distinct characteristics, meaning each work was both "standard" and "incomparable."

Works from this collection have been exhibited at Kunst Meran/Merano Arte in Italy, the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena California, and at Large Glass, London. A selection of the weavings will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the Gardner Museum.

Standard/Incomparable, 2016. A selection of weavings Mirra received from around the world.
Standard/Incomparable, 2016. A selection of weavings Mirra received from around the world.

In 2017, Helen Mirra and Ernst Karel were invited to create a work for Listen Hear: The Art of Sound, a group exhibition at the Gardner Museum that featured nine sound works. Titled Municipals, the piece was constructed from a set of quadraphonic location recordings made in three kinds of public places: branches of the Boston Public Library, Boston City Hall, and designated urban wilds. At each site, Karel would record while Mirra played various small instruments: the echo harmonica in libraries, the morchang in the urban wilds, and a wood block. Each offered a new insight into the special and aesthetic dimensions of sound. The work was installed in Calderwood Hall on Fridays during the course of the exhibition. 

Helen Mirra (b. 1970, USA) lives in Northern California. She has made solo shows at the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, and Kunstwerke, Berlin. Her work has been shown in numerous institutional group shows, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Menil Collection, the Hammer Museum, and the Venice, Havana, and São Paulo Biennials. She has received awards from the DAAD, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, and Artadia. Alongside her art practice, she has led participatory walks with the support of the Aspen Art Museum, the High Line, and others.

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