Project 3.4: Reflective surfaces and framed views – a stage on which to perform

Stefan513593 - P3Ex4 - staging reflections #2

Black Mirror

Arcade Fire
I walk down to the ocean
After waking from a nightmare
No moon, no pale reflection

Black mirror, black mirror
Shot by a security camera
You can’t watch your own image
And also look yourself in the eye

Black mirror, black mirror, black mirror
I know a time is coming
All words will lose their meaning
Please show me something that isn’t mine
But mine is the only kind that I relate to

Le mirroir casse
The mirror casts mon reflet partout

Disrupting the picture plane

I like the idea of disrupting planes that Katharina Grosse describes in the interview for her MOCA Cleveland (remark: exciting for me as I do relate to Cleveland as one of my home places where I lived in the past) work Third Man Begins Digging Through Her Pockets (Grosse, 2013). It is a more embodied encounter that one need to experience. It reminds me of my own ‘Walking through Painting’, in a constraint space though, but opening various always new insight and outside perspectives. The viewer becomes part of the object, the work as object becomes a performing subject. Mirrors, windows do add even an element of serendipity , an element non-knowing, an intrusion of outside shapes and forms (reality). It is the performing aspect driven by curiosity (participatory, as in the large convex mirrors of Anish Kapoor) that I can relate to and that resonate with my previous works, e.g ‘Object-Box‘ or the rather experimental sculptural paintings embracing ambiguity of perspective (Schaffeld, 2018b).

Grosse makes a difference between materialized space of architectural structures and imaginary spaces created by painting, regardless of structural constraints. I find this a massive insight opens up new ways of experiencing space. One could consider both parts as having a dialogue with each other, as Grosse’s paintings nonetheless depends also on physician structure, but they expand it and embraces a deeper psychological encounter with space.

However, I also can see Grosse’s work of spatial painting also form an architectural viewpoint, e.g. going up the staircase is a physical act that is combined with the psychological interaction with painted surfaces. It reminds me of my former approach for PoP1 to expand interior architectural structures through painting (Schaffeld, 2016)

In PoP1 I looked at films of Hitchcock and Tarkovsky (Schaffeld, 2017) and how both embrace in a different way the architectural elements, the sense of home and un-homely as a psychological encounter for the viewer. Grosse invites the viewer to be the performing subject inside the architectural structures. In a way as I walked through my painting, in the making as well as afterwards, responding to my close environment, an awareness of immediacy and directness.

The mirror and the reflected image

Rexer explores in his essay to use of mirror in art history. In Modern Art, Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882 is one of the traditional examples, besides Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini marriage’, 1434 and Diego Velàzquez Las Menias, 1656-57. It shows the effect and influence of a mirror in the reception of flat representational painting. The mirror, more or less small across the picture plane, either disrupts a linear perspective view or challenges the subject-object relationship between a gazing viewer and the subjects in the scene. Kind of illusionary breaking the 4th wall. Outside and inside at the same time. Apparently, Manet made another ‘Bar’ painting with a more concise viewpoint, placing the beholder of the painting more into an observer role. Through some compositional disruptions and displacements, the mirror images seems not be real, the reflection of the back of the woman not believable. However, through a rather formal flat and parallel composition of bar, mirror, and visitor gallery, the painting conveys more of the social construct of the scenery at Manet’s time. The mirror performs, a device for critique.

Jeff Wall’s Picture for Woman, 1979 is trying to subvert the gaze and the presence, including the camera, the viewer, and the subject in the same picture plane. However, those works can overcome the fact that all paintings or photographs are flat illusions trying to convey a sense of reality and truth, with a more or less strong challenge and ‘reflecting back’ the process of seeing itself to the viewer.  

Michel Foucault stated in reference to the Panopticon, the tower centered prison derived from Jeremy Bentham, that due to its architecture the prisoner could never be certain whether being under surveillance or not, and thus ‘becomes the principle of his own subjection’. A notion that one could relate to the back-gaze of a mirror-image, as Lacan expressed the psychological state of ‘mirror-stage’ in infant development. Geoffrey Batchen named this a ‘self-same simulacra’ , the desire to be both subject and object of its own gaze (Mirzoeff, 2002: 237-242).

