Revealing Reflections

Once, during summer, Narcissus was getting thirsty after hunting, and the goddess Nemesis lured him to a pool where he leaned upon the water and saw himself in the bloom of youth. Narcissus did not realize it was merely his own reflection and fell deeply in love with it, as if it was somebody else. What is first and foremost a story from Greek mythology, the one from Narcissus, eventually became the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance or public perception.

In the course of history, individuals were always obsessed with their own appearance. Moreover, our time not only still cares about it, it also embraces the false promise of transparency and freedom through the digitalization of everyday life and the fetishistic use of devices such as smartphones—wich screens once turned off are not entirely black but reflective, and are even used to replace small pocket mirrors in our daily life. Thus, it is not hard to believe that this way of life led to a society with a strong narcissistic behavior, mirrored in the election of populistic leaders who are “prototypical narcissists”, the actual president of the US being the perfect example.Sander Thomaes | Donald Trump: textbook narcissist | textbook-narcissist A narcissist thrives in circumstances of obedience, admiration or even fear, and aspires to acquire authority by any means available to them. Although US president Donald Trump and an average US citizen might not have much in common, the reason for voting for him could be a slightly similar mindset to a narcissist: rather Me than We.

In literature and pop culture, observations suggest that narcissistic expressions within individualistic cultures have become more frequent. Some good examples are books featuring more self-centered language compared with earlier publications, more self-focused song lyrics and a stronger orientation towards fame in TV shows to an almost alarming increase in an endorsement of the statement “I am an important person” from 12% in 1963 to almost 80% today. Nowadays we are also experiencing the age of self-optimization, self-design and the quest for perfection. These are symptoms or side effects of a generally widespread narcissism. In 1914, Sigmund Freund published a paper exclusively devoted to narcissism, introducing the ego ideal as “the inner image of oneself as one wants to become”Salman Akhtar | Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis | Karnac Books | 2009 | 89, or as the image of the perfect self towards which the ego should aspire. Moreover, Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han adds and explains that this image is practically unreachable: “The selfish narcissist is sick of himself: Wherever he looks, he reflects only himself. He is denied any experience of the Other. [...] The Other is not a resistance, but a mirror surface.”Byung-Chul Han | Agonie des Eros | Matthes & Seitz | 2012 | 7 | Translated by the author.

When it comes to contemporary art, the mirror surface is without a doubt used by many artists since the introduction of glass, steel, plastic and other reflecting materials to the production of artworks. However, it is Jeff Koons, who managed to exploit it excessively. One of his works, the sculpture “Rabbit”, made of stainless steel, broke the record of the most expensive work sold by a living artist in an auction in mid-May 2019. The price paid for the sculpture is not only a sign of the absurdity of the art market, no. It also has to do with something more profound about the actual condition of our time. Media and critics were looking for reasons to understand its success, but it might be plain simple: In the era of narcissism and egocentrism, a megalomaniac reflecting artwork is of course in great demand. We like and enjoy seeing ourselves in fragmentary reflections of Koon’s sculptures—although it doesn’t create anything new. Whereas in art “[a] picture, whether it is a painting, drawing or photograph, serves as a window to another time and place”Mirjam Kooiman | Run, Forest, Run! | in Migrant Journal 6 | 2019 | 133; the mere reflection of something is nothing but now.

In an exhibition that took place in Mexico City at the beginning of 2019 called “Appearance Stripped Bare: Desire and the Object in the Work of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons”, even the show’s guest curator, Massimiliano Gioni, said that he was interested in how “two artists at the two opposite bookends of the 20th century, each with a leg in the previous or succeeding century, were looking at objects, commodities, and sex.” He, therefore, mentions Duchamp’s piece “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (The Large Glass), an artwork made from a freestanding glass panel. In notes outlining his underlying thought, the artist wrote of “shop windows hiding coitus behind the sheet of glass.” Visually, the pieces of Duchamp and Koons have little in common. However, what the two artists certainly have done is “to fully comprehend the synchronized and parallel dynamics between art and society, and more importantly, to operate with them.”Dorothea von Hantelmann | Appearance Stripped Bare | Museo Jumex | 2019 | 32

Duchamp was one of the first artists to get to the heart to what was happening in a society whose conception of identity, sense-making and well-being oriented itself towards the production and consumption of objects: ready-mades have been his solution. However, Koons appropriates this into a new, hypervisual era, that is not necessarily dominated by the consumption of products, but by us. In a conceptual evolution of Duchamp’s shop windows, Koons’ mirrored stainless-steel structures are reflecting us. The ready-made, thus, is now the public.

