I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Mirror —Sylvia Plath
Like many good ideas it is deceptively simple. The artist Mark Wallinger has installed a large mirror across the ceiling of Sigmund Freud’s iconic study in Maresfield Gardens. The effect is dramatic. Immediately the space is doubled, turned inside out so that top and bottom, reflection and reality all become blurred. What is real suddenly seems like an illusion. Everything is destabilised – the famous couch, the archaeological figurines and artefacts arranged on Freud’s desk, the leather books and densely patterned Turkish rugs. It is disorientating. Are we looking at an actual object or its doppelganger? With its heavy red velvet curtains and oriental drapes the room surrounds us like a womb and the couch, with its comfortable Persian cushions, and Freud’s chair at the head where he would have sat out of sight of his analysand, invites us to lie down and rehearse our infantile fantasies and dreams. As we look up we catch sight of our own small, isolated reflection peering into this complex double space.
The mirror has been used throughout art history as a metaphor for both revelation and philosophical conundrum. Some of the oldest drawings found on temple walls and papyrus scrolls depict images of Egyptian Neters gazing into hand-held Mirrors. In Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, one of the world’s most enigmatic paintings, the artist melds the fabric of reality and the illusion of identity in a game of mirrors. While in his Rokey Venus, the goddess of Love, the most beautiful of all the goddesses, is shown lying languidly on a bed, as her son Cupid holds up a mirror – in an act that is at once both narcissistic and Oedipal. As Venus looks both at herself and the viewer the borders between self and other disintegrate.
Metaphors of doubling and reflection also abound in literature from Robert Louis Stephenson’s the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Sylvia Plath’s greedy annihilating mirror. While Jorge Luis Borges was terrified of mirrors as a child and remained afraid of their capacity for infinite regression that led to the “distortion of one’s own image.” The mirror is there, too, in therapeutic literature, philosophy and psychoanalytical texts. The implication being that the reflected image, either real or imaginary, helps to provide an insight within a clinical context. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty wrote: “It is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements that determine most of our philosophical convictions. The picture that holds traditional philosophy captive is that of the mind as a great mirror containing various representations – some accurate, some not – and capable of being studied by pure non empirical methods.” For Haglund (1996), “Part of the power of the mirror metaphor is that the single image captures many aspects of human development and human experience”. Shengold (1974) believed that the mirror was a metaphor for the mind, which reflected the image of self and others, while Pines (1984) described mirroring in group psychoanalysis as a process of objective self-reflection. In western philosophies the psyche tends to be regarded as a mirror of reality, while in Buddhism, it’s the world that mirrors back who we are.
With its reflective polished surface the mirror provides us with an unique experience. Before its invention humans had no way of knowing what they looked like, no real sense of their individual identity, beyond the occasional distorted glimpse in a still pool of water. With the ‘invention’ of the mirror came the sense of individuation. We perceive our image as if we are “somebody else”, someone who can observe and judge us. But the image isn’t someone else (it’s our own). Yet it’s also another (for how can we be in two places at once?). Like Peter Pan’s shadow we are inextricably linked to our reflections.
With his mirrored ceiling Mark Wallinger has embodied something of the fluidity of the mind that is capable of slipping between external reality and internalised fantasy. As we plunge into its depths we move from the rational controlling super-ego, though the considering ego to the chthonic, elemental id. Yet nothing is stable. All can be changed by the dark cast of a shadow or a sudden ray of sunlight from the garden door that offers an escape into an alternative, external domain. And beyond the door, outside in the garden, visible behind Freud’s desk, sits the sculpture Self, based on the letter ‘I’ like a statement of self-hood and identity.
The development of identity was addressed by Erik Erikson (1902–1994) in his theory of psychosocial development. He saw an individual’s self-definition as residing in enduring characteristics of the self that included morals and ethics and saw the healthy ego as evolving through a process of self-discovery. For him this evolvolution of the ego identity takes place through stages of emotional and social development. At each stage the psychology of an individual interacts with the given social context in a challenge that brings about either a healthy resolution or an unhealthy, neurotic alternative.
Mark Wallinger is one of our most interesting and thoughtful contemporary artists around at the moment. Nominated for the Turner prize in 1995, he won in 2007 with his installation State of Britain, a dramatic re-creation of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest against the Iraq war. This consisted of a reconstruction of over 600 weathered banners, peace flags, photographs and messages from supporters, which Haw amassed over the five years he managed to occupy Parliament Square until, on 23 May 2006, following the passing by Parliament of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act prohibiting unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, his protest was removed. Now to celebrate the Freud Museum London’s 20th anniversary and the 160th anniversary of Sigmund Freud he has created this thoughtful iconic work of spare beauty and real depth. It is a fitting tribute.
Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, London, NW3 5SX until 25th September 2016
Freud Museum London: Karolina Urbaniak
Self Reflection Mark Wallinger Freud Museum: Alex Delfanne
Published in 3 Quarks Daily