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Issue 44 January-February 1999 RSS

Mirror Image

National Gallery, London, UK

How bad can an art exhibition be? Pandering to an infantile type of populism, the comprehensively awful ‘Mirror Image’ transforms the exhibition experience into a spoon-fed leisure nightmare. With its overdone design, halogen spot-lighting and explanatory texts covering the walls, the exhibition feels like a tacky furniture expo at Wembley Arena. Free audio guides are used by almost everyone and lead them around the show like a dumb herd of cattle. A video featuring the show’s curator Jonathan Miller is on view in an adjoining room.

But weirdly, despite all the explanation and guidance, the exhibition doesn’t really seem to be about anything. Ostensibly it’s about mirrors and reflections in art, but in such a catch-all, unspecific way that as long as an art work contains a shiny surface (a mirror, a reflection in a canal or puddle, the gleam of a metal soup tureen) then it’s considered good enough to include. Even a view through a window is presented as being somehow like a mirror. This is a complacent, lazy trawl of art history, restricted to narrative painting as if any other kind of art, particularly contemporary art, simply didn’t exist. For instance, what of artists such as Lucas Samaras, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson or Gerhard Richter? Or even the hall of mirrors gun battle scene from Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1948)?

The selection of work has clearly been based on what was already in the National Gallery’s collection; a selection by ease of availability rather than curatorial choice, which results in too many shoddy second and third-rate works. Key historical paintings, such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) or Manet’s Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1881-82) are absent, represented instead by colour photographs mounted on foam board, which look terrible. Securing loans of important historical works can be problematic, but Miller’s solution is far from adequate. It’s difficult to believe that he has any real concern or investment in aesthetics. He may do wonderful adaptations of Rigoletto - I wouldn’t know - but really, anyone who could include a painting as nasty as John Bratby’s Three Self-Portraits with a White Wall (1957) should seriously question why they are working with art.

Miller’s analysis of the works on display is limited to a basic description with an occasional penetrating insight such as ‘The more shiny or polished the surface the more of a reflection it will reveal’. He manages to inflect his commentary with such earnest conviction that it could be mistaken for a piss-take. At one point he tries to put forward the smug, tricksy argument that Narcissus wasn’t really a narcissist since he didn’t know it was himself who he saw reflected in the pool. Therefore, Miller claims, ‘Narcissus wasn’t as clever as a chimpanzee’, as chimps can recognise their own reflections. But it’s a fatuous line of thought. Firstly, Narcissus couldn’t recognise his own image because he was under a spell, punishment from the gods for his narcissism. Secondly, though Miller quotes from Ovid’s version of the myth, he is disingenuous enough to ignore the subsequent passage in which Narcissus realises ‘Alas! I am myself the boy I see. I know it: my own reflection does not deceive me. I am on fire with love for my own self.’

It’s a frightening thought that Miller is cherished by the ‘high art’ establishment as some kind of genius polymath. Promoted as Renaissance man, in truth he is a more a staple of the low-aspirational, television-based cultural diet of Middle England. It is Miller’s conceit to believe there is no area of culture beyond his expertise. But when it comes to art, his vision lacks any useful insight or purpose.

Carl Freedman

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First published in
Issue 44, January-February 1999

by Carl Freedman

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