Katy Kelleher | Longreads | July 2019 | 21 minutes (5,409 words)

In The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy Kelleher lays bare the dark underbellies of the objects and substances we adorn ourselves with.

Previously: the grisly sides of perfume, angora, and pearls.

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Eight thousand years ago, a craftsperson sat inside their mud-brick house in Turkey and rubbed a piece of obsidian with their hands, smoothing the surface carefully, polishing the stone until it shone darkly in the hot sun, burning a piece of volcanic rock into something miraculous. In this piece of black stone, they could see their reflection, surrounded by the walls of their dwelling, built on the bones of their ancestors, the painted plaster walls rendered colorless by the obsidian’s deep gloss. But they weren’t done. They took white plaster and applied it to one side of this stone disk in a conical shape. Eventually this stone came to rest in a grave, alongside a woman from the early agricultural society. There it stayed until archeologists found it in the 1960s. It is, as far as we know, one of humankind’s first mirrors.

According to archeologist Ian Hodder, who oversees the hilly, 34-acre archeological site at Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, there have been “five or six” obsidian mirrors found there, all located in the northeast corners of tombs belonging to women. “They are beautiful things,” he says of the Neolithic mirrors. “Nobody really expected there would be things like mirrors in those early days. These are the first sort of settlements after people have been living as hunters and gathers. In many ways, these were quite simple societies, so it is odd.” Yet these early proto-urban people clearly wanted to look at themselves — or at something. It’s possible they were used in rituals by shamans or other religious figures. “One of the most commonly suggested for the time period is that they’re something to do with predicting the future or understanding the spirit world through reading images in the mirrors,” says Hodder. We just don’t know. We’ll probably never know.

With a name taken from the Latin mirare and mirari (“to look at” and “to wonder at, admire,” respectively), a mirror can be any reflective surface created for the purpose of seeing oneself. They can be made of stone, metal, glass, plastic, or even water. Throughout history, we’ve constructed mirrors from all those substances, to a varying degree of efficacy, for various reasons. Some were used as ceremonial items, others were used to repel malevolent spirits, and still others were used for the simple pleasure of examining one’s countenance.

But no matter what they’re made of, mirrors are objects of mystery, obsession, and fear. They’re simple yet complex. They’ve been used for purposes both sacred and profane. We love them, yet we’re loath to admit it. Even their creation has been shrouded in secrecy and aided by willful ignorance and sometimes outright violence; mirror making was once a toxic affair, and its secrets were guarded by laws and punishable by death. Long reserved for the wealthy few, we now walk around with compact mirrors in our pockets, and even if you left yours at home, there’s always a cell phone screen that can function, if you want it to, if the light is right, as a mirror.

Often, when objects become mundane, they lose some of their luster. But mirrors retain their ability to hold our attention, and they retain a certain amount of power over us. We’re still interested in seeing our reflections, and we still want to know what the future holds. Yet we’ve lost the reverence we once had for them. We no longer bury our dead with hand mirrors, and we don’t often speak of the control a mirror can exert over a person. Instead, we allow this force to alter our perceptions, to diminish our happiness, while denying its power. Looking in a mirror is just something you do — just something women do. We’re so used to seeing this impulse as vanity that most of us have forgotten the innate sense of awe that comes with looking. We’ve forgotten how to face our reflections not with judgment or fear, but with a sense of joyful discovery, a sense of hope. We can see our reflections anywhere, yet still face the mirror with a certain amount of suspicion, as though desiring knowledge of how the world sees you is somehow wrong.

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Some scientists have theorized that our attraction to reflections has an evolutionary purpose. Supposedly, we like gemstones that sparkle and objects that reflect because they remind us of life-giving water. This is just one theory, but I find it interesting. It explains, in part, the seemingly global allure of glitter, polished metals, and atoms arranged in a crystalline structure. Even infants are more likely to shower attention on shiny plates (which they show by picking them up and licking them) than on dull ones, according to a 2003 study from UC Davis. Even cultures that never had to compete with their neighbors for resources hoarded gold and gems, although they had no need to accumulate symbols of wealth or worry about trading. For these people, gold should have been just another rock. But it wasn’t, because we like shiny things.

