Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Sepuya is interrogating the self through the use of mirrors and embedded in his work are the terms ‘absence and presence’.
My own inquiry differs in that I see far less of a distinction between self and other – by interrogating self I am inevitably interrogating other and visa versa.
I am also intrigued by the how randomness and pattern can be argued as more relevant than absence and presence in the digital age and hope to explore that aspect.
See more http://www.paulmpagisepuya.com
Mirrors turn up in Woodman’s work repeatedly. From the Tate website: “Curator Harm Lux has argued that the mirror, a prop used frequently by Woodman in her work, does not serve a narcissistic purpose – in this work Woodman even turns away from it – but rather he sees the mirror as ‘mocking the voyeurist [sic] viewer’ by rarely reflecting Woodman very fully or clearly (Lux 1992, p.18). Untitled complicates this interpretation of Woodman’s work in that it was intended for her boyfriend and appears to invite rather than deny sexual pleasure. In fact, the mirror’s reflection here affords the viewer a glimpse of Woodman’s chest, in particular the sharp V-neck of her sweater. The work therefore seems instead to support art historian Lorraine Kenny’s position that Woodman yields to or strategically complies with the pornographic gaze rather than frustrates it (see Keller 2011, p.190).” Perhaps we can recall Berger’s comments about mirrors and vanity, the position women are often positioned into this very restrictive space which prevents them from being present as fully formed functioning members of the world – as subjects, and instead must exist only as an absence.
Calypso is another artist exploring the long-held relationship women have had with image and mirrors. To be first and foremost fetishised as an object to be looked at or in Berger’s words,
‘She is not naked as she is
She is naked as the spectator sees her’ (1972, p 50)
The work is powerful and relatively easy to connect to (I suspect) – perhaps it lacks a level of complexity more evident in Woodman’s work
(I would like to add briefly – often when I discuss this subject with men, even the most evolved and anti-misogynistic, there seems to be a hint or more of defensiveness; a kind of “but I never hurt anyone – or worse” in their response. I can understand this but the response indicates abject failure to fully comprehend what is to exist as an absence, to be bought up as such, to be born into a world where one can never become fully fledged, forced onto a scale which has at one end the possibility of attempting to emulate the presence in some way, thereby denying one’s own authenticity, or at the other end succumbing fully to absence, rendering oneself a non-subject, an ideal object for an ideal spectator, only and entirely ‘designed to flatter him’ (Berger, 1972. p 64). If you’re not aware of and in some genuine way addressing the problem, you are part of the problem.)
There are of course mirrors aplenty, along with shadows and reflections in Maya Deren’s films. She was highly concerned with human self-awareness, evident in a possible unpublished poem by her, dated March 1942:
It Must Be Done with Mirrors
It must be done with mirrors
my head that rests on nothing in mid-air.
Where is my body where oh where?
I can see the stones hidden in the hands.
O bring back my body to me, to me, O miracle bring it back
before the mirrors break.
Mirrors in Art
Mirrors and reflective surfaces are evident in art throughout the ages, and many, many painters, filmmakers and photographers have made use of them because there is something magical about them – this list could have been a great deal longer and I have focused on quite specific examples. Mirrors are such an important object in the human story, seen as ‘a metaphor for an abstract soul and a divine metaphysics” (Hulkes, 2018. p 55)
Mark Pendegrast, who wrote the introduction to The Book of the Mirror, 2008, says, ‘The ability to recognize oneself in a mirror correlates with (but does not cause) essential human traits such as logic, creativity, curiosity and appreciation of beauty.” (p 10) He quotes primatologist Frans de Waal who says that without self-awareness, so evident in our relationship with mirrors and image, “we might as well be folkloric creatures without souls, such as vampires, who cast no reflections. Most important, we would be incapable of cognitive empathy, as this requires a distinction between the self and other and realisation that others have selves like us.” I would go further and repeat my suggestion, based in part on what I have read from Carlo Rovelli about the nature of man being a ‘network of personal, familial, and social interactions within which we exist” that others are us and we are others. (p227, 2017)
Beth Williamson in her contribution, Mirrors in Art, to The Book of Mirrors, 2008, says, “Mirrors both reflect and construct what is seen, and mirrors within images can construct a viewer who as particular physical and spacial relationship with the spectacle within the image… spectators pick up cues to think consciously about seeing, and about what they see and how they see it, and about the significance of what they see” (p 134) In other words – a mirror in a work of art is never random and usually, if not always, consciously or otherwise, prescriptive about how we should view a piece.
Finally – looking back through my own work I see I have been fairly busy with mirrors too over the last five years. As well I have also taken many shadow pictures and these are not as I have read elsewhere, coy expressions of self, rather an exploration of self-awareness, a recognition that the illusion of self is so powerful and all-encompassing, but just that – an illusion, perhaps one which disappears just as easily as it arrives, despite our conviction that is otherwise. A shadow or a reflection perfectly illustrates the illusion. Presence nowadays is far less certain than it once was – as meaning disintegrates (and I will elaborate on this elsewhere). Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining the proliferation of SELFIES, which are after all nothing more than mirrored reflections. It’s as if we humans must constantly remind ourselves we exist. I DO I DO I DO and if I take enough images of myself then surely that will make it so.
Berger, J, 1972. Ways of Seeing, BBC, London, p 50,64
Anderson, M, ed. 2008. The Book of Mirrors: An Interdisciplinary Collection Exploring the Cultural History of the Mirror, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle
Williamson, B, 2008 Mirrors in Art: Images as Mirrors (The Book of Mirrors: An Interdisciplinary Collection Exploring the Cultural History of the Mirror, ed. Anderson, M) Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, p 134
Pendegrast, M. 2008 A Historical and Psychological Overview (The Book of Mirrors: An Interdisciplinary Collection Exploring the Cultural History of the Mirror, ed. Anderson, M) Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, p 10
Hulkes, R, 2008 The Philosophic Mirror (The Book of Mirrors: An Interdisciplinary Collection Exploring the Cultural History of the Mirror, ed. Anderson, M) Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, p 54
Deren, M. 1942. It Must Be Done With Mirrors, Available at: http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_4/PDFs/Deren.pdf [Accessed 18/4/2018]
Rovelli, C, 2017 Reality is Not What it Seems, Penguin, London, p 227