You’ll see them at any art fair. Well-heeled women adjusting their lipstick in the surface of a Jeff Koons mirror flower or the shiny, mirrored tiles of a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin. Though this functional use of art may raise a smile, it is also an indication of the growing presence of mirrored surfaces in contemporary art. But it’s right that we should stare, for the potency of mirrored works is that they make us confront (literally) the act of looking – both at ourselves and the world around us.
The mirrored surface as a provocative metaphor for our narcissistic age of surface sheen, the gloss of the big screen and selfies (each presenting a reflection in its own way) is a conceit that many younger artists are embracing with zest. Eddie Peake filled his sellout White Cube show with polished-stainless-steel mirror works (from £20,000) sprayed with vibrant scrawled phrases such as “Don’t think UR 2 nice” or “Crushingly hopeless”. Royal Academy graduate Hannah Perry gained serious attention for a final show filled with screenprinted mirror works and mirror sound pieces (from £6,000) that vibrated to the sound of her own electronica. Meanwhile, Swiss Art Award winner Raphael Hefti launched the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh in Arles this year with an entire roof installation of iridescent shards of coloured reflective glass (echoed in his smaller, domestic-sized Subtraction as Addition series, from £16,000) – a work that intentionally misuses complex industrial techniques to create alchemical interpretations of light, colour and reflection. “Appearances can be deceptive,” says Hefti, gnomically.
Mirrored pieces are an interesting addition to a domestic setting, where they can frame a whole collection of artworks within their single surface. The viewer also has to interact with their own reflection and the inanimate becomes something ever-changing and alive. “Many collectors are becoming more comfortable buying works that demand active engagement,” says Ralph Taylor, head of contemporary art at Bonhams, which sold an untitled Anish Kapoor mirror work, similar to his famous Sky Mirror, for £626,500 in July.
George Economou, founder of Cardiff Marine Group and a notable contemporary-art collector, commissioned Rashid Johnson’s mirror work (from $110,000) for the centrepiece of his Athens foundation, The George Economou Collection, this summer. Good King is Johnson’s largest mirror piece to date. More than 4sq m, the wall piece is made of geometric mirror tiles, mirrored plant pots, lumps of yellow shea butter, George Benson record covers, splashes of black soap and wax. The mirrors add a fractured element to a self-reflective narrative that addresses Afro-American identity and Johnson’s politicised upbringing. This is the second of his mirror pieces that Economou has purchased, after acquiring The End of Anger, which was exhibited at Johnson’s South London Gallery solo show in 2012. It has a notable position in the Greek businessman’s collection. “I chose to hang The End of Anger at home both to enjoy and be challenged by the work, particularly alongside my Ellsworth Kelly and Georg Baselitz paintings. The tension with and relief from an established generation informs this younger approach to art making.”
While the current generation of young artists is embracing the medium with alacrity, it was actually conceptual artist Michelangelo Pistoletto who pioneered the use of mirrors in the 1960s, alongside Gordon Matta-Clark, Joan Jonas and Robert Smithson. His ongoing series of mirror paintings (from €225,000) was initially inspired by the golden background of Byzantine icons, “which stood for the unknown, as well as a mysterious transcendent state”, and his own search for identity through self-portraiture. As he focused on the surface surrounding the figure, he began using mirrors to replace the gold. “In this way I was able to identify myself as an individual, but as part of the multitude of people and things,” he says. He transformed the self-portrait of the artist into a self-portrait of the world.
Pistoletto developed a technique to fix photographic images to the mirror. His imagery is often mundane – from construction materials or a desktop computer to everyday figures – yet the mirror gives them life. “The mirror changes constantly and the concept of time enters the work – past, present and future,” he explains; the mirror was once a portrait of the past, is currently one of the present and will be one of the future. “Take the photo of a girl, printed on a mirror painting, with her arms raised while she photographs the audience using a mobile phone [mirror paintings from €225,000]. This work was exhibited at the Louvre and was constantly being photographed by visitors, repeating the action of the person I portrayed.”
Gallerist Simon Lee, who has worked in close collaboration with Pistoletto and his foundation since 2007, has an exhibition with the artist in his Hong Kong space in March 2015 to coincide with Art Basel HK. “Pistoletto’s works have an enormously wide appeal – from new museums in Asia to established European collectors,” Lee asserts. “His themes are current, often political and always socially engaged.” Pistoletto’s 1970 mirror painting, Uomo con gli Stivali al Telefono, sold for £614,500 at Phillips in February.
