Perhaps I am not alone in feeling the uncertainty of the times mirrored in my body. Never before have I felt so detached from my physical form, so inattentive to its soft boundaries. The sensation is not unpleasant – much as on a warm, still afternoon, when the air feels continuous with one’s skin, and the distinction between atmosphere and self becomes momentarily unclear. These formless days, having settled in my pores, have dimmed the lines that once so clearly defined the body that is mine. That I retreat to the mind – in this time of ambiguous loss and shared apprehension, when the collective body has revealed itself so fallible – is unsurprising. But might not the body, our bodies, be the site to which we should return precisely at moments like as these? On those days when we feel most unfamiliar with our minds’ material housing? Such thoughts propose themselves to me, if only abstractedly, as I catch my reflection in the bathroom mirror, stepping from the shower. Here I am, I think, regarding my body as a stranger might – seeingly rather than feelingly.
“You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image,” Roland Barthes wrote. “You never see your eyes unless they are dulled by the gaze that rests upon the mirror or lens… for your own body, you are condemned to the repertoire of its images.” But seeing one’s own body – pictured, reflected, represented – is more perhaps psychically and somatically significant than Barthes allows. Eyes need not be dulled as they regard their reflection, but rather inflected by intent and intrigue. Much as the camera lends significance to its subject, might not the mirrored gaze give shape to what it sees?
The movement is slow and fluid; the performer never static, kept always in motion – if only just. Beginning at her eyes and moving down the body to the soles of her feet, she considers her naked reflection is a small, circular mirror. Joan Jonas’s Mirror Check, first performed in 1970, is a wonderfully simple gesture. Where her other mirror pieces unsettled the roles of performer and viewer by fragmenting and refracting space (and more often casting the voyeuristic gaze back on itself), Mirror Check all but excludes the audience from its silvered surface. The viewer cannot see what the performer sees in her mirror, only witness her as she witnesses herself. The mirror is transformed into an object of self-portraiture and self-knowledge, a tool for intimate understanding. “From the beginning,” Jonas recalls, “the mirror provided me with a metaphor for my reflective investigation.” That the work was made in the spirit of second-wave feminism and greatly influenced by the Women’s Movement, further augments its significance as performed reclamation. In each subsequent iteration, however, Mirror Piece finds a new resonance. Suggestible in its significance, the work cannot but reflect something of the time and place in which it is performed, much as it reflects the many differently-bodied women who perform it.
Mirrored forms recur in Kader Attia’s filmic essay Reflecting Memory (2016), which takes as metaphor the treatment of Phantom Limb Syndrome in his consideration of individual and collective pain. It weaves together interviews with amputees and academics, the latter discussing shared trauma and society’s seeming inability to address it; be its genesis slavery or war, colonialism or racial genocide. The interviews are punctuated by quiet scenes, each a held shot of an unmoving figure – a man in prayer, another in a café, a woman at a typewriter, a boy in a forest. These silent moments appear unextraordinary at first, though strange for their stillness. Only later does one recognise the presence of a mirror in each. The trick in the tableaux shifts into focus. None of the figures are whole without their reflections, each having suffered the loss of a limb. Yet by their mirrors they are restored, if only momentarily and only visually. Reflecting Memory asks whether the pain caused by events past can ever be redressed, whether its wounds be individual or communal, physical or psychological. It is a film about repairing what is broken, about compensating for what is lost. It is a reflection, Attia says, on “the complexity of memory, the working of memory, the duty of memory and its representation; about ‘repair’ as a form of ‘re-appropriation,’ but above all as a form of resistance.”
Phantom Limb Syndrome, to which Attia alludes with poetic effect, is a pathology that affects many amputees. It is the persistent, painful impression of an absent limb’s presence, as if the damaged arm or leg were still invisibly attached to the body. Mirrors prove the most effective therapy in reducing this pain, consoling the mind that the limb is unharmed. In reflecting the existing arm or leg into the absence left by the other, mirror therapy allows the missing limb to find a momentary expression. Seeing the illusionary limb move without pain effects a neurological re-wiring, the mind’s disordered signals settled by sight alone. Sight leads sensation. The amputee, seeing the limb reflected, is bodily reassured. The mirror, having restored the person visually, offers an embodied experience of wholeness that alleviates the pain.
If to see one’s body reflected wholly is of lasting psychological effect, to be seen wholly by another is similarly significant to the self. To be witnessed is to be accounted for; to be made visible is a claim to political and historical consequence. Consider Zanele Muholi’s Bona, Charlottesville, 2015 (2015) – the mise-en-abyme of image and reflected image. I both see myself and picture myself that I might be seen by you. Here, the agency of giving oneself to be seen is distilled into visual simile; the act of witnessing echoed within and beyond the photograph. To Muholi, documenting both themself and others is a restorative gesture, one of “marking, mapping and preserving” lives otherwise left unseen. Their many photographs address the absence in the image archive of black, queer South Africa, which is all but rendered invisible in national histories and imaginings.
“My practice as a visual activist,” Zanele Muholi writes, “looks at black resistance – at existence as well as insistence.” To be reflected in an image, they suggest, is to become apparent to the self and other. To be reflected in a mirror reflected in an image – to be twice pictured – further insists the point. (One is reminded of Santu Mofokeng’s historical project, The Black Photo Album (1997), and its single demand: “Look at me.”) In Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), the series of self-portraits to which Bona belongs, Muholi steps into frame to recount and reclaim a history of black bodies photographed. In this image alone, however, Muholi’s gaze returns to their body. The photograph is one of insistent selfhood; a gesture of historical restitution. Here I am.
Though we may feel exiled from our previous lives, we need not be exiled from our bodies. And perhaps mirrors, as Jonas, Attia and Muholi propose, offer a way back in. “To experience the true nature of the mirror,” artist Richard Hamilton wrote, “it is necessary to be aware not only of the reflection but of the thing reflected – the more intense the appreciation of this duality the stronger the experience, until we are aware of nothing more than ourselves.” In considering our own reflections, our unsettled minds might settle in the body. In this body, which, from its first splitting cell to now, has persisted, existed, as vessel. As these three works so eloquently express, bodies are not mere material fact but sites of resistance, repair and reclamation. By our reflection, we might reclaim our body and its images; in bearing witness to our own form, we might return to it more fully.