I’m coming to this at a moment when a mirror made on earth is about to reach its orbital insertion point one and a half million kilometres away. Its job will be to look back through time, as they put it, examining wavelengths originating close to the beginning of the universe. Just now, it’s twiddling its individual mirrors and looking, from the graphic, as if it just invented Space Invaders, but in a few days it will arrive at Lagrange Point 2 and begin orienting, focusing, and settling into place.
Astro physicists have all sorts of expectations about the meaning of the images it will send back. Me? I’m just a little bit hopeful it will show an identical mirror looking back at us.
The point of this apparent detour into deep space is that, ever since we realised we could see ourselves in reflective surfaces – and, critically, knew that it was us (see the red spot experiments) – we have been using reflectivity for purposes of vanity, artistic enhancement (cf Van Eyck’s Arnolfini painting and also see Hockney’s 2006 discussion about the use of mirrors as artists’ aids), looking up and over obstacles (periscopes), down into microscopic worlds, and sometimes at the unreachable itchy patch on our posteriors.
We also use them for fun. Halls of mirrors distorting out images as we move around the display and squeal at our sudden length of leg or corporeal expanse.
Manet’s 1882 A Bar at the Folies-Berger, is a manipulation though, and it took a documentary, the name of which I don’t recall, to point out that the reflection of the barmaid could not possibly be where, of, or how it is. We, as the viewers, should be in it and we are not, although the customer is there off to the right but nearly out of the picture. What is Manet doing here? Assuming other people picked up on the shifted reflection as I did not, what was the intended impact? Ridicule for getting it all wrong? Admiration for the distortion that makes us think more about the woman in the centre than the crowded scene it might otherwise be? Or is it as the Courtauld postulates, “This play of reflections emphasises the disorientating atmosphere of the bustling Folies-Bergère. In A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet created a complex, absorbing composition and one of the iconic paintings of modern life.”
Without asking Manet, and we cannot, all we have is speculation, and so I wonder a little at how that scene would have been painted had mirrors never been invented. My suspicion is that, as with many other earlier paintings, all the key players would have been crowded around a central point, almost in a line so as to feature them all facing front, or at least in profile, and with a lamp somewhere in the middle creating a glow that hits all cheeks (see Caravaggio’s Calling of St Matthew (1599-1602) although this too may have been mirror-influenced, according to Hockney).
Science fiction and horror make big deals of mirrors, casting them as portals we might pass through to other worlds or realities, or that unpleasant elements might use to make the reverse journey. I recall Stargate, a long running sci fi series that had at its core a swirling mirror-like structure of alien origin through which it was possible to leap across space, emerging somewhat unpredictably from another stargate located who knew where.
The more recent Black Mirror TV series has combined that actuality with the conceptual and, in holding a metaphorical mirror up to ourselves, has highlighted some of the creepier possibilities associated with the likes of social media. The Nosedive episode in which people rate each other live seemed to draw on Facebook, or at least social media, is the horror that arises from valuing ourselves only in terms of the ‘likes’ of others.
I had never heard of Lyle Rexer (1951-) so, as is becoming my practice, I sought out some video footage of him to get a handle on what he is about. The video has variable sound levels, some parts being almost inaudible so if you turn up the volume on your device you risk an ear-blasting when a notification comes in. Ear buds not recommended.
Unusually, I could find no Wikipedia page for him but this is what Goodreads has to say:
“Lyle Rexer was born in 1951. He was educated at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and Merton College, Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes (2002); Jonathan Lerman: The Drawings of an Artist with Autism (2002); How to Look at Outsider Art (2005); and The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (2009). In addition to his book projects, Lyle Rexer has published many catalogue essays dealing with contemporary artists and collections and contributes articles on art, architecture, photography and culture to a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Art in America, Modern Painters, Aperture, Metropolis, Parkett, Tate, etc., and Raw Vision. As a curator, he has organized exhibitions in the United States and internationally, including “Fernando Canovas,” a retrospective of the Argentine painter held at the Insitiut Valencia d’Art Modern. For the Aperture Foundation he curated “The Edge of Vision,” an exhibition of contemporary abstract photography, which is traveling through 2013. Lyle Rexer teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and is a columnist for Photograph magazine.”
Sky Mirror – Wikipedia Anish Kapoor (1954-). Installed in 2001 outside a theatre in Nottingham, this huge mirror is angled upwards, thereby giving passers-by unique access to the open skies and “the ever-changing environment.” Wikipedia. Kapoor is fan of concave mirrors which he feels, with some justification, offer a different perspective. He seems to paint them too, adding another dimension as outlined in this interview: Anish Kapoor on the Power of Concave Mirrors | COBO Social. The work on show at that exhibition feels very soft and welcoming and not at all as Kapoor describes it, but then I am not in front of the mirrors, experiencing their distortions.
Dan Graham: Mirror Complexities – Border Crossings Magazine. This is quite a lengthy 2009 interview, albeit an acritical one, which explores something of Graham’s work, process, and motivations. Graham (1942-) seems to focus on “cultural phenomena, and incorporates photography, video, performance art, glass and mirror structures.” Wikipedia, and according to the Border Crossings article, still sees himself as an artist-writer. “I write for pleasure. I do a column for Abitare, the Italian architecture magazine, and I just finished a catalogue essay on Sol LeWitt’s humour.”
Dan Graham: Beyond with the BodyCartography Project: Performer / Audience / Mirror – YouTube 2009.
I have no idea why this is thought to be of any value at all, assuming it is. A cross between the commentary required of advanced driver trainees and some kind of body awareness session, it looks amateurish and self indulgent.
https://www.vdb.org/collection/browser-artist-list/performer-audience-mirror. More of the same although at least with some context: “Graham uses video to document an investigation into perception and real time informational “feedback.” The performance is doubly reflected back to the audience by the artist’s lecturing, and the architectural device of a mirrored wall.” I really don’t see anything of worth in this. he had an idea and, maybe because of who he is, he was indulged in it to the extent of being permitted to perform it for a transient audience.
» Berlin – Robert Morris: “Refractions” at Sprüth Magers Through January 14th, 2017 – AO Art Observed™ I suppose these were interesting and novel at the time of inception (1976-1977) but it’s very hard to be fascinated now, in the context of much the more fluid and dynamic installations and performances afforded by LED lights, lasers, AR, and VR. It doesn’t feel very original or at all captivating.
MoMA | Robert Smithson. Corner Mirror with Coral. 1969. “Smithson believed that taking natural materials out of their original contexts abstracted them. In this work, Smithson’s idea of abstraction is made visual, as the wedge-shaped pile of coral is multiplied and fragmented in its mirror reflections. Smithson acknowledged that viewers experience artworks with their bodies, not just with their sense of sight, and that their perceptions shift as they move through space. The reflections in Smithson’s mirrors change in direct relationship to the position of the viewer, so no two people experience it in precisely the same way.”
Some of these have not, to my mind, aged very well so that, while I can applaud the idea, it all feels rather ‘so what?’ We know what mirrors do and how they work; we know they can refract and bend and deliver unusual perspectives; we’re sophisticated viewers of reflective surfaces and now we can add cats’ ears to our own faces.
I do like what Yayoi Kusama does with mirrors though, perhaps because it involves lights and a huge sense of space with a small and also a large S. These are cosmic and although I imagine there will be much about them that is passé in due course, for now they are jaw-droppingly filmic and prepossessing.
The question now is how to translate this into the practical element of this project.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrors. Yoshitake, M. (Ed) (2017). Catalogue. Del Monico Books, Prestel. Munich, London, New York.