We also like seeing images of ourselves, and we have for eons. It’s impossible to know exactly when humans first discovered our reflections, though many have tried to imagine the moment. In his 2003 book Mirror, Mirror, Mark Pendergrast paints a wavering, dreamlike picture of a hominid drinking from a pool of water. “The scene: an African savanna after a torrential seasonal rain,” he writes. With brow furrowed in curiosity, the unnamed figure expresses puzzlement at the “fellow creature looking back at him.” First, he is cautious. “Is it an enemy?” he wonders. Then, he is playful. The man winks at himself, touches his nose, and bares his teeth. “He understands, on one level, at least,” Pendergrast concludes. “They are the same, yet they are different.”

Looking in a mirror is just something you do — just something women do. We’re so used to seeing this impulse as vanity that most of us have forgotten the innate sense of awe that comes with looking.

Sure, this could have happened. It could have happened a million times over with various early hominids, figures that looked surprisingly like us. Despite our many advancements, the “human bodily form has not altered appreciably in 100,000 years,” explained paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to Pendergrast. “The Cro-Magnon people are us — by both bodily anatomy and parietal art — not some stooped and grunting ancestor.” One by one, they could have slowly fallen in love with their reflections, as the Greeks imagined in the story of Narcissus. They could have drowned gazing into their own eyes, so dark, so mysterious.

Or they could have acted like dolphins do, or elephants, or magpies. According to animal psychologist Diana Reiss, animals go through several stages of mirror self-recognition. Animals first try to look behind the mirror, and then often go through a “Groucho stage,” where they repeat odd movements to figure out the relationship between the motions of their bodies and the reflections. Upon realizing that what they’re seeing is, in fact, their own body, many animals begin using the mirror to see previously unobserved parts of themselves.

Maybe rather than falling in love with his twin, Narcissus showed the pool his butt, peering over his beautiful shoulder to get the view from behind. Yet we prefer to think of Narcissus gazing at his lovely face for hours, wasting away (or drowning, depending on your mythological source) because he needs to be punished for his self-love. It’s a story with a moral, one that cautions against vanity and beauty. It’s also a story about the power of reflection, and we keep telling it because it keeps being relatable. We’ve all been drawn to our own reflection. We’ve all felt fascinated by the image of our own selves, captured in silver or water or glass. The way we look matters, whether we want it to or not: It alters our job and mating prospects, contributes to our quality of life. We value different human bodies differently, and the ugly truth is that the ones that fit the prevailing culture’s definition of beautiful are evaluated at a higher worth. There’s both a power and a survival necessity in seeing yourself the way the world sees you.

Perhaps this is why mirrors have long been associated with magic. If they can let you see something you normally can’t — yourself — maybe they can permit you to see other things beyond your vision. Spirits, perhaps, or ghosts, or maybe even visions of the future. Cultures across the globe have, independently of one another, built their own mythologies around reflective surfaces. The Wiccan’s Dictionary of Prophecy and Omens features a listing for “catoptromancy,” defined as the “art and practice of divination by means of a special lens or magic mirror.” According to this text, the ancient Greeks used a mirror to catch the light of the moon, and gazing into it, were able to see visions of the future. (Another kind of divination practiced during the same era involved looking at birds — “ornis,” a word that birthed our modern term “omen.”) The Roman “blindfolded boys” were special diviners who could call forth images of the future from a thin haze of condensation on the surface of a mirror; one legend has a blindfolded boy predicting the death of Didius Julianus after gazing in a reflective surface, performing incantations, exhaling deeply, and watching as visions of the emperor’s untimely end appeared in the moisture. Even the Book of Genesis (believed by some scholars to have been written at a point between the sixth and fifth centuries BCE) contains a reference to what some Biblical scholars believe was a type of reflection-based divination, with Joseph supposedly looking into a silver cup in order to receive divine knowledge from god. (Many have contested this interpretation, arguing that Joseph received his words from god in dreams and that the silver cup was a mere bit of ancient Hebrew theatrics.)

