This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
When I suddenly see myself in the depths of the mirror, I take fright. I can scarcely believe that I have limits, that I am outlined and defined. I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself… I am also surprised to find as I gaze into the pale mirror with open eyes that there is so much in me beyond what is known, so much that remains ever silent.
– Clarice Lispector1Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart, trans. Alison Entrekin, New Directions Publishing, New York, 2012, pp. 59–60.
Clarice Lispector wrote about what it is to think. She was absorbed by questions of epistemology and ontology, and her writing, in some instances, gave up narrative in favour of churning reflections on time, being and consciousness. Lispector, writing of her reaction to seeing her image in the mirror, expresses that split relationship between our physical body and our mental landscape. A mental landscape which is many-layered, multidirectional and which moves with contradictory and shifting waves. When your mind is overwhelmed, and this landscape roils too wildly, the advice is to put your feet on the floor (touch the earth, remind yourself of your physical presence) and look at yourself in the mirror (see that in fact you remain whole).
In a physical sense, reflection is a function of physics, the refraction of light off the surface of an object. The light that enters the cornea and flips in the retina imprints an image on the brain which might be affirming or surprising, as Lispector reminds us. Reflection happens in the eye and the mind’s eye; it is visibility and equally it is unseen, immaterial introspection. What is the relationship, then, between the image of the world as it is reflected to us, and the cerebral act of reflecting on a subject? Lispector’s brilliance was bringing these two together – her experiential vision, her observation of the world, and her inner cogitations – to create revelation.
The experience that Lispector describes is explained by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan as the Mirror Stage. Initially he understood this to be a moment in infancy when the baby first recognises itself in a mirror; her identification with her own image heralds the formation of the ego. Lacan later decided that this stage is a lifelong state rather than one moment in infancy. Lispector tells how the visual identity shown in the mirror supplies imaginary ‘wholeness’ to her own experience of a fragmentary reality.And, as she also expresses, seeing that our physical state and our inner life are distinct or sometimes contradictory, we find this moment self-alienating.
Photography follows the flow of light through the mechanism of a camera lens and its prism mirror and onto light-sensitive paper. Beyond this, the captured image moves into the world, and reverberates in culture and history. How do the physics of reflection (as it occurs in the camera) shape the reception of the subject across time (through collective consciousness)? Selfportraiture answers this question by inserting the body, which light bounces off and in doing so affirms physical lived presence. Those marginalised because of race, gender or sexuality, who take representation into their hands through this medium demonstrate, rather than narcissism, an all-too-profound awareness of their relationship to the world and its attendant power structures.
Like the creation of vision and image by the movement of light, reflecting on a subject requires our cognitive beam to shine on the subject of examination and bounce back into our mind’s eye. It is to look again and, in doing so, to illuminate. How much we cringe when this light falls inward in the process of self-reflection which shows yourself to yourself, as a none-too-disinterested observer. The dark recesses of our unconscious, the memories repressed, the uncomfortable truths, collective amnesia.
This is often a retrospective process. We generally reflect on events that have already occurred, and alongside this lumbers other retrospective creatures: regret, realisation, learning. We might reflect as individuals on personal choices, as a museum on curatorial and collecting practice, and societally on our collective histories. An observational position, certainly, though not passive. To receive, to accept, to open are active states, and indeed set the scene for a reaction. The reaction may be change. For this reason, reflection is neither passive nor safe but, in its movement from retrospective (realisation) to speculative (change), can be radical.
Reflection is for philosopher Georg Hegel a dialectic process that concurrently connects and differentiates us from what we perceive.2Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Absolute: An Introduction to Reading the Phenomenology of Spirit, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2007, pp. 7–11. So by illuminating the self in the light reflected off the object, self-awareness dawns. In this dynamic relationship between the subject and the object, Hegel’s reflection undoes the ordered, tidy gap between us and the world around us. Reflection becomes useful when it creates a dynamic between the perceiver and their world, and when this occurs the perceiver is no longer the same. They are changed by an awareness of themselves in relation to the thing they perceive. In this model then, to reflect on an object is a path to self-reflection. So, to return to the question, what is the relationship between reflection as physical phenomenon and reflection as a cerebral activity? The reflective action – which bounces between us and what we observe – shows that how we know the world cannot be divorced from how we know ourselves.
Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart, trans. Alison Entrekin, New Directions Publishing, New York, 2012, pp. 59–60.
Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Absolute: An Introduction to Reading the Phenomenology of Spirit, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2007, pp. 7–11.