Josephine Meckseper has picked up this politicised, reflective baton and run with it. She uses mirrored elements in her work – from chromed car wheels and sunglasses to shop-like vitrines lined with mirrors that echo window displays – to make economic and political issues (particularly those with an anti-capitalist theme) not only more visible, but something the viewer cannot help but be a part of. “In a world that is saturated with images, the mirror is a tool that creates an image of our surroundings without being a representation or reproduction. It becomes a metaphor for reflection,” she says.
The artist is currently showing a large-scale Plexi-mirror installation, American Mall, at the Seattle Art Museum, a 3m x 7m structure featuring objects on top and in front of mirrored surfaces that’s a comment on capitalist society – how the shopping mall has become the ultimate American landscape and the political implications of global consumer culture. “It is the modern epicentre of artificial leisure and activity – church and museum at once,” she says. “Everything is on display: commodities, entertainment, military recruiting and exploitation of the workforce.”
But what is perhaps most powerful about Meckseper’s pieces is how they draw in the viewer. Her exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York at the start of the year included large abstract “paintings” with geometric, Mondrian-style black lines intersecting across a mirrored background (such as Fenster (Spartakusbund), £65,000), which reflected the objects in the gallery. “They are on the scale of something that is enterable,” Rosen emphasises. Thus, “you become one of the assemblages of objects within her work. They are about the line between desire for and fetishisation of objects, but also our obsession with aesthetics.” In Meckseper’s pieces we become what is desired.
The way mirrors invite, even force, the viewer to physically interact with a piece (by being reflected within it) is something also played upon in works (from €50,000) by Danish artist Jeppe Hein. He has been working with mirrors for a decade – including intimate wall pieces, vibrating cubes and large outdoor sculptures (one of his biggest to date is 360º Illusion III, a 2m x 7.35m x 4m piece, €150,000, which pre-launched Johann König’s church-turned-gallery space, St Agnes, in Berlin). “A lot of my work is a tool for communication and dialogue between people,” Hein explains. “I like that you’re confronted with yourself. You as a visitor, as an audience, actually become the object you’re observing.” His sculptures often use mirrors to prompt self-reflective thought, printing phrases that compel viewers to question their lives, such as “You are right here right now”, “You can only change yourself” and “It’s not you it’s me” (Are You Really Here, mirrored works from €50,000). “Art is kind of a self-therapy,” says Hein, who has upcoming exhibitions in Copenhagen and New York.
The mirror as a tool for psychological probing is similarly central to Chilean artist Iván Navarro’s mirrored box sculptures (from $40,000). He fills these containers with words that repeat into infinity. “I am interested in how a symbol, such as a simple word, can morph into abstraction through the use of repetition,” says Navarro. “When we see a word, we immediately think of its connotations rather than its visual or auditory form. However, if you repeat a word enough, you are forced to realise that it is just a symbol with no significance.” Navarro’s words are often haunting – “die”, “echo”, “order” – their eeriness emphasised by repetition. “Depth represents endless possibilities, but also extreme uncertainty,” he says.
The mirror’s ability to create the illusion of everlasting depth is also embraced by Korean artist Lee Bul (prices on request), whose first UK show opened at Ikon in Birmingham in September. A key piece was mirrored labyrinth Via Negativa II, a version of which was first exhibited at Lehmann Maupin in New York in May. At the heart of this mirror maze is a chamber filled with LEDs that creates the illusion of depth and is both dazzling and disconcerting.
This device echoes the Infinity Mirrored Rooms (from $500,000) of Yayoi Kusama. These dark spaces, filled with infinite spots of coloured light, feel like the cosmos has been recreated indoors, and touch on ideas of flatness and depth, the transient and the everlasting. The works have been shown in major retrospectives at the Tate Modern in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Whitney Museum in New York and have largely been bought by institutions. Elsewhere, mirrors are used in Kusama’s series of mosaic pumpkins ($650,000; Starry Pumpkin Silver) – which serve as a motif to explore her experience of growing up in postwar Japan and the idea of overabundance. The concept of a mirror as a tool for self-reflection is key, and one that then becomes part of the collector’s story.
Harry David, non-executive chairman of Frigoglass and a board member of AG Leventis Group (Nigeria), who is both a private art collector and on the Tate’s Africa Acquisitions Committee, was drawn to Adam Pendleton’s System of Display series (from $15,000) – box-framed mirror pieces printed with a wide range of images from domestic interiors to film stills. David acquired a piece and liked how it transformed his own space. ”It essentially reflects fragments of the interior of my home, my collection, family members, furniture, light, anything that goes past it. It is an ever-changing composition.”
Jacques Lacan famously proposed in his mirror-stage theory that we create our own identity through our reflection. Yet, while magical and illuminating, mirrors can be dangerously compelling. Like Narcissus, stare too long at the reflection and you might lose yourself… Or maybe that’s the point in these artworks?