The idea that one could gaze into a mirror to glean paranormal knowledge has stuck with us, reemerging time and again in mythology and folklore. In Mesoamerica, mirrors made of iron ore, obsidian, and magnetite were used for both decorative purposes (adoring ceremonial costumes) and for magical means. In the 1940s, archeologists found seven concave stone mirrors dating back to 600 BCE in a tomb in Mexico, which they believe were worn (there are holes drilled in the top of the circular discs, indicating that they were most likely hung, possibly as a chest ornament) and functioned as both fire-starters and status symbols. For the Olmec people, mirrors were religious items (possibly linked to the sun god) and revered for their ability to bring life-giving flames.

Hundreds of years later, the Mayans would continue this tradition. They buried mirrors with their dead, and contemporary researchers believe that these reflective artifacts were used as “mystical devices” by “elite individuals” for “divinatory scrying.” In Manufactured Light: Mirrors in the Mesoamerican Realm, researcher John J. McGraw follows the lead of anthropologist Marc Blainy in suggesting that the ancient Maya understood reflections as a “window into an alternate dimension,” a place where their gods and ancestors both dwelled. This other-land was filled with powerful forces, hidden from sight, yet highly influential. “The scrying tool permits a window into this world and in the uncanny experience of finding a spark in a crystal or a face in the surface of the water, the diviner communicates with these powers,” writes McGraw.

Like the Olmec, people in ancient China celebrated the light-enhancing properties of mirrors. For them, mirrors were tools of both physical observation and spiritual protection. The practice of making mirrors from metal began in China around 4,000 years ago. Craftspeople created circular bronze mirrors that were typically polished to a shine on one side, while the other was inscribed with intricate patterns and pictures depicting animals real and imagined, significant plants and flowers, and symbols meaning “sunlight” and “clear and bright.” Expensive and adored, these totemic objects were snapped up by the wealthy few. Some were used exactly as we use mirrors now — to apply makeup, to tame the eyebrows, to see yourself clearly. But many were also imbued with magical or religious significance. It was also traditional to cover or remove mirrors from a house after a death had occurred. (Jewish mourners still observe a similar practice during shiva.) Mirrors were a “favorite burial accessory” in China, according to the Australian Museum, because it was believed that they could dispel evil spirits and keep homes (or tombs) safe from crime and misfortune. In Taoism, “monster-revealing” mirrors are a tool to help priests practice magic, explained Ma Jinhong of the Shanghai Museum. “Even now,” adds Ying, “Chinese people pay great attention to the placement of mirrors at home, which is fundamental in feng shui. Mirrors are believed to shift the flow of qi (energy flow).”

There’s both a power and a survival necessity in seeing yourself they way the world sees you.

Nostradamus, the 16th-century French astrologer and seer whose writings, some purportedly believe, predicted the election of Donald Trump, was famous for his scrying abilities. According to legend, the gout-ridden oracle used either a black mirror or a pool of dark water as one of several methods for gathering occult knowledge. And mirrors still play a role in contemporary Western religions. Spiritualists practice scrying, using the same techniques as ancient people down to the obsidian mirror. Some believe that scrying can allow you to see into alternate dimensions, while others trumpet scrying as a way to unlock the mysteries hidden within oneself or believe that scrying will reveal the future. Like Victorian ladies begging the mirror to reveal their one true love, people all over America are still gazing into mirrors with the hopes that they’ll fast-track success.

Today, you can buy a simple polished obsidian mirror online for less than $30. The item is not terribly different from the mirrors of Çatalhöyük. You can also book an appointment to learn how to scry with a black mirror from a New Orleans witch for just $50. If you haven’t the pocket money, you can always watch tutorials on YouTube and DIY scry with your own polished black stone. All you need is the desire to look, long and hard, into the depths.

