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Mirrors on the walls

The exhibition at Museum Rietberg in Zurich, comprising 220 artworks from 95 museums and collections worldwide, records human connection with mirror as the idea as well as the object

Mirrors on the walls
Bichitr: Prince Saleem

“He speaks of a man breaking stones to make weapons. This is a technological act… suddenly this man is amazed and gladdened simply through seeing the pieces falling from the stones. And that, says Blanchot, is the invention of art,” said French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy while referring to Maurice Blanchot, who talked about the birth of art.

Art is an entity that came into being without a prior or specific need. It was only later that the mankind discovered the purpose of art which still has that primordial quality — of being an end in itself.

Ilse Bing, Self-portrait with Leica.

Ilse Bing, Self-portrait with Leica.

One aspect of art is holding a mirror — a medium through which we see our reality. Neither art nor a mirror provides us an identical replica. Art locates our existence and situation in a wider context. Art upholds a mirror but one that preserves a vision for times to come. In the works of Mughal, Aztec, Mesopotamian, ancient Greek or Renaissance artists, we not only see figures and objects but also the ideas of humans and nature nurtured in the period when these pieces were created.

Art also uses mirror as a recurring motif — either as an image or an actual object.

The exhibition Mirrors curated by Albert Lutz at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich records human connection with mirror as the idea as well as the object. The works lead one to wonder if there is a neat distinction between the idea and the object. Can one survive without the other? How is it possible to have one without the other? Here, one is reminded of Plato’s thought — whether the concept of house came first or the house?

Based on 220 artworks from 95 museums and collections worldwide, the exhibition employs the very basic idea of a mirror – that is to be reflective. The exhibition pulls together images that portray the cultural history and usage of mirrors — illuminating questions to the tune of “how do I look, what does my face tell me?” For example, there are works with ancient Egyptians using magnificent mirrors and Greek characters holding mirrors either alone or in company. Similar visuals are seen in art from South America to Mughal India, China, Japan, Africa, and Medieval Europe.

Going through the exhibition, one becomes curious about the possible link between a mirror and human civilisation. Each morning we look at our image reflected on the luminous surface without really knowing the history of its invention.

Going through the exhibition, one becomes curious about the possible link between a mirror and human civilisation. Each morning we look at our image reflected on the luminous surface without really knowing the history of its invention.

The exhibition at Museum Rietberg offers a rare opportunity to understand how gazing at oneself is viewed in various societies. A large number of Japanese prints and Mughal miniature paintings show how a man or woman either holds a mirror or is presented one by some companion. For example, there is Bichitr’s exquisite miniature painting Prince Salim, Later Mughal Emperor Jahangir, As A Young Man ca. 1630 or Kitagawa Utamaro’s coloured woodcut Woman Brushing Her Teeth ca. 1797.

Kitagawa Utamaro. Woman Brushing Her Teeth

Kitagawa Utamaro. Woman Brushing Her Teeth

Museum Rietberg contains objects from diverse cultures and periods. Hence, the exhibition features works from every imaginable community and era. The show includes pieces from ancient Egypt, Greece, Etruscans, Roman period, Celts, Europe, India, Java, Turkey, Iran, China, Japan, Peru, Mexico, North America, and Africa. Thus, you get a complete view of the basic product called mirror, with its multiple usages and interpretations — from an object of narcissist obsession to self-awareness to an identity device to an item to reflect the world to a symbol of wisdom and vanity to a weapon and instrument for protection. We have known about mirrors embroidered in clothes (Gujarat, India), sacred mirrors used for rituals (Kerala, India), mirrors as part of anatomy in African statues.

A substantial part of the exhibition is dedicated to photography, since a camera lens also serves as a mirror. A number of photographic works on display deal with the act of looking in the mirror, so these appear as extended links or acts of observation. It reminds me of the first lines of Camera Lucinda by Roland Barthes: “I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor’”.

Vivian Maier’s photographic work of a hairdresser’s salon or Nadia Mounir’s pictures The Barbershop, along with Nan Goldin’s Self-Portrait in My Blue Bathroom, Berlin and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #2, (the artist photographed observing herself in the bathroom mirror) fall in this category.

Nan Goldin: Self-Portrait In My Blue Bathroom, Berlin.

Nan Goldin: Self-Portrait In My Blue Bathroom, Berlin.

That brings us to the idea of self-portrait (or selfie as its called today) – especially by Robert Cornelius’ photographic Self-Portrait, Ilse Bing’s Self-Portrait and Sabine Weiss’ Auto-Portrait (holding a camera in front of mirror), where the camera replaces the mirror or vice versa.

In a sense, self-portraits are the same as selfies, except perhaps in technique and material, as witnessed in the work of Gerhard Richter, Bill Viola and Anish Kapoor. Richter, in his Skull, portrays a human skull, the ultimate portrait of everyone despite the difference in race, region, religion and class. A skull is one’s final and eternal identity. Likewise, Bill Viola’s Surrender captures the torso of a person who leans on a luminous surface that reflects his image in attire of a different colour, suggesting the shift in one’s concept of identity.

Anish Kapoor’s Mirror (Organic Green Black Mix to Cobalt Blue) is a round piece that is not a mirror in the strict sense of the word. As the concave disk of colour recedes from dark green to blue, it gives one the illusion of seeing oneself. But in the end one realises it’s not one’s image, rather another illusion.

The works at Museum Rietberg affirm the notion that when we look in the mirror we not only see who or what we are but also how the world around us is shaped, and how the mirror is made. This also makes and mirrors us.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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