Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy
Eleanor Morgan
Reyhaneh Yazdani
Gwenessa Lam

 

city

It’s difficult to know how to feel about the fragment Gwenessa installed on the shelf. It looks broken but it also looks cared for, propped up and centered like a museum piece without the glass box or the felt or archival cardboard base. The surface looks a little like a model of an overcrowded, polluted extraterrestrial city used in sci-fi imagery that is meant to remind us of our own excesses. Any attempt to read urban design into the texture, though, is frustrated by irrational bumps and edges, some of which are sharp and others rounded, as if the material is only semi-solid. The colour appears both dull and lustrous, somehow. It also reads as an American southwest landscape, with buttes and mesas dotting an arid landscape. Or are those mesas modernist superquadras? Is the surface a faux finish with depth, like a bunched-up plastic bag pressed into plaster? Is the rim around the upper edge a levee or a tsunami? It’s a confounding object. Parts of it also read as digital, as three-dimensional photographic distortion, which is what it is since it was 3D-printed from a photograph of a bronze mirror fragment before Gwenessa cast it in bronze. It’s a bronze object molded from wax, molded from plastic, from data, from a photograph that captured light reflecting off a bronze object that was once primarily used to reflect light bouncing off a face back at that face’s eyes.

butte

It was a few years into the COVID-19 pandemic when I realized that the self-view in Zoom is a mirrored image. I’m sure that if it weren’t mirrored, I would have noticed sooner because on the rare occasions that I am required to take a selfie for I.D. purposes, I am instantly confused by and disappointed in the image. My phone also mirrors in the self-facing camera but then flips the image when saving it as a photograph, which I always find jarring. Any asymmetry in my face or hair or posture appears and makes it uncanny. If I look back at those selfies, they don’t seem odd. It’s only quickly after snapping the photo, where my memory of what I expected the captured image to look like is still in my mind that I feel the disjunction. But I have realized through those brief terrors that my primary encounter of myself is through a mirrored reflection of my face, rather than a photographed or filmed image, and I wonder if that is shifting: if the age of the mirror is coming to an end.

When I think of mirrors before what I understand mirrors to be—glass with a tin and silver reflective layer underneath it—I think only of reflections. I imagine people encountering themselves mostly in ponds and puddles, and the rest of the time relying on the gaze of others to let them know what might be amiss or what might be loved. I’ve wondered aloud before if the mass-produced European mirror technology contributed to the rise of the individual, a social understanding rooted in a population transfixed by easy access to their own reflection. In that case I would speculate that the mirror combined with the development of print in Europe to doubly entrench the individual’s encounter of the world. I’ve wondered the same thing about Apple devices’ glossy screen surfaces that allow users to see themselves as a ghostly presence whenever using a phone or laptop, fusing their physical and digital lives while also operating as a congratulations for purchasing an Apple device. I’m sure there is a design rational for the glossy screen. The updated and constant Narcissus-tic encounter is just a marketing bonus.

Like many (nearly all) of my projections onto historical conditions, my understanding of the history of mirrors is naïve. Bronze mirrors have been in use for thousands of years, emerging not alongside the development of print but more closely with the emergence of writing. Polished obsidian was used as a mirroring surface in Egypt as early as 4000 BCE, and later by the Inca and Aztec peoples. Bronze mirrors weren’t mass produced in the way we understand mass production today, but nor were they uncommon, especially in the Han dynasty. It makes sense that they were an object available to the ruling classes first, as those classes needed to reinforce their importance by carefully managing their appearances. I don’t want to suggest that power was distributed with the technological capacity for more people to encounter their faces, but it’s a tempting visual metaphor. Like the use of mirrored walls in restaurants, the expansion of access to mirrors made people believe there were more spaces in the world for them to operate in.

