Space and Mirrors

Narcissus in love with his image, 1728. Painting by François Lemoyne, 1688-1728. Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Narcissus’ story is the myth of the origin of the flower bearing his name and I would say the myth of the mirror. Narcissus is counted among the most handsome young men; per the Roman poet Ovid’s retelling of the myth, he was the son of the river god Cephisus and the nymph Liriope.
When Narcissus was born, Tiresias was asked whether the child would live a long life, and the seer, aware of the difficulties of the enigmatic maxim “Know thyself”, replied: “If he never knows himself.” (Tiresias. Ovid, Metamorphoses).
He was destined to love himself –to his own image on the water- and not gain the thing he loved. He fell in love with his own reflection. And since he could not obtain the immaterial object of his love, he died of sorrow by the quiet spring. His body was never found, but in its place, there was a flower, purple within and surrounded with white leaves.
As an additional data, the spring where Narcissus saw himself is said to be in the territory of the Thespians, in a place called Donacon. Some reject the story of Narcissus being unable to distinguish a man from a man’s reflection. Instead they assert that Narcissus had a twin sister, and that both were exactly alike in appearance. Supposedly, he fell in love with his sister, and when she died he used to visit the spring, knowing well that he saw his reflection, but finding some relief for his love because it reminded him of his sister. (From Greek Mythology Link, a web site created by Carlos Parada).

Rococo architecture, Amalienburg. Internet download.
The mirror is a fascinating object that changes or disguises the relationship of objects with their spatial environments. The artificial effects used by Rococo decorators is well known: large mirrors were place opposite one another on the walls of rooms.

Painting by Aguilar. Internet download
The event Smoke and Mirrors in New York, a production of non architectural space. “Through sensatory distortions a supernatural environment was created. The notoriously sour New York architecture scene found temporary solace in this wondrous atmosphere of dynamic projections and reflections set within a dense haze. One room was filled with a dense fog, reducing visibility at this networking party to the bare minimum. Poisonous yellow light created a fake ceiling through which one could descend into the haze.” By Solid Objectives.
Painting by Aguilar. Internet download


In Henri Lefevre’s words “ The mirror discloses the relationship between me and myself, my body and t he consciousness of my body –not because the reflection constitutes my unity qua subjet,…..but because it transforms what I am into the sign of what I am. This ice-smooth barrier, itself merely an inert sheen, reproduces and displays what I am –in a word, signifies what I am- within an imaginary sphere which is yet quite real. A process of abstraction then –but fascinating abstraction. In order to know myself, I “separate myself out from myself”. The effect is dizzying. Should the “Ego” fail to reassert hegemony over itself by defying its own image, it must become Narcissus –or Alice. It will then be in danger of never rediscovering itself, space qua figment will have swallowed it up, and the glacial surface of the mirror will hold it forever captive in its emptiness, in an absence devoid of all conceivable presence or bodily warmth. The mirror thus presents or offers the most unifying but also the most disjunctive relationship between form and content: forms therein have a powerful reality yet remain unreal; they readily expel or contain their contents, yet these contents retain an irreducible force, an irreducible opacity, and this is as true for my boddy (the content of “my consciousness”) as for other bodies, for bodies in general. So many objects have this dual character: they are transitional inasmuch as they tend towards something else, yet they are also aims or “objectives” in their own right…..There is in fact little justification for any systematic generalization from the effects of this particular object, whose role is properly confined to a sphere within the immediate vicinity of the body…..The mirror introduces a truly dual spatiality: a space which is imaginary with respect to origin and separation, but also concrete and practical with respect to coexistence and differentiation”. (H. Lefevre, p. 185-186, 1999).

Psyche’s Mirror in the Funhouse, at the Burning Man event, 2005. ‘Anamorphic art’ uses a curved mirror to straighten out a distorted image. Ray Allen installed this and Michael Heatherton is keeping it relatively clean. Painting is of Two Ambassadors by the Dutch artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). Picture by Tom Pendergast.
The mirror conceptualization also offers us the opportunity to enjoy bilateral symmetries in architecture. In the words of Kim Williams “Identifying a type of symmetry in a two-dimensional composition is relatively straightforward; the identification of symmetry types in a three-dimensional object such as a sculpture is somewhat more complicated because our perception of the object changes as we move around it. In the case of architecture, we not only move around it, but we move through it as well. This means that architecture provides us with a special opportunity to experience symmetry as well as to see it”. (Cited in

Le Fevre, Henri. The Production of Space. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Massachusetts, USA. 1999


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