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It may seem surprising that there is still a market for mirrors made of stone now that we have other options. Stone mirrors don’t sound as if they would work, yet according to Hodder, the Çatalhöyük mirrors were surprisingly reflective. As part of their research, his team recreated modern versions of the obsidian mirrors. In a matter of hours, they were able to sand, rub, and polish several pieces of obsidian to glossy perfection using the same techniques and materials that they believe the original craftspeople would have likely used. In the bright light, you could see yourself fairly clearly in them — the lines and planes of your face, at least. You could apply makeup, check your teeth, and address any issues of hair placement. Sure, you couldn’t see colors, but these mirrors did work.

Of course, when it came to issues of personal maintenance, metal mirrors worked even better, but it took some time for people to figure out how to melt and pour globs of ore. Cultures figured it out at slightly different rates. Copper mirrors in Mesopotamia have been dated back to 4000 BCE, and the ancient Egyptians were making mirrors from the same metal by at least 2000 BCE. These mirrors were lighter in weight than their stone counterparts and could render colors slightly more accurately, though they were by no means perfect. In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the Roman author described glass mirrors made in Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon) that dated back to the first century, though historians have only been able to find evidence of glass mirrors going as far back as the second century. There’s evidence of early glass mirrors in ancient Egypt, Rome, and some in Western Europe, tiny and not very well made. They were lumpy and uneven, and they measured no more than three inches across. The glass wasn’t particularly clear, and the process of applying a metal coating to the back hadn’t been refined yet.

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Mirror history stalled out at this point. While metal mirrors remained popular among the nobility in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, making glass mirrors either wasn’t a very high priority, or craftspeople couldn’t figure out the secret to effectively coating large sheets of glass with reflective metal alloys. It also took a few centuries for these early glassblowers to figure out how to create flat sheets of translucent glass — they could produce spheres, but concave or convex mirrors produced distorted reflections, not the perfect, true image the viewer wanted — so metal mirrors remained important signifiers, hoarded by the wealthy and given as gifts during momentous life events. (At the end of the 17th century, one countess supposedly sold a large swathe of fertile land, which “brought in nothing but wheat” for a small mirror, according to social philosopher Saint-Simon who reported on the shocking sale. “Did I not work wonders,” she said, “some wheat for this beautiful mirror?”)

It wasn’t until the 1400s that glass mirrors began to replace metal ones in European households. The first great glass mirrors came from the Italian island of Murano, in the Venetian lagoon. Venice had been the place for glassmakers since the 13th century, and the city drew talent from throughout Europe, all pulled to Venice by the promise of a better life. “The Venetian Republic nurtured them and treated them more like artists than artisans,” writes Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet in The Mirror: A History. “It protected and monitored them, and granted them many privileges, such as the right to marry daughters of nobles.”

It’s not entirely clear who came up with the formula for Venice’s famed translucent glass, nor is it known who first applied a mixture of molten metals to the back of the panes to make the first modern mirror. The glassmakers at Murano jealously guarded the tricks of their trade, as did the Venetian government; spilling trade secrets was punishable by death, and if a glassmaker dared to leave Murano, their family was sometimes held hostage in attempts to hasten their return. But even within the reticent community of craftspeople, there was collaboration and experimentation. The mirror makers were always looking for ways to enhance the beauty of their objects, as well as formulas for creating larger and more impressive mirrors. Some added lead to their glass; others embedded glimmering bits of gold leaf within the surface. They lined their mirrors with silver, which had been polished and flattened, or with a tin-mercury amalgam. These materials weren’t terribly safe to work with; mercury, in particular, is highly toxic. Workers who inhaled mercury fumes might develop behavioral and personality changes. Their kidneys might fail, their hands might begin to shake. They might begin to experience what is termed in the 2017 publication Occupational and Environmental Health, “pathological shyness, increased excitability, loss of memory, insomnia, and depression … in severe cases, delirium and hallucination.” If you’ve heard of mad hatters, you know about these symptoms, which were just as prevalent in mirror makers as milliners. And they knew precisely what was causing their pain, yet often lacked the economic mobility to make other choices. In 1713, Bernardino Ramazzini documented the ailments of mirror makers: “Those who make mirrors become palsied and asthmatic from handling mercury. At Venice, on the island called Murano, where huge mirrors are made, you may see these workmen … scowling at the reflection of their own suffering in their mirrors and cursing the trade they have chosen.”