Bronze mirrors require a significant amount of maintenance to keep their reflective capacity, much more than glass mirrors that seem primarily plagued by finger and handprints or mist. Bronze mirrors were likely cleaned by enslaved people or servants, while glass mirrors, while in some cases cleaned by indentured labor still, are likely cleaned by everybody, even if it is simply wiping a smartphone screen on your clothing or pulling a sleeve over a hand to deal with a monitor smudge or thumbing clear a fogged or frosty side-view mirror. Human labour was once cheap, now materials are cheap, and the relationship between humans and those materials have modified self-image. I know that I feel a small irritation or shame when my phone doesn’t recognize me because I haven’t looked directly at it, as if it’s scolding me for not paying close enough attention to it. But perhaps it wants me to see me reflected in its surface before it lets me access all that it holds for me (access to the internet, photographs, notes, music and recorded speech, ability to communicate across distance, as well as my best strategies for escaping awkward moments of boredom or sociality). I feel a related discomfort in various algorithmic suggestions that force me to encounter what a range of online behaviours combine to figure an image of me. I don’t like that band, that song, that person, that humor. What part of me suggests that I would? The big-a Algorithm is another mirror technology, one that alternatively flatters and shames.

mirror

As a material, bronze is hard enough to be smoothed in a way that gold, silver, or copper cannot, but it is also a reactive metal, meaning that the sheen quickly dulls, requiring consistent maintenance and care for it to function. I’ve been tempted to touch Gwenessa’s bronze fragment to see how long it would take for my fingerprint to appear, like on a hypercolor shirt, but the installation came with a pair of cotton archivist’s gloves and I’ve abided by Gwenessa’s request to keep my grubby hands off it. Midway through the exhibition Gwenessa dropped by with a tube of polish, a brush and a rag to return the fragment to the state it was in when she first installed it. Its exposure to air had darkened it and given it a tint of green through oxidization. When I left for several weeks during the summer, I placed a towel over it to protect it not from eyes but from the galvanizing power of oxygen atoms or sunlight, I’m not exactly sure. It was meant to keep the metal as stable as possible. Oxidization is not corrosion, though, and different metals have different reactions to exposure to oxygen. Iron is highly reactive and thus corrodes quickly. Aluminum is even more reactive than iron, but it reacts by producing aluminum oxide, a natural form of galvanizing, which covers the aluminum and doesn’t allow oxygen to interact with it. The reason why iron nails galvanized with zinc became standard in construction is that iron covered in a thin layer of zinc resists the corrosive impulse of iron. Gold is a very unreactive element, which means it maintains its appearance for long periods, likely contributing to its perceived value. Bronze lives somewhere in between. The greenish patina isn’t rust, but a layer that the bronze uses to protect itself. The shine is what our eyes prefer, but bronze is modest. There are ways to seal the bronze to prevent oxidization, but that process would prevent a mirrored finish on the smooth side. We need to match its modesty with our vanity to find ourselves reflected in it.

I don’t imagine that the purposeful production of a mirror shard brings the same kind of bad luck that an accidentally broken mirror would. I haven’t noticed an unusual amount of misfortune and misery since hosting the work, and Gwenessa seems to be doing okay, too. I’m sure if we looked hard enough, we’d be able to blame the mirror for some things, but for the most part things have remained steady. The association of a broken mirror and misfortune is Roman, as they thought mirrors were a medium used by the gods to communicate with humans. The seven years of misfortune emerged from a slightly less superstitious understanding: that the cells in the body renew themselves completely every seven years, a process that slowly diminishes and then eradicates any responsibility the previous person’s body had in the destruction of the mirror. It’s a lovely and freeing idea, but there are some cells in the body that don’t regenerate, so our biological acquittal is never quite complete.

It's an irony that a sculpture of a mirror fragment produced an object that is so difficult to look at. The difficulty is partly in the sheen or lack of it, the deeply confusing hue that changes so slowly that it’s impossible to gauge one week to the next if it is different, similar to how difficult it is to recognize our own aging reflections until we encounter a photograph of ourselves to compare our always contemporary mirror image to. The frustration is also in the knowledge that the fragment is of a mirror, but that the reflective surface is turned away from us. Knowing it’s a mirror produces a frustration that encountering it as a plate or decorative pendent wouldn’t. We expect to see ourselves in a mirror. We’re ironically and disjunctively disembodied otherwise.