Yumiko Yamazaki, Sky Project, 2003. Twelve polished copper discs, each approximately 20 in. diameter. View of installation in park Sakai City, Osaka, Japan.

Expanding Space/Engaging Viewers: Mirrors and Reflective Materials in Contemporary Sculpture

Contemporary sculptors are using mirrors and reflective materials in exciting new ways to expand space and engage viewers. The mirror theme also seems to be popular with curators, and reflective surfaces are popping up in many group shows, including the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Several museums and galleries have had recent exhibitions featuring artists using mirrors and reflective materials for sculpture and installation works.

In October 2002, the MASS MoCA exhibition “Mirror, Mirror” focused on the psychological implications and perceptual phenomena associated with mirrors. The exhibition, curated by Jane Simon, featured works by 10 artists including Olafur Eliasson, Jeff Koons, Maureen Connor, and Alyson Shotz among others.1

Shotz’s sculptures using mirrors were also featured in her recent one-person exhibition, “A Slight Magnification of Altered Things,” at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.2 A highlight of the show was the large-scale outdoor installation Mirror Fence. This knee-high picket fence covered entirely with mirrors was installed along the edge of a campus green near the gallery. The many pieces of the fence, reflecting the changing landscape of Skidmore and the moving feet of the passing students, glistened in the sun and provided a fascinating perceptual adventure.

Olafur Eliasson, one of the artists included in “Mirror, Mirror,” has repeatedly used mirrors along with other materials that explore the act of perception. In 2002, while the Museum of Modern Art was renovating its Manhattan sculpture garden area, he created Seeing yourself sensing, a striped mirror and clear glass wall that gave viewers a fractured view of the garden and themselves as they rode the escalators or peered through to see the construction work. Eliasson was also one of the artists included in “Air” (2003) at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea.3 Eliasson’s work in this show, Waterfall Mobile, was a multi-media suspended installation that juxtaposed a multi-faceted star-like form made of mirrors with lumps of lava and a photo-collage ball showing different waterfalls. Eliasson also created a site-specific installation using mirrors in 2000 at Tonya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.4 For your now is my surroundings, he placed mirrors around the gallery’s skylight, which he opened to the elements. Viewers received an intense, but controlled perceptual experience, seeing themselves reflected, the grid of the skylight frame multiplied, and other perceptual marvels that brought the outside into the gallery. Eliasson’s one-person exhibition at the ICA Boston in 2001 also featured works using mirrors.5

Like Eliasson, New York artist Susan Leopold uses mirrors to reorganize our perceptions. For her 2002 exhibition at MASS MoCA, titled “Susan Leopold: Mixed-Up Worlds,” she combined mirrors, photographs, and angled walls in diorama-like constructions that broke apart and reconstructed everyday images, creating maze-like optical illusions.6 For her sculptural diorama Up the Down Stair, Leopold photographed a series of public schools with a variety of architectural features and different staircases. The work included a video of children’s feet running up the “down” staircase, with the mirrors and angled walls fracturing space, extending it, and multiplying the viewer’s perceptions.

The University of Massachusetts, University Gallery at Amherst also hosted an exhibition with a mirror theme in fall 2003. “Mirror Tenses: Conflating Time and Presence,” which featured eight contemporary artists, included works by Louise Bourgeois and Michelangelo Pistoletto, both well known for their works incorporating mirrors. Bourgeois has used mirrors in several of her works over the years, most notably for her site-specific “Unilever Series” installation (2000) at Tate Modern, London. The installation in Turbine Hall consisted of three towers with spiral staircases and huge round mirrors that encouraged viewers to contemplate their own reflections as well as the architecture of the immense space.

Bourgeois has also used mirror-like reflective materials in figurative sculptures such as The Couple, 2002, which was included in “upon reflection” (2003) at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.7 This exhibition focused on artists using reflective materials or employing references to the act of reflection and included works by 15 artists in addition to Bourgeois, among them Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons, Pia Stadtbaumer, Douglas Gordon, and Ann Hamilton.

