Through the looking glass…

Brassaï, « Chez Suzy », vers 1932, MNAM

Brassaï, « Chez Suzy », vers 1932, MNAM

Through the looking glass by Soko Phay

      Invented in 2,000 BC, the mirror was once a rare and precious object. Nowadays it is so much a part of our daily lives that we barely give it a second glance. Its omnipresence reflects a saturation of images and makes it tricky to see the visible world. Its rise has marked the evolution of human civilisation. It plays a vital role for human beings who have always wanted to see how their features differ from other people. If the mirror haunts our imagination (whether via the tragic legend of Narcissus; the characters in Snow White, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice) this is because it reflects our desires as much as our shortcomings and ambivalences. It reflects the profound duality in us all. This enthusiasm for the mirror is also fuelled by its intermediary quality. It acts as the threshold between the visible and the invisible, presence and absence like the ultimate metaphor for life and death.

      Beyond the traditions, myths and superstitions attributed to the mirror – such as the power of truth or the power of illusion – it occupies a special place in our thoughts about images. Despite being ambiguous (because it reflects both a similar and mirror image) the mirror crystallises the aesthetic issues of mimesis, the pleasures and seductions exerted on the viewer. Often seen as a « detail » in the history of art, the mirror is, nevertheless, the conduit of an experience that is only secondary in appearance, the gap or resistance that it manifests only occasionally delivering a different message in relation to the whole work in which it appears. On closer inspection, the mirror in a painting throws back a doubled image of the interior space and, by reflecting the space beyond, opens up new representations… Based on the elusive, it shows us a close, yet distant, image. It allows the spectator to see where he or she is not, and a world in which they do not exist.

     Just as it did in the olden days, the mirror continues to fascinate artists who use it in their work and question it intensely. New mirrored surfaces, with their multiplication, fragmentation, and make-believe interplay, are symptomatic of our times. Examining the mirror in our visual culture means seeing the act of looking as an active process; trying to understand what is going on behind the reflection and contemplating our relationship with the world and coexistence with the Other.


Soko Phay is an historian and theorician of art, teaching in the plastic arts department of the University of Paris 8 and at EHESS. She just published Les vertiges du miroir dans l’art contemporain, Les Presses du réel.