Still, for several centuries Venetian mirrors were considered the height of luxury, so naturally everyone in Paris wanted one. According to Melchoir-Bonnet, a “Venetian mirror, framed in a rich border of silver, was worth more than a painting by Raphael: the mirror cost 8,000 pounds, the painting only 3,000.” With mirrors in such high demand, a few well-placed Frenchmen began to scheme. Anyone who could introduce the industry to France would be rewarded richly, both by King Louis XIV and by the mirror-mad populace.

‘At Venice, on the island called Murano, where huge mirrors are made, you may see these workmen … scowling at the reflection of their own suffering in their mirrors and cursing the trade they have chosen.’

In the early 1660s, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, successfully lured several glassmakers away from Murano to start a competing workshop. But in 1667, they began to die. One got sick with a sudden fever and died after several days of suffering. Another experienced mysterious stomach pains before perishing. They were working with heavy metals and toxic fumes, yet their deaths weren’t blamed on the workplace conditions, and fear began to permeate the air and seep into the minds of the surviving mirror makers. Colbert’s factory had lost “two of its best artisans, and their deaths paralyzed the factory,” writes Melchoir-Bonnet. “An autopsy was requested, and Dunoyer, the head of the factory, wasted no time in voicing his suspicion of the Venetian Republic’s hand behind these sudden deaths.”

As it turned out, this wasn’t the beginning of the mirror-based violence or the end of it. Two Venetian workers had been assassinated in 1547 after they attempted to emigrate to Germany, notes Melchoir-Bonnet, and others had seen family members condemned to work on galleys for their choice to leave the county (a sort of punishment by proxy, though it was more common to fine families or seize their property than to jail them). The volley of violence and intrigue went on for the better part of a decade. Italy sent spies to France, France sent spies to Italy. France attempted to bring over the workers’ wives, and Italy tried to thwart this tactic (France won the battle in the end, thanks to the malingering of Venetian women, who were all too ready to pretend illness if it meant they could escape under the cover of darkness to new lives abroad). Both countries suspected the other of murdering glassmakers, who were well compensated but shackled to the whims of mercurial rulers. In 1670, the French royally backed company finally figured out how to blow, flatten, coat, and polish large panes of glass through “a combination of experience and accident,” Melchoir-Bonnnet writes. The cat was out of the bag, and Colbert’s workers soon began spreading that knowledge to French craftsmen. And in 1684, with the unveiling of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors, it became obvious to everyone that the closely held secrets of mirror making had truly and irrevocably escaped from Murano.

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The Hall of Mirrors is, depending on your aesthetic leaning, either a gaudy, gilded nightmare or a sumptuous tribute to the Sun King. Either way, it feels infinite, thanks to 306 panes of French-made glass (aka Façon de Venise) lining the walls. Now, we use mirrors to brighten small spaces, or to shine light on other, more worthy pieces of art. Then, mirrors were art, as valuable and significant as a marble nudes. But like modern halls of mirrors (which are typically found at carnivals or in fun houses or other places designed to erode your sense of reality) the Hall at Versailles was eerie. Writers of the day remarked on how awkward and uncertain visitors seemed in the dazzling hall. According to Melchoir-Bonnet, some described it as an “architecture of emptiness.” “At Versailles,” she writes, “the walls have eyes, and the galleries covered in mirrors create a fearsome visibility. … The mirror substitutes reality with its own symmetrical replica, a theater of reflection and artifice.”