Figurative elements and a concern with female self-image link Sarah Haviland’s sculptures using mirrors to those of Bourgeois. In Haviland’s Quickening (1997), the body of a stylized, self-absorbed female figure made from wire mesh wraps around a mirror that reflects the viewer’s gaze. Haviland’s recently installed Copper Beech: People’s Trust, at the Arts Exchange, White Plains, New York, also incorporates a mirror to involve viewers in the contemplation of their own reflections. This work features a tree-like form of copper mesh commemorating a local historical beech tree saved from destruction during urban renewal. A recessed mirrored floor expands the space and allows one to see up into the heart of the tree. The square-shaped mirror “pool” echoes the structure of the ceiling in the People’s Trust bank building, erected in 1929 and now revitalized as a site for the arts.8

Several of these mirror shows, among them “upon reflection” at Sean Kelly Gallery, have included works by Robert Smithson, one of the most influential artists to make use of mirrors. In his series of “Slideworks” created in the late 1960s, Smithson used mirrors to displace and fracture the landscape, installing one or more rectangular mirrors at various sites around the world, which he photographed and then removed.9 These photographs—composed to show the fractured, reflected landscape, usually a barren and remote spot—are the artwork: there was no audience at the installation sites except Smithson himself, and nothing is reflected except the landscape and the sky. These works form part of Smithson’s exploration of entropy and time and of site and non-site.

Yumiko Yamazaki’s “Sky Project” series is closely connected to the “Slideworks,” although the Japanese artist says that she is not familiar with this aspect of Smithson’s work. Yamazaki places highly polished reflective copper disks in a randomly spaced line on the ground, leaving them outdoors to gradually oxidize and reflect images of the sky and passersby. Yamazaki, unlike Smithson, is interested in viewer interaction with her work and how it changes over time and calls attention to the land and sky. But she shares Smithson’s interest in the site and how mirror-like materials fracture, multiply, and reflect their surroundings. She recently installed “Sky Project” pieces in Sakai City, Japan, as well as in Sumter, South Carolina, for the public art exhibition “Accessibility 2003.”10 Yamazaki gathers the disks after their public exhibition and makes prints on paper from the oxidized surfaces, further emphasizing the element of time.

Another Japanese artist, Kaoru Motomiya, also uses mirrors in some of her site-specific installations to explore the element of time and to engage viewers with their own changing images. During her participation in the ISCP international residency program in New York (2001–02), she created leak, an installation that focused on arresting a moment in time (the water leaking from her studio skylight). Motomiya captured the droplets in mid-air with her use of small transparent resin capsules hanging on clear monofilament lines. The suspended capsules were filled vials of an anti-aging lotion, and on the floor were broken mirror bits and clear glass that reflected the capsules and the viewer’s face. This work commented on the aging process experienced by buildings as well as humans.

Like Yamazaki and Smithson, New York artist Suzi Sureck places her mirrors in the landscape, but her outdoor sculptures are located underwater. Sureck’s Many Moons for Bass (2000), at Art Omi in New York, consisted of submerged mirrored disks that reflected the changing sky, along with humans and any other creatures that happened to swim by. The reflected images were further refracted by the water above them, in itself a type of mirror. Sureck has also made sculpture installations for indoor settings that use light with mirrors, including Spin(e) (2001), a suspended cascade of mirrored disks installed at Robert Pardo Gallery, New York.

