We live in a world where we have to first show ourselves to the world, then take the reflection the world creates of us and bounce it back for a second run. A reflection of a reflection.
By Alex Czetwertynski
Primary photo by Julian Basjel
“For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
— Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [London, England: MIT Press,1964; p.18]
Contemporary society and its creative laborers seem to have developed an obsession with reflection. From New Media art practices to experiential art and contemporary art in general, the trend is ubiquitous. But beyond the arts, this is apparent also in the way we approach our personal expression as well as the media we consume. From Infinity rooms to houses made entirely of reflective materials, from our cell phones to social media, there is an overall desire for shiny objects that send us back our own image, albeit sometimes filtered
Why is this? What makes us so fascinated by our image bouncing back at us in such a repeated fashion? We know about echo chambers from contemporary political discourse but we also know about the infinity rooms of our own images and words. As we’ll see, it makes sense that a “medium” – and we can firmly call reflection a medium – would want to repeat itself. That is, after all, what it does to grow. But from the perspective of our contemporary culture, what kind of explanation can we find for this trend?
To start answering this question, we have to start looking about 12 inches from noses, the place where we typically hold our phones.
Beyond the fact that our devices were designed first as slabs of reflective glass, they were also designed to offer us endless ways of sending our image back to us.
This goes from the engineering efforts that led to a front facing camera ( the hardware) to the plethora of apps and trackers (the software) that provide us with the shallowest form of self knowledge, the one we can get from just looking at ourselves for a short duration of time. From selfies to fitness trackers to screen timers, everything is designed to skim the surface and share.
It would be a trope to say that selfies are the mark of narcissists. Narcissism is a desirable trait in the economy of images we live in, rewarded at every digital corner. Without narcissism a large portion of the culture economy would cave in, as it leverages the “user as brand” motto to fuel millions of years worth of scrolling.
However if narcissism is a cliche, it must have, as all cliches, a birth certificate. And in our case, there isn’t much research to do to find it.
In his magnum opus written around the year 8 AD, The Metamorphoses, the latin poet Ovid explores a variety of myths that relate to “transformation”. One of these myths tells the story of Narcissus.
I find most of the translations of Ovid arid and moribund. But I was lucky to run into a partial translation of the book by the late English poet Ted Hughes.
This is where things become interesting, because a poet translating a poet is more than just an exercise in Latin mastery, and becomes more of an attempt to drink from the same fountain as Ovid, to “be” Ovid, but today. In today’s parlance, they are tuned to the same frequencies.
Someone once suggested that art is a mirror of the society it lives in. If we think of the connection between Ted Hughes and Ovid, you could imagine that Ovid is a mirror, bouncing a reflection through time, that finds itself reflected again in Ted Hughes literary prowess.
When we start reading the words, translated in time as much as in language, we find out that Narcissus is the son of the nymph Liriope, who was impregnated by the river Cephisus
“The boy she bore, even in his cradle,
Had a beauty that broke hearts
She named her child Narcissus. Gossips
Came to Tiresias: “Can the boy live long
With such perfect beauty?” The seer replied
“Yes, unless he learns to know himself”
The story sets off with an “omen” by Tiresias, a blind prophet who had lived seven years as a woman.
But I would be getting ahead of myself if I didn’t mention that the name of the story is not just “Narcissus”, but “Echo and Narcissus”. Echo is a nymph, punished for being a distracting chatterbox, to only being able to repeat the last few words spoken to her. Her presence in the myth is key to grasping the full scope of the story and its ramifications through time.
“Echo who cannot be silent
When another speaks. Echo who cannot
Speak at all
Unless another has spoken
Echo who always answers back”
Of course, Echo falls in love with Narcissus and follows him through the forest. She can’t talk to him, all she can offer are morsels, small chunks of sentences that reflect the paucity of their interaction. As she approaches him :
“’No’ he cried, ‘no, I would sooner be dead
Than let you touch me.’” Echo collapsed in sobs,
As her voice lurched among the mountains:
‘Touch me, touch me, touch me, touch me’”
Before going much further in the tale, we see that there is more to the story of Narcissus than the infamous pond and the love of “self”. In fact, if we were to translate this in very literal contemporary terms, what we would see is : a self absorbed character has a “follower” who can only respond to him, and does with a lack of language, an inability to formulate anything that goes beyond “echoing”. Sound familiar? Could we assume here that Ovid is talking about social media? “Likes”, “Reposts”, emoji type reactions, all of that seems like the work of Echo.