The history of mirrors is ugly not just because of the poisonous mercury that lined their backsides, or because of the purported murders that ran like a bloody thread through 17th-century Europe. Though these things are certainly hideous, the slow, quiet suffering caused by our obsession with reflection is even more disturbing.

When mirrors were associated with gods and magic, we had more reverence for the power of the object. When they were nearly priceless, mirrors were recognized for what they were — objects of beauty, objects of emptiness. We still believe in hidden forces and invisible powers, as many readers of The Secret or believers in the Illuminati might attest, but magic itself is relegated to the fringes and mirrors have become simple symbols of vanity. Instead of seeking a deeper self or a connection to ancestors or a link to higher powers, a woman looking in the mirror is commonly understood as seeking one thing: the image of herself. Once hoarded by male kings, mirrors are now seen as primarily feminine items, despite the fact that everyone uses them. Mirrors, when stripped of their magic, become nothing more than shiny surfaces, which makes it even easier to deride women for their mirror-gazing habits. While Hodder isn’t able to say exactly what purpose the Çatalhöyük mirrors served in the daily life of the community, he doesn’t believe it’s an accident that all six were found in women’s graves. Archeologists also found evidence of early maquillage in the same houses, “little shells full of ochre, evidence of face make-up stuff.” It’s possible they were using these obsidian mirrors to look at their faces, to examine their eyes and lips while they painted them with blue and red pigments drawn from the earth.

“Vanity,” Auguste Toulmouche, circa 1870.
“Vanity,” Auguste Toulmouche, circa 1870.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking — any student of art history will stumble across hundreds images of women gazing lovingly into mirrors. Titian, Degas, Courbet, and Manet and likely a thousand other painters have used their skills to show feminine bodies, doubled in a silvered surface. Some (Titian, Hans Memling, Auguste Toulmouche) have even gone so far as to title their pieces Vanity or Allegory of Vanity (Antonio de Pereda) failing to see the significance of mirror gazing for women; it was (and still is) a survival technique. In reality, a woman at the mirror is practicing. She’s seeing herself how men see her, how society sees her. She’s assessing her value and figuring out how to enhance her worth, her power.

While these dude painters were creating lovely paintings of supposedly shallow objects, many male artists were also using the mirror in their compositions to show themselves, to reveal the creator behind the piece. In the Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck uses the domed mirror to showcase his skill, depicting two witnesses in miniature (one of whom may be the painter himself), alongside a note that says, “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.” Diego Velázquez pulled the same move in La Meninas (“The Ladies in Waiting”). These painters used mirrors to cheekily assert themselves into a scene while also showing their technical prowess. Yet that same object, when paired with a woman’s body, takes on a sort of belittling power. Art critic John Berger once famously wrote, “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” Whether she’s the goddess of love or an anonymous model, women aren’t shown working in their mirrored reflections, like male artists often were, but simply looking. The two subjects (reflections and women) have been linked so frequently, and depicted with such scorn, it’s almost hardwired into our collective consciousness. (A recent 2015 Google event for women entrepreneurs rather thoughtlessly included a compact mirror in its swag bag, an act that some attendees considered “paternalistic” and “sexist.”)

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In contemporary culture, there has been some motion toward rewriting the visual symbolism and reclaiming the act of looking in the mirror, primarily though embracing and supporting the art and power of makeup. Young YouTubers and Instagram celebrities frequently show themselves gazing into mirrors, carefully applying winged eyeliner, rainbow eye shadow, ombre lips, or mermaid makeup. For them, the mirror is a necessity, and their makeup isn’t a way to conceal so-called “flaws,” but rather an income-generating art form. Unlike the artists of old, who used their mirrors to more realistically depict the human face, these artists are using mirrors to transform the self into whimsical, fantastical creations.

