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'The other Side: Mirrors and Reflections in Contemporary Art' on view at the Belvedere
Exhibition view "The other Side". Photo: Gregor Titze, ę Belvedere, Vienna.

VIENNA.- With its exhibition The Other Side - Mirrors and Reflections in Contemporary Art , on view from 18 June to 12 October 2014, the Belvedere has undertaken to elucidate various aesthetic and symbolic aspects of the reflecting surface. Not only has the mirror been of great significance in the history of art and culture, but it can also look back on a century- old tradition as a magical and symbolic object. In several ancient civilisations, it was considered an image of the soul, while in European medieval art it functioned as an emblem of chastity, transience, sensual pleasure, and a passion for finery. In the Baroque age, on the other hand, it was a symbol of vanity – the futility of all human ambition. The mirror is a medium of self-perception and of the narcissistic doubling of one’s self, while it is also a threshold leading to a parallel universe or a different modality of existence, such as in Through the Looking - Glass 1 , where it functions as a means of expanding one’s mind. The mirror’s popularity in contemporary art has to do with its multifaceted and simultaneously paradoxical and contradictory meanings, both as a metaphor and in cognitive psychology. All of this is illustrated by the Belvedere’s new show, which has been curated by Edelbert K÷b and Thomas Mie▀gang and is installed in the Orangery, the Staterooms (Grotesque Hall, Marble Gallery and Gold Cabinet), and the Privy Garden.

"The exhibition The Other Side is an attempt to classify in terms of existential philosophy, psychology, sociology and politics the flood of artistic mirror works created since the 1960s and to show that the mirror is still an essential medium of self-knowledge and world view even in an age of multiplied media surfaces“, explains Agnes Husslein-Arco, Director of the Belvedere.

The nature of the mirror as a medium of self-recognition, self-creation, and self-destruction has been elaborated on in numerous philosophical and psychoanalytical texts. Sigmund Freud derives his theory of melancholy from the mirror of Narcissus, while Jean-Paul Sartre sees the development of self-awareness tied to the sight of ‘the Other’. The most far-reaching impact, however, has been exercised by Jacques Lacan’s famous essay ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I’. In his text, the French analyst and philosopher Lacan describes how an infant’s previously disparate identity is constituted through the centring force of the mirror image, in which the child happily recognises its own likeness. The ‘Other’ in the mirror makes it possible to perceive one’s ‘Self’, and it is this division between ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ that triggers the process of identification. “Man has always attempted to double himself as a means of attaining self-knowledge”, Michelangelo Pistoletto writes in his Famous Last Words.21 Recognising one’s own image in still water or in the mirror may be one of the earliest real hallucinations man encountered.

Moreover, the mirror works as a membrane between the real and virtual worlds and, in an increasingly secular world, brings into play the level of transcendence and magic without referring to religion. In the exhibition, this is exemplified by Liz Larner’s ghostly Reflector Wizards. After all, the mirror is also a means of narcissistic self-aggrandisement, which in our days of casting shows, model contests, and frequently hollow TV talk has become a guiding idea of society – the re-edition, so to speak, of the Baroque vanitas motif as a vanity project. In the show, telling examples are John Armleder’s disco balls, borrowed from the hedonistic milieu of self-dissipation, and Pierre Bismuth’s super models decorated with mirror elements. In contemporary art, reflecting surfaces are not only aesthetic artefacts, but also instruments of social penetration and of attaining a knowledge of the world, thereby confirming a phrase formulated by Joseph Beuys in 1972: according to him, the brain is a reflective organ, as hard and smooth as a mirror.

In presenting exemplary mirror works, curators Edelbert K÷b and Thomas Mie▀gang seek to both touch and explore in depth the entire spectrum of the subject – in the Orangery, in the four Baroque staterooms, and in the connecting wing. The curatorial concept responds to the powerful impact made by the historical rooms with works conceived in situ, while the Orangery’s white cube concentrates on three different thematic aspects. “Although the analysis of the aesthetic and socio-political relevance of various aspects of the mirror is in the focus of the exhibition, it also highlights various formalistic products of present-day art, which primarily deal with perception. They either play with the magic of illusion and deception in the form of reflection, refraction, multiplication, and distortion of space or invite beholders to sensuously experience materials and processes”, Edelbert K÷b points out.

The Mirror in Twentieth-Century Art
The mirror has been treated as a subject of art since the Middle Ages and particularly since the Baroque age. But only in the twentieth century did the mirror emancipate itself from being used as an object, so that it is now also employed as a material and has shifted into the philosophical focus of art as such. Today the mirror functions as both a carrier medium and a point of crystallisation for theoretical and psychological ideas. Heimo Zobernig’s broken and blind mirrors deprive the mirror of its illusionary function, transforming it into some plain artistic material, while Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mixed media works combine real mirrors with painting or sculpture, thereby integrating the beholder in the image’s content. It is not least through photography, video, and film that the iconography of mirrors has received new medial impetus. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, for example, amount to an ironic and deconstructive review of the escapist and imaginary universes construed by Hollywood’s dream factory. In his films Le Sang d’un PoÚte and OrphÚe, Jean Cocteau, speaking of the mirror as a gate “through which death comes and goes”, has people march across reflective surfaces.

Douglas Gordon, on the other hand, addresses the mirror in the sense of Jacques Lacan as a formative means of self-construction, looping the famous scene from Martin Scorsese’s movie Taxi Driver in which Robert de Niro builds his alter ego as a hard-boiled killer by talking to himself. “History, present, and future converge in front of the mirror in order to disclose new perspectives of being through reflection. In aesthetics, since the 1960s the mirror has not only been a material that may be processed, but also a medium of a demiurgic interpretation of the world. Art makes use of a paradigm redefined in terms of time and space in order to create a new epoch from the dust of the world. Magic mirror in my hand, where are you going to take us? What is expecting us beyond the mountains at the seven dwarfs?”, curator Thomas Mie▀gang says.

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