Rene Magritte (1928) 'False Mirror' Fig. 1: René Magritte (1928) ‘False Mirror’ 

What these works and especially the post-modern critique of them has in common is the focus on the gaze and the image looking back, as if a person would look back. The process of viewing, or gazing, is becoming a conscious process. One feels trapped by the object-surveillance. And as the example of the Panopticon shows, one could even feel that sense of being observed, gazed at, without the presence of a subject looking back. As if the act of being observed is enough for an unsettling ‘Lacan’-moment. Interestingly, that power is being transformed to a painting, kind of dangerous object, that brings it quite closely to an fetish, as I explored the relationship of human beings with objects in part two (Schaffeld, 2018a).  Rène Magritte illustrated the nearly paradox between window and mirror and the gaze in his painting False Mirror (1928 , Fig. 1) as an ‘optical metaphor for all sign systems’ (Holly, 1996:87) that turns the viewer into ‘a representation’. 

I find Holly’s concluding sentence in the chapter ‘Looking into the past’ remarkable: ‘the person who does the looking is a person with power… but so too is the ability to make someone look’ (p.90) referring to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and in this context all following appropriations. A question of seeing and viewing, to be seen and to be viewed. 

Contemporary artist’s do take the mirror image as a reflected image certainly beyond the social constructed gaze. Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997) painted mirrors in his bold graphic style with Benday dots, void of reflection and reflected representations, merely as an object, but as an object that can be identified as an mirror. Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) looked at the mirror differently, e.g Spiegel, grau (Grey Mirror) (1980-1990)r, a grey reflective painting that places the viewer inside of it, but with a grey reflection. Anish Kapoor (b. 1954) with the work Mirror (Black) (2014), a concave deep black reflective circular sculpture displays “the skin, the outermost covering” that is, Kapoor explains, “for me the place of action. It is the moment of contact between the thing and the world.” (Batten, 2016). I find it interesting that he relates the reflective surface of a mirror (black or not) to skin, that relates to the border and liminal sensation of inside and outside, like a box. His sculpture seek attention, draw the viewer inside, physically towards it, metaphorically beyond the surface and open new virtual spaces beyond the physical space (MASS MoCA, 2019). A virtual space that painting can embrace like in Grosse’s works. His ‘mirrors’ could be seen in context of his rather matte, deeply folded with dense colors reminding me of Baroque sensibility that swallow nearly the viewer inside . Both are engaging the viewer through attraction ‘these voids and protrusions summon up deep-felt metaphysical polarities of presence and absence, concealment and revelation’  (Lisson Gallery, 2018)

Robert Smithson (1936 – 1973) is an artist who also uses mirrors to explore space, either outside (e.g.Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9), 1969) or inside (e.g Corner Mirror with Coral, 1969) , mirrors that not only reflect surrounding space on a flat surface but actually can create new virtual spaces . 

In a similar way is Untitled, 1965/71 of Robert Morris (1931 – 2018), minimal sculptures in cube shape with overall mirrors outside in a gallery space. a reflection and generation of space.  The viewer is invited to engage and to place himself in relationship with the objects and the physical and virtual space. Similarly, Refractions, 1976-77  do embrace the viewer’s interaction and placement inside the virtual space. Refractions do have some relationship with shopping windows, like in Lee Friedlander New Orleans, Louisiana, 1978 (in: Rexer, 2010). Whereas,  Strike, 2012, as a suspended, fragmented reflective sculpture has more some elements of spatial discruption as can be seen in Grosse’s works. Morris’s  Glass Labyrinth in Henry Moore Sculpture Garden is building around architectural structures and the disorientation one perceives when all walls are glass and the surface skin is neither solid opaque nor reflective but transparent. A mirror with no reflection. 