Jeff Koons is certainly not the only artist producing works with reflective materials like steel—Anish Kapoor uses them as well for his large- scale sculptures and monumental site-specific works. A great example is “Cloud Gate”, a public sculpture placed at Millennium Park in Chicago. The piece is highly popular among tourists because of its captive power of attraction, serving as a photo-taking opportunity for its unique reflective properties. Nicknamed “The Bean”, it is made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together—and thanks to the excessive polishing, which took almost two years, there are no visible seams on the surface.

Although the connection between the increased use of reflective materials like stainless steel in the production of public art across the world, and a society that loves to see itself projected and reflected is evident, Anish Kapoor’s motivation to do giant, public art seems to be different: “I am thinking about the mythical wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Tower of Babel. It is as if the collective comes up with something that has resonance on an individual level and so becomes mythic.”Chad Stuemke | Anish Kapoor Opens the Door: Modern Artist Creates Monuments that Transcend Space & Time | 2011 | However, there is a crucial difference: In Kapoor’s works there is no space for the collective—it is a piece made by an individual for the individual experience. It is a sculpture for the single spectator: shiny and smooth.

“The smooth is the signature of the present time”, concludes Byung-Chul Han in his essay Saving Beauty. It is the kind of smoothness that “connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones and Brazilian waxing”.Byung-Chul Han | Saving Beauty | Polity Books | 2017 | 1 That is only half of the truth though: The iPhone reflects mirror-like, but Koon’s and Kapoor’s sculptures and their concave or convex shapes distort their surroundings; they betray the viewer. Thinking there is something to discover, something to admire and to fall in love with, we are in the end only seeing ourselves—as Narcissus did in the water. Thus, we start fetishizing this distorted version of us as if it were somebody else—trying to find the Other is nothing but a Fata Morgana. Han, therefore, constitutes a society that is tired of self-optimization and self-exploitation, unable to open up for anything different—we are too busy with ourselves.

Describing how the beauty of the body is fetishized, Baudrillard points out that “[i]t is the sign in this beauty, the mark (makeup, symmetry, or calculated asymmetry, etc.) which fascinates; it is the artefact that is the object of desire.”Jean Baudrillard | For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign | Telos Press | 1981

What Koons and Kapoor have managed to create years ago by marking the spectator to create an object with significant value, an object of desire—nowadays we are able to do it on our own. Using face filters on applications such as Instagram, Snapchat or FaceApp, we create not only distorted versions of ourselves, but we are enhancing and altering our appearance beyond recognition, of which the latter is only possible thanks to artificial intelligence. What first was only a reflecting screen is now a tool to create an illusory Other right there, in our hands. We choose which filter to add to a selfie—striving for the perfect lens through which we let people see ourselves. Self-optimization is limitless now. The field of digital marks is endless, allowing us to create a new Me over and over again.

However, it is a dangerous extension: Fast-evolving technology comes close to reality, still a face filter won’t be real—visible for everybody, also without a smartphone and not only in the virtual space—at least not in the near future. Nevertheless, by using them, playing with them and get- ting used to them, we set standards the real is not able to achieve. In this sense, it is an extension of what Byung-Chul Han describes as “a burnout society in which one is exhausted from oneself without being able to free oneself towards the Other [...] a society without Eros”Byung-Chul Han | The Burnout Society | Stanford Briefs | 2015 | 57, without love. Eventually, it might be a society in which the real one is exhausted from its virtual counterpart. Is the fetishism of the self the climax of a narcissistic, digital society, where the fetishism of commodities as objects is passé as they have lost their significant value to create an object of desire? One thing is certain: “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”Friedrich Nietzsche | Beyond Good and Evil | Aphorism | 146


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