Mirrors were present throughout different ancient civilizations such as the Egyptian, Greek, and Etruscan, and were luxury items primarily associated with women. Additionally, a mirror was an object of profound symbolic significance, as it was considered to be a receptacle for the soul of the person whose image was reflected on its surface. The Etruscan word hinthial means both “soul” and “reflected image.” This dual concept relates to the ancient Egyptian word ankh, which means “life,” but also denotes the image of a mirror. In relation to the idea of life, many mirrors have been retrieved from the graves of Etruscan women, indicating both their desire to take earthly possessions of value into the next world and their need to not leave behind the device that contained their souls.
In the 19th century, women and mirrors were painted frequently by the French impressionists. Mary Cassatt, an American expatriate artist, used them as a possible motif for the vanity of women and the pleasure received when looking at one’s own reflection. Simultaneously, the viewer’s passive activity turns into an active interpretation of “reality” based on the power of paintings to construct reality. Such issues raise open-ended questions around the topics of female empowerment and physical subjugation: Are female subjects denied their own agency when viewed by an oppressive male gaze? Or do they become autonomous beings that exert physical potency and awareness by deliberately looking into their own selves?
With the advent of modernity, critical philosophers and thinkers developed new theoretical forms to describe psychoanalytic experience during the 20th century. Most notably, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is attributed with the concept of the “mirror stage.” This theory proposes that human infants go through a stage in which an external image of the body (reflected in a mirror, or represented to the infant through the mother or primary caregiver) produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of an “I.” Such precarious observations begin to interrogate the ideas of “self,” “self-identity,” and the “ego” at an early stage of life. This brings into discussion the notion of “reality” and the existential gestalt that relates to elements that correspond to individual experience and personal being.
On view through December 6, 2015, and included in free general admission, Concentrations 59: Mirror Stage— Visualizing the Self After the Internet explores themes of personal identity and “self” in the 21st century cyberworld. Consisting of eight different contemporary multimedia artists, Mirror Stage encapsulates the heterogeneous nature of visual Internet culture and its complex development since the dot-com era. Ryan Trecartin’s (Tommy-Chat Just E-mailed Me) (2006) is situated on the inside and outer liminal space of an e-mail conversation as it emphasizes the paradoxical role of online communication as a unifying digital tool, while revealing the effect of an impending, manic social isolation on its users in the offline “real” world.
Historically, mirrors were regarded as a tool for truth and recognition through the reflection of one’s personal appearance. After centuries of being associated with femininity and the female body, the concept of a mirror as a “screen” has drastically changed with the emergence of modern technology. Online Internet resources, including social websites and gaming platforms, have enabled Internet users to create new forms of identity that break with the historical past of mirrors as a conveyor of truth. Are we ready to adopt multiple, complex identities offline in the real world as well as in the online world? What will be the future resources for affirming one’s own personal identity within the (cyber)world? Mirror Stage—Visualizing the Self After the Internet invites the viewer to question, explore, and reflect on the new forms of presenting oneself within the digital age.
Fabian Leyva-Barragan is the McDermott Curatorial Intern for Contemporary Art at the DMA.
Sources: de Grummond, N. T., ed. A Guide to Etruscan Mirrors, Tallahassee, Fla: Archaeological News, 1982; Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977).