Sureck’s use of mirrors and light recalls the work of Yayoi Kusama, who has for many years used mirrors and lights in her “mirror rooms.” For her 2003 exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery in New York, Kusama created Fireflies on the Water, with hundreds of lights magnified and reflected to infinity. Seemingly a reprise of her earlier mirror rooms from the 1960s, this work still provided a magical experience.11 Stairway to Heaven, a newer-looking work in the exhibition, used fiber optics with mirrors to create a strong repetitive image with an interesting conceptual bent. Kusama seems primarily interested in mirrors for their ability to create an infinite space and multiply her obsessive imagery. This repetition ad infinitum can be seen in her paintings and works on paper, as well as in her installations. One notable example is her outdoor installation of mirrored balls, Narcissus Garden, from the 1966 Venice Biennale. With her new work, Kusama may be generating even more interest among contemporary artists in mirror-like materials.

Gerhard Richter, featured in a retrospective at MoMA, New York, in 2002, has explored the tradition of painting throughout his career, and he has used mirrors as part of this investigation. For a 2003 installation at Dia Chelsea’s lobby space (designed by Jorge Pardo), Richter’s stainless steel mirror ball Kugel—Sphere (1992) was placed on the multi-hued tile floor to reflect the surroundings. Another two-part mirror piece (Spiegel I—Mirror I and Spiegel II—Mirror II) hung on the walls further altering viewers’ perceptions of the exhibition space and themselves.

Dan Graham is also known for his viewer-engaging works using mirrors. His Rooftop Urban Park Project (1997), a site-specific rooftop installation at Dia Chelsea, provides viewers with an opportunity to stroll through a maze-like environment and contemplate their own and other’s reflections captured and multiplied in mysterious ways by his use of one-way mirrored glass. Another Graham work, Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth (1994), for the Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, also uses one-way mirrors to create an interactive environment.

An installation by Brooklyn artist Peter Scott in his one-person exhibition at Schroeder-Romero Gallery, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (2003), used one-way mirrored glass in a new and intriguing way. Scott’s installation featured framed rectangular mirrors hanging on three adjoining walls, creating a comfortable home-like environment. At first glance, these appeared to be normal mirrors, but, on closer inspection, one could see ghostly figures through the glass, which also reflected the viewer’s own image. Scott’s carefully crafted realistic paintings, placed behind the mirrors, portrayed strange and somewhat scary images of violent crime scenes. The installation made you feel as though there was someone, maybe not so safe and friendly, watching you watching yourself.

Photo credit: Virgil Marti The Flowers of Romance, 2003 (installation view) Mylar and mixed media Courtesy of the artist Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania Photo by John McInerney

Scott’s work, like the mirror paintings of Michelangelo Pistoletto, an Arte Povera artist, explores the three-dimensional within the two-dimensional aspect of mirrors. Pistoletto has used mirrors in his work since the early ’70s to examine the uneasy shift between reality and representation. During the early and mid-’70s, he produced many figurative paintings on mirrors and fragmented mirrors.13

Mirrors have long been used in folk art, outsider art, and craft. Decorative works composed of myriad found objects and bits of broken mirrors and reflective glass are common in outsider art, as well as in the ethnic arts and crafts of India, Mexico, and other cultures. Mirrors and mirror-like materials are also used in a variety of ways by interior decorators to expand the space and create visual interest. Fine artists also enjoy working with the decorative aspects of mirrors and mirror-like materials. For instance, Andy Warhol used reflective Mylar to make his installation Silver Clouds, stuffed pillows filed with helium and hung in space.14

An installation at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art by Virgil Marti recalls Warhol’s work in the interior decorating mode. Marti’s stairway ramp project, The Flowers of Romance (2003), consisted of cascading sheets of free-hanging reflective silver Mylar imprinted with spider web imagery. The installation created bizarre, twisted reflections lit by Marti’s strange resin chandeliers cast from deer antlers and hung from macramé cords. Marti, like Warhol, inserts “high décor into fine art contexts. His transformation of the ICA ramp into a grand, psychedelic hall of mirrors…mimics the imposing hallways of stately European homes. Rather than instilling reverence and respect, The Flowers of Romance, evokes laughter, a creeping crawling sense of faded beauty and funhouse antics.”15