A few stanzas later, Narcissus encounters the now iconic pool, where he discovers his reflection. Completely in love with it, he enters into a one way love fest that, as we know, ends badly for him
But the poet warns us.
“How could he clasp and caress his own reflection
And still he could not comprehend
What the deception was, what the delusion.
He simply became more excited by it,
Poor misguided boy! Why clutch so vainly
At such a brittle figment? What you hope
To lay hold of has no existence.
Look away and what you love is nowhere.
This is your own shadow”
There is a particular phenomenon on social media (now available on all platforms!) where one feels obligated to post anything others have shared about us. Not doing it would equal to a social media “faux pas”. Similarly, when large groups of people post images that represent some form of collective action or protest, a pressure is applied to each individual to mirror the practice of the herd.
My mind started making loops on itself one day when a friend whose work I consider important and valuable, particularly because he deals with self representation in contemporary society, started reposting every image taken of him during his live performance. When I asked him : “surely this goes against the core of your discourse”, his answer was simple : doing this had allowed certain key people to see his work, which had in turn led to new commissions.
Ergo, we live in a world where we have to first show ourselves to the world, then take the reflection the world creates of us and bounce it back for a second run. A reflection of a reflection.
What reading Ovid, translated by Ted Hughes, in light of contemporary social media teaches us is that these forces have been at play since the dawn of time. But if we assume that the poet was serving us a cautionary tale, we have forgotten what it was about. As Tiresias warned, Narcissus and narcissism will only live if they learn to “know themselves”. Narcissism, de-fanged, operates in reverse, as a way of avoiding to know oneself.
This brings us back to the initial question : why is reflection such a powerful medium, in particular today? It isn’t just because reflective acrylic and other cheap light bouncing materials have become readily available in overproducing capitalist society.
One might think that it is maybe because there are more and more interesting things to reflect? But we’ve learned from Marshall McLuhan that, if reflection is indeed a medium, it isn’t the content that matters. The content is a distraction, what we want is reflection itself.
Let’s look at contemporary art practices to illustrate this. If you have spent any time wandering around “experiential” spaces, festivals, art galleries, or browsed cultural publications about these spaces, you will have noticed that there is barely a missed opportunity to insert mirrors somewhere.
Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Room” piece was such a smash hit that lines would form around the institutions showing it. But there was really no need to do, because it was reflected right back at you on your screen. Similarly, it started creating copies, or “bounces” of itself. Infinity Room after Infinity Room started popping up so frequently it became hard to avoid them.
We also started seeing copies of copies of copies of similar artworks, entire houses made of mirrors, arrays of reflective poles in the desert, on the beach. But you might want to interrupt me here and suggest that this work is “good”, it talks about our “perception” and our “relationship to the world” etc…I have a simple answer : only when the object of the reflection is reflection itself. In other words, when artists deal with the medium of reflection as the object of the work. We see this brilliantly for example in Daniel Buren’s series of sculptures at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen. He used reflective surfaces to reflect odd angles of statues that were hidden inside boxes marked with his signature stripes. The effect was of revealing parts of a statue you would rarely see, re-framing by reflecting.
And there are of course others.
But the works that I see as bigger markers of today’s trends towards a form of empty reflection are those that just sit there waiting for someone to see themselves in them, reflecting a world they are completely foreign to. What these works inspire is a form of nihilism, as if the world itself had to become narcissistic too. A form of anthropomorphic colonialism as it were. And what this represents is simply a world where there isn’t much left to say, all you can do is reflect. The creation of something new has been replaced with repetition, with small variations here and there.
Reflection, in excess, infinitely reflecting itself over and and over again is the wow moment that leads to nothing, or maybe just to an instagram post.