Another artist is Dan Graham (b. 1942) explores through performative interactions the psychological dimension of reflection and original, of visual and audio. In ‘Performer / Audience / Mirror‘, 1975 his oral reflection (sound, 39:05min at Ubu Web) on his movements visible in the mirror act as a verbal reflection.  I find his works intriguing as the create a space for engagement along the borders, the surface, the skin. Similar to Kapoor’s mirrors, his works are placing the viewer like a user in the middle of the work. It reminds me of my recent works with being inside and outside the box, with the screen (mirror-like) placing me constantly in different spaces. Perhaps, there is also a different aspect in his works that could be seen as autobiographical works reflecting on his troubled childhood with anti-psychotic drugs for a borderline-schizophrenic diagnosis (Louisiana Channel, 2018). He works also with the two-way mirror glass, a surface that acts as a window and a mirror, a tool for surveillance, that Graham considers as an intersubjective space. An other aspect in his work is the mirror-object as standing-for-person, e.g. Two Adjacent Pavilions, 1978–82, that he describes as ‘two egos looking at one another’ (Enright and Walsh, 2009). In his pavilions as urban archictectural structures, Graham seems to be interested in the temporality of reflections alongside, somehow close to Morris Glass Labyrinth. 

 Coming back to Bruce Nauman, who also used mirror in one or the other way, often mirror more in the form or screens. In his work John Coltrane Piece, 1968 he made a large square flat aluminum slab with a mirror face, that face was touching the floor, completely concealed ‘the mirror reflecting and yet not being able to reflect the floor’ (in : Sharp, W. Nauman Interview 1970, MIT Press, P.129)

Variety of Mirrors

Some of Smithson’s outdoor works with mirrors do have a relationship to maps. A concept that Gombrich explored in his book  (2002:172-214). The mirror and the map are visual devices for representation, both different from an embodied way of seeing. Changing viewpoint positions when looking at an object makes this difference remarkably obvious. Interestingly in this context, Leonardo da Vinci ‘urged the painter to use a mirror as his standard of accuracy’ (ebid:193). Mirrors used by painters are eg. the Claude glass (pocked size slight convex black mirror) and the flat black mirror. Black because this acts as tool for abstraction, extracts hues from tone.

Other mirrors I can tell are: vanity mirror (flat, concave); rear view mirror; safety mirror (convex); surveillance mirror; mirror labyrinths ; mirror for communication (MRI) ; mirror as metaphor (Plato); mirror as psychological device (Lacan)

Mirror - Reflection

Fig 2: detail from my fetish board – black mirror – at: 


Brief summary of the performative mirror (as above artists used in one or the other way):

  • Mirror: framed view – seeing – reflection – representation, space creation; miss-en-scene (metapictures)
  • Reflections:  bouncing back, pulling into, crossing boundaries, surface – skin
  • Mirror as glass:  dislocation, distortion, fragmentation

I do come back to two artist’s who do not work specifically with mirrors, but where I can the sense of reflective spaces being part of some of their works:

  • Mona Hatoum You Are Still Here, 2013 => a reassuring confirmation through bouncing back the image and words to the viewer, an affirmation of presence in a space of uncertainty (at times in a disorienting space of Hatoum’s installations)
  • Sara Naim => interferences and glitch, technical devices that interfere with representations and known frameworks of the viewer, and crossing borders of identity 


Learnings and Take Aways

  • Mirror as creating virtual space
  • Mirror as surface, border, skin like
  • Mirror as ego reflection or as gaze reversal – the ‘object looks back at you’
  • Mirror as opening space and interaction, inviting audience to interact
  • Overall, mirrors seem to be an attractive object. ‘Naturally’ seeking attention, the viewer look at and into it. One can observe this regularly when seeing people passing a window, or high reflective surface to look at, mostly to look at oneself and one’s image of oneself.
  • The mirror as a metaphor for representational frameworks, disrupting those surfaces could mean to disrupt those frameworks and senses of identity




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