By Isabella George
The Passing Winter is a strange beast. Standing at around two metres in height, its scale should make it something of an imposing presence in a gallery space. But its four sides of glass mirror condemn the piece to a reflective, somewhat half present state. It only exists when it reflects the person that looks at it, that is, you.
Step towards the glassy monolith and you will notice a variety of holes punched into the smooth and glassy exterior. These polka dots are something of a signature for Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese artist behind the strange and playful piece. Once you look through these holes, you experience the true pleasure that is The Passing Winter. Gazing back at you, you will see a circular reproduction of your own face, surrounded by and floating in the infinite reflections of the four internal mirrored walls. Seeing one’s self floating in the never ending glassy abyss is a strange sensation. Like many of Kusama’s pieces, the first response seems to be surprised delight. The box that at first stood as a silent, reflective, futurist sentinel reveals that internally it is deceptively fun.
However, it is not the playful nature of Kusama’s work that brought us to this conversation, but the material it is made of: mirror. The mirror image appears in art works across the centuries, however it is only recently that the medium itself has been used as a physical material form rather than an illustrated prop. Kusama plays with what is really a provocative and game-changing concept. Art no longer provides a material interface to reflect upon, but reflects the viewer in itself. We as observers now become the very piece we have seen.
It is not just Kusama’s work that makes the viewer become the viewed. Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life exhibition was littered with a myriad of mirrored works, from a multifaceted walk through tunnel to an entire ceiling covered in one large mirror. Robert Moss’ four mirrored cubes reflect a cropped cube of the viewer’s ankles. It seems wherever there is modern art, there is mirrored art; or, wherever there is mirrored art, there you are too.
By including the observer in the artistic moment, artists smash the viewer/viewed boundary wholeheartedly. But breaking this divide can lead to uncomfortable questions. At what point do gallery visitors consent to being involved in the artwork? Is there one fixed perspective that constitutes the ‘right’ image of the piece? Does one have to engage with the whole piece, or just one’s own reflection? A final question occurs at the end of every gallery day. When the lights go off, when the visitors go home, when no one is looking at our great mirrored beast, does it exist as an art work at all? Or is it like a great mirrored tree falling in the woods, with no one to hear, or see, it at all?