Lucas Samaras has had a long history of using mirrors in his crafty, obsessively decorated box pieces (begun in the early ’70s), as well as his mirror rooms. His exhibition “Unrepentant Ego: the Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art last winter, included several of his signature boxes encrusted with a variety of materials, including mirrors, and one of his mirror rooms. Viewers could enter this corner structure, which is completely covered with mirrors, and contemplate their various reflections. Samaras’s mirrored rooms are very similar to Kusama’s, which were created several years before his. Like Kusama, Samaras creates an environment in which mirrors reflect other mirrors to the point of infinity. It becomes a kind of fun-house experience, disorienting for the viewer and recalling the hallucinogenic drug culture of the time.

Many sculptors enjoy using a shiny, highly polished, reflective surface and are entranced with the ability to reflect. They also are interested in how mirrored surfaces play with perception, multiplying and fracturing the image. Mirrors also allow artists to actively engage viewers—this fact might, in part, account for their current popularity among artists. When viewers can see themselves reflected in a work, the art immediately becomes of greater interest and provides a Narcissus-like fascination. We all like to look at our own image and become caught up in how we can change the artwork by moving ourselves. As people interact with mirror works, a temporal element is also introduced. With the use of mirrors, other people and the surroundings become part of the artwork. Mirrors also expand the space visually, and sculptors naturally are interested in this phenomenon since sculpture is above all about creating space.

1 “Mirror, Mirror” was on view at MASS MoCA, October 2002–January 2003. See the Web site <www.massmoca.org/visual_arts/past_exhibitions/visual_arts_past_2002.shtml>. A brochure is also available.
2 “A Slight Magnification of Altered Things” was on view at Skidmore’s Tang Museum, <www.skidmore.edu/tang>, through December 31, 2003.
3 The Web site <www.jamescohan.com/past> gives more information about the “Air” exhibition.
4 For more information about Eliasson’s installation, visit the Web site <www.tanyabonakdargallery.com/exhibit.shtml>.
5 For more about Eliasson’s work, see the author’s article in Sculpture October 2001: pp. 29–33.
6 For more information about Leopold’s Kidspace exhibition, visit the Web site <www.massmoca.org/kidspace>.
7 For more information about “upon reflection” visit the Web site <www.skny.com/lasso-bin/exhibition.lasso?-token.ExID=10070>.
8 For more information and photos of Haviland’s work, visit the Web site <www.thestudiony-alternative.com/portfolios/haviland.shtml>.
9 For photos and more information, see Guglielmo Gargellese-Severi, editor, Robert Smithson: Slideworks (Milan: Carlo Frua, 1997).
10 Visit <www.sumteraccessibility.org> and <www6.plala.or.jp/yumiko_y/a_prject/ae_fram.shtml> for more information about Yamazaki’s “Sky Project.”
11 Kusama’s first mirror room, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, was shown at her one-person exhibition “Floor Show” (1965), at Castellane Gallery, New York. See Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958–1968 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998). Kusama discusses many of her mirror installations in an interview available at <www.indexmagazine.com/interviews/yayoi_kusama.shtml>.
12 For more information about Richter’s “Refraction” installation, see <www.diacenter.org/exhibs/richterpardo>.
13 The Web site <www.walkerart.org/generalinfo/press2001/press068.shtml> gives more information about Arte Povera and the traveling exhibition “From Zero to Infinity,” organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. For more information about Pistoletto’s work with mirrors, see <www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_md_128_1.shtml>, which shows his Broken Mirror, 1978. More photographs of works from his 2000 exhibition at Max Protetch Gallery, New York, are available at <www.artseensoho.com/Art/PROTETCH/pistoletto99/p1.shtml>.
14 For more information and photographs of Warhol’s Silver Clouds, first shown in 1966 at Leo Castelli Gallery, see <www.ntticc.or.jp/Calendar/2003/EAT/Works/silver.shtml>.
15 ICA press release. For more information about the Marti installation, see <www.icaphila.org/exhibitions/past/marti.php>.