Before even getting inside the space at Duve, I stumble upon a subtle reference to the topic of the exhibition in the gallery’s stairway: a cigarette lying on the floor, half-smoked. In the context of ‘Mirrors’ this cigarette butt could easily pass for an unwitting readymade, because the exhibition – curated by Elise Lammer – is (as its concise press release states) ‘a show about smoking’.
On entering the gallery, it looks initially like smoking is being revered. Marlene Stark’s installation, Double Happiness (2016), a day bed made of wood and cork, sits in the centre of the room, appealing unambiguously for you to put your feet up and enjoy the exhibition – maybe in a state of meditative detachedness akin to that bestowed on smokers by an after-work cigarette. The video work For I am Divided for Love’s Sake, for the Chance of Union (2016), by the duo Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, also doesn’t find any fault with smoking. It shows five friends sitting in a hippie van sharing a cigarette, each trying to keep its ash intact for as long as possible. And so a grey column grows with each drag, shaking and tottering with every movement, and threatening to collapse. This is smoking as a social ritual, where people not only share a cigarette but also understand a collective mission.
The objective gaze of Grüter and Graf’s video is swapped for something very different when you arrive at Adrian Piper’s photographic work, Ashes to Ashes (1995). Piper documents years of her mother’s life as she suffers from emphysema. Robert Powell’s pencil drawings, SL ASH_TRAYyy.stl (2016), also express more aversion than sympathy. A malicious-looking wide-eyed skull is placed on top of a limbless female torso, which the artist has stood in an ashtray.
As you move around ‘Mirrors’, the symbolism of the cigarette is decoded in different ways. While the reasoning behind most of the works’ can be deduced at first glance, when you look at others, you actively have to seek out a connection with the theme of the exhibition. For example, in Louise Gaglierdi’s painting, Johanne (2016), the cigarette in the hand of an African-American woman behind bars seems to be more motivic than an accessory to the content. Adrian Buschmann’s piece in pastels, Ich hab aufgeräumt, Morgen kommt meine Russische Putzfrau (I’ve tidied up, tomorrow my Russian cleaning lady will come, 2011), also doesn’t appear to express the idea of a cigarette’s emancipatory potential (something described in the show’s press release). In this picture, all you see is a cigarette smoking away on its own. However, the show’s divergent perspectives mean that the viewer is constantly swaying back and forth between bias and amusement. Some of the works are humorous and intrinsically ironic; others – Piper’s dramatic photographs, for example – encourage the viewer to look away.
It’s this perfect degree of ambivalence that, ultimately, makes ‘Mirrors’ a success. In a sense, the exhibition tells different stories about smoking, in which many societal contradictions have taken root, in all of their absurdity: wealth and poverty, pleasure and ruin, life and death all go hand in hand. The fact that the cigarette serves as a thematic starting point is only logical here. There’s hardly a more public paradox today than a rational person lighting up their next cigarette despite knowing the health risks smoking brings with it. We know better, but we still do it – a principle that you don’t only see operating in the life of individuals, but which can also be observed daily on a social-political level. Hence ‘it’s a show about smoking’ is only a half-truth.
Translated by Michael Ladner