In Jacques Tati’s 1967 movie Playtime the bus-loads of tourists who have come to visit Paris seem permanently marooned in a grey and endless suburban business centre. Caught in the spatial limbo of something like an infinite airport arrivals hall – the very archetype of the contemporary ‘non-place’ described by the anthropologist Marc Augé (Auge, 1995) – the monuments of the real Paris appear only in window reflections: fleeting apparitions which offer the film viewer a tantalising pantomime of ‘look behind you!’ moments.
One irony of James Smith’s provocatively ambiguous photographs of anonymous late-modern commercial architecture is that we don’t see anything any more recognisable in the mirror-glass reflections than we do in the fabric of the buildings themselves. Least of all a reflection of ourselves: neither in the surrogate form of the camera, nor in the body of the photographer himself. In fact, in the uncanniest of these images, the camera can surely only be millimetres away from encroaching on the frame of the shot. If this uncanniness results, at least in part, from precisely not seeing ourselves reflected in a literal, figurative sense, then this absence invites speculation on the role of the mirrored self-image in the very constitution of our own subjectivity.
Perhaps the most obvious source for this idea comes from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in his famous formulation of the so-called ‘mirror stage’ in child development (Lacan, 2001, p. 5). The point at which we first learn to recognise our own mirror image reflected back is taken as a pivotal moment in the emergence of an independent sense of self. The popularity of the self-portrait throughout much of the history of painting could be taken as symptomatic of an ongoing effort to relive – to redouble, or perhaps even undo – this moment of discovery. And the combination of mirror and self-image might even be said to reinforce this connection – as in Michel Foucault’s analysis of Velázquez’ painting Las Meninas (Foucault, 1994, pp. 3-16). In this case, the mirror that hangs just off-centre in the background of the picture implies at least three layers of self-reflection: of the models being apparently painted on the canvas shown on the left of the picture; of the artist himself, who must be standing at the point from which this painting is actually painted; and of the viewer who is now positioned in front of the finished work.
The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who mentions Lacan’s work in his Sorbonne lectures on child psychology (Merleau-Ponty, 2010, pp. 86-87), also refers to artists’ preoccupations with the self-portrait. Rather than simply focusing on direct self-depictions of the artist, Merleau-Ponty instead began to see all paintings as self-referential, in showing both the world as-seen-by-the-artist and the artist-seen-by-the-world. In support of this idea he quoted Paul Klee’s description of walking in the woods where, rather than him looking at the trees, he felt the trees were looking back at him (Merleau-Ponty, 1964a, p. 167). Today we might think of this, more typically, as an aspect of process-led or material-driven work, where the traces of the artist’s movements are palpably present in the finished piece. I am thinking for example of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, or even a landscape work like Richard Long’s early classic Line Made By Walking (1967). As Long himself has written: “My work is the portrait of myself in the world” (Long, 1991, p. 250).
The broader issue for Merleau-Ponty is that perception in general involves an ongoing process of self-identification in the way that we ‘read’ the environment around us. According to his theory of ‘motor cognition’, we perceive our surroundings less as a collection of isolated objects, and more as a structured field of opportunities for action (Merleau-Ponty, 2012, pp. 140-148). In other words, what ‘shows up’ for us in perception is not – in the first instance – what we are able to name, but rather those things for which we are equipped to interact. Or what the philosopher of technology Hubert Dreyfus describes as that with which we, as specific individuals, can ‘skilfully cope’ (Dreyfus, 1991, pp. 60-63). So, this means that instead of a generic set of affordances aimed at some anonymous human user, what we perceive instead is a world that is effectively pre-structured specifically ‘for us’.