Contemporary artists, too, recognize the potential inherent in a mirror. Photographer Michele Bisaillon has adopted the mirror as a primary tool in her creative process, composing pastel-hued images that show a single sliver of her body reflected in various small mirrors. She distributes these images through Instagram, for social media is a place where mirrors are less taboo, less restricted than in other realms. According to Dazed Digital, Bisaillon owns roughly 50 mirrors, which she uses “like telescopes. They’re windows into other worlds for me.”

While Bisaillon purchases mirrors to use as props in her surrealist compositions, other artists have reframed the mirror, both literally and figuratively. As part of a show in 2015, Michele Pred created a series of small pink hand mirrors (with the handle shaped like the Venus symbol) called Reflections. Each mirror was etched with a different word, including EQUALITY, FEMINIST, and POWERFUL. Similar in form but more elaborate in structure are ceramist Jen Dwyer’s intricate porcelain clay objects. Dwyer builds elaborate Rococo-style mirrors and pairs them with symbols from antiquity, which she feels offer an “interesting way to represent our patriarchy.” She told Architectural Digest that her pale pink and baby blue pieces are designed to play with the idea of the “female gaze,” a term used to refer to the perspective brought to any project by a female creator. “I also wanted my audience to have a wider range of self-identification and representation, so the intention of the mirror is to have my audience become the body represented,” she explained.

Visitors standing in the exhibition “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” in front of the eponymous mirror mask. Sabine Glaubitz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Visitors standing in the exhibition “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” in front of the eponymous mirror mask. Sabine Glaubitz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In her efforts to rewire the mirror-femininity circuit, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos went larger than life, creating an 17-foot tall sculpture of a Carnival mask from dozens of gilded baroque-style mirrors. Titled I’ll Be Your Mirror (2018), this piece was on view alongside other surreal sculptures, like The Bride (a monumental candelabra made from unused tampons) and Marilyn (a huge high heel made out of stainless steel pots and pans) as part of a 2018 show at the Guggenheim Bilbao. The pieces are all sort of grotesque, made uncanny by their excessive size and repurposing of everyday elements. Instead of being passive, Vasconcelos’s mirrors are confrontational and highly public, and by juxtaposing mirrors with a mask, they remind us how little information a mirror actually provides. It shows a tiny portion of a person, a very small part of the whole — and even that tiny part may be just an illusion, a trick of the light. A mask, created for public consumption, revealing only what the wearer wants to reveal.

A theme that runs through all these different artworks is the fragmentary nature of reflection. Mirrors, even full-length mirrors, only show a part of the story. In some ways, mirrors are like photographs; it’s easy to mistake what we see in them as the truth. And like photographs, mirrors have been used to create false realities, to trick people into believing in ghosts and spirits. We act as though what we see in the mirror is complete — a self fully formed and rendered truly. But the mirror is only capable of showing what others see. Mirrors reinforce the idea that a person’s value lies on the outside of their body, that it’s possible to learn our value by examining (and altering) our appearance. Mirrors remind us of the significance of our looks, and even though it may feel good to collect likes and compliments on a selfie, it still reinforces a system in which some physical features are more valuable than others. I know this logically, yet I am not exempt from the desire to be granted a market price, to be visually appraised by relative strangers and found acceptable, attractive, worthy. I look at my face in a mirror and I don’t see myself — I see how others might see me, how others might know me, want me. Sometimes, I find myself substituting a camera for a mirror. I turn my iPhone toward my face and use its small screen to check my teeth before a meeting. In the screen, I am flattened and compressed, smaller than myself. I glean information from this image, but I can also get lost in it, or overwhelmed by it.

Stripped of magic and removed from scenes of worship, the image of the public-facing self is becoming even flatter and more compressed, and the space between the private person and the public image is narrowing. There’s something claustrophobic about this. Everything is visible, but nothing really matters. We know the mirror is a trick and a trap, but we also know it’s a tool to succeed in a system that is broken, a world that assigns value arbitrarily and penalizes those who can’t adequately perform or conform. Perhaps that’s the ugliest thing about mirrors. They reveal more about society than they do about individuals, and what they show isn’t always attractive.

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Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris ReviewThe Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
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