The other aspect of bodily movement that is intrinsic to all perception is the one implied by the Cubist practice of overlaying multiple viewpoints in a single two-dimensional image. There is an important lesson in this technique for understanding how we can perceive an apparently three-dimensional world, given that our eyes can only produce rather fuzzy and flattened images. Merleau-Ponty explained the visual perception of objects through the principle of what he called the ‘inner horizon’, which acts as a counterpart to the ‘outer horizon’ as Gestalt theory defined it: the background that – we assume – continues behind an object even though a portion of it is currently obscured (Merleau-Ponty, 2012, pp. 344-345). The fact that this portion changes position precisely according to our movements, is mirrored by the way that the object also changes appearance as we move. The ‘inner horizon’ therefore consists of those aspects or ‘faces’ of an object which are not currently visible from a single viewpoint, but would become visible if we were to change our position relative to the object. Merleau-Ponty therefore insisted that these hidden aspects are, paradoxically, somehow present in any single act of ‘authentic’ vision – and are therefore vital to our recognition of the scene in front of us as a set of real three-dimensional objects. So, what is key to our grasp of the retinal image as a representation of a three-dimensional space is an underlying bodily expectation of what we would see if we were able to explore it – the sense that, for example, if we walked around the back of an old-fashioned Wild West movie set we would soon realise that we were not previously looking at the front of a ‘real’ building.
The fact that the body acts as the ultimate guarantor for visual perception is the principle that is called into question by many of James Smith’s recent photographs. This includes both the self-reflecting mirror-glass buildings depicted in the series entitled Civic Stage, as well as the stony lumps of Brutalist architecture which float like religious icons against a black background (Brutal Relics). Much of their uncanniness stems from the way in which they seem to offer – and then simultaneously deny – the opportunity for any meaningful bodily exploration. For example, in the mirror-buildings series, spatial depth is suggested but then immediately contradicted by the dramatically flattening effect of what appears to be an overlaid rectangular grid. This device is of course familiar from various periods in the history of art, from Albrecht Dürer’s wire-frame perspective drawing technique to James Turrell’s monumental sky-viewing chambers. Both examples exploit the framing effect that flattens the space beyond into a (real or imagined) two-dimensional image, likewise with the eighteenth century habit of viewing the landscape through a so-called Claude Glass – an oval or rectangular convex mirror that would render the world ‘improved’ in the manner of a Romantic painting (Gifford, 1990, pp. 18-19). The play between landscape itself and that other landscape which is variously borrowed, flattened, imagined and idealised has perhaps its longest history in the classic intertwining of reality and representation that is the traditional Chinese garden – particularly in the layout (and paintings) of the famous Scholar Gardens of Suzhou. The role of the observer’s moving body in the unfolding of these complex relationships – apparently two-dimensional framed images that turn out to be ‘real’ three-dimensional spaces – is also explored to great effect in Olafur Eliasson’s video work Your Embodied Garden (2013). Made in collaboration with a dancer/choreographer this piece involved a series of short performances set within the multi-layered walled spaces of two Suzhou gardens. By combining the movements of a single dancer together with a carefully placed circular mirror, the artist playfully exaggerates the already highly ambiguous alternations of real and represented spaces.
Returning to James Smith’s ambiguous images of post-war, late-modern architecture, it is also worth reflecting on the particular visual possibilities offered by the photographic exhibition as an artistic medium. It is perhaps only here in the great hall-of-mirrors that is the contemporary white-cube gallery space that these largely under-appreciated – and often simply unseen – buildings might finally hope to achieve something like an apotheosis: as tools to inspire reflection on the ultimate ambiguity of the human condition. But, as a consequence of Smith’s refusal to follow the convention of mounting printed images behind reflective glass, viewers are even denied a comforting glimpse of themselves in contemplation of the irreducibly bodily act of viewing.
This text was written to accompany an exhibition of photographs by James Smith: Memorability as an Image at NN Contemporary Art, Northampton, UK. 17th March-6th May 2017. Curator: Catherine Hemelryk.
It is a slightly revised version of the published text: Hale, J., “Through the Eye of the Mirror”, in Smith, J., Memorability as an Image, Porto: Scopio Editions, 2017, pp. 52-55.
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