Captivated By The Curved Mirrors

Words by
Shai Baitel

26th April 2022

Reflections on Alessandro Michele's Exquisite Gucci by Shai Baitel, Artistic Director of Modern Art Museum, Shanghai.

Presented by Modern Art Museum, Shanghai

It is human nature to want to see your reflection in a mirror. It is impossible to fully know yourself without seeing your physical appearance to the world. Mirrors have thus accompanied humanity through all of its history, evolving from slabs of polished stone and metal to forward-facing cameras in smartphones. This urge to see oneself transcends culture and society, and mirrors have taken on enormous symbolic and philosophical meaning over time.

The relationship between humanity and mirrors is contentious. It is rarely a simple encounter. To confront yourself and to come to terms with your physical appearance can be a destabilising experience. For a rare few it can be transcendent. A reflection can still be a burden for the beautiful. This is the cruel, pragmatic reality of beauty and human nature. Mirrors open a new dimension of perception by blurring interiority and exteriority, and forever change a person's interrelationship with the world.

The thematic power of mirrors played a powerful role during the recent Exquisite Gucci fashion show in Milan. Indeed, the collection itself was a fantastic example of why Gucci is at the vanguard of contemporary fashion. The broad range of references and influences seen on the runway was a memorable display of Gucci's Creative Director Alessandro Michele's uncanny ability to take disparate, seemingly unrelated elements and shape them into a compelling, collective whole. The show's reference to the Surrealist party game Exquisite Corpse, where a beautiful verse was created from a compilation of words and phrases, has much to do with Michele's creative approach for Gucci. In Michele's recent presentation, mirrors were both a framing mechanism and transcendent device to express his eclectic and deft creative vision.

Every day we both form and construct ourselves in front of the mirror. However, mirrors are at once ephemeral and outgoing spaces - they are immaterial worlds that cease to exist once one looks and walks away. One cannot live in front of a mirror, but we recall its reflective ability with us as we go about our daily existence.

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Alice walks through a mirror into an alternative world where everything is reversed, including reason and logic. Michele's innovative vision for Gucci, demonstrated on the recent runway, is itself a window into a mirror world of radical fantasy. In Michele's world, mirrors reflect the most otherworldly, exquisite aspects of ourselves. They take our faces and bodies and distort them, emphasising the wide spectrum of human beings and varying identities. Further still, the use of mirrors on the Gucci runway reflects a greater blurring of past delineations between fashion and fine art, and their relationship to perspective and identity.

Diego Velazquez's 1656 painting Las Meninas

In Western art history, particularly in the history of painting, mirrors have been utilised to raise questions about reality, illusion, and representation. If painting a person or an object was an attempt to capture its very essence, the inclusion of a mirror in a composition added another layer of dimensionality. The validity and nature of painted, mirrored reflections called into question exactly what essence the work is attempting to capture.

Diego Velazquez's 1656 painting, Las Meninas, of members of the Spanish court of Philip IV of Spain utilises a mirror to create a highly enigmatic composition that creates an unstable relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted, other painters both amplified and distorted reality by using mirrors to depict themselves, somewhat surreptitiously, in a composition. In Jan Van Eyck's 1434 Arnolini Portrait, the tiny figure of the painter working on the canvas is reflected in a wall-mounted mirror.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

This composition was copied by painter Sir William Orpen in his 1900 work The Mirror, where a circular mirror reflects the artist painting at his easel. In all of these works, mirrors destabilise the nature of each composition by interrupting the conventional depiction of a scene on the other side of the canvas. Instead they disrupt the position of the audience, bringing into question where we stand in relation to the elements the artist presents to us. Similarly, Michele's intervention into the framing of his runway show disrupts how we direct our attention and understanding of the collection as well as our position in relation to it

More recently, mirrors have provided a point of incursion for some artists to reconsider their own role in the creation of artwork. Michelangelo Pistoletto's seminal twentieth-century 'mirror paintings' challenge the nature of a static artwork in that they require the presence of a viewer to 'activate' each work by seeing him- or herself reflected in the composition, blurring lines between spectator and object. Jeff Koons has made mirrors a distinctive feature of much of his practice. Many of his sculptural works feature reflective, chromatic surfaces. His Gazing Ball works in particular are concerned with the historical and metaphysical powers of mirrors. Each work features a blue reflective ball placed on a shelf in front of reproductions of a canonical piece of Western painting, ranging from works by El Greco to Manet. This gesture connects viewers to a wide range of visual representation over time, heightening their sensory perception.

Mirrors have also taken on a new, contemporary meaning in the age of smartphone proliferation and social media. For selfies, mirrors are an inward and outward facing looking glass. Selfies are both a confrontation and projection of the self into oblivion. With selfies, one can forever live in front of a mirror. Several young photographers have played with the selfie format and developed extensive, compelling bodies of work. Ryan McGinley's mirror format images, for example, scrutinise the selfie format, inviting introspection and intimacy as a counterpoint to the empty narcissism of many mirror-based smartphone portraiture.

In John Chamberlain's Widelux series (1989-2002) mirrors interact with the medium of photography to "create self-portraits of the nervous system" that allow Chamberlain to become an active participant in his work, in contrast to merely a voyeur or self-portrait taker. The art historical ability of mirrors to open new dimensions-and to distort and transform our perception of the world-was demonstrated on Michele's recent Gucci runway. When asked about the ideology of the presentation, he described how "clothes are capable of reflecting our image in an expanded and transfigured dimension: wearing them means to cross a transformative threshold where we become something else."

This transformative threshold was visually present in the funhouse-like mirrors alongside the runway, where the models and garments were accompanied by fantastical, anamorphic reflections of themselves. On Michele's runway, mirrors became a means for his clothing to transcend our reality, and reimagine and play with representation.

In Michele's world, mirrors reflect the most otherworldly, exquisite aspects of ourselves.

The Gucci brand, as a leading voice in the luxury clothing market and lifestyle, is intrinsically tied to identity and representation. No comparable brand captures as diverse an audience as Gucci currently does. Considering the ethos of Gucci under Michele, the use of mirrors as a framing device for the runway makes complete sense, considering the historical and contemporary use of mirrors as a tool for forming and constructing various identities.

The architectural theorist Aaron Betsky wrote that mirrors are integral to establishing aberrant identities within architectural spaces. Mirrors are "an alternate world that is unreal," showing another, freer reality, where your body, clothes, and collected objects are reflected in an idealised and orderly fashion. This resonates with Michele's most recent runway, where gender delineations were blurred through tailoring and design. Like Betsky's conception of mirror worlds, the Exquisite Gucci runway offered an alternate, freer world of innovative fluidity.

This multiplicity is manifest in Michele's Gucci presentations. A very impactful aspect of recent Gucci runway shows is the sheer attention to detail that Michele and his team put into making models not simply walking mannequins, but fully formed, multidimensional characters. This is because Michele is a storyteller across various mediums. Like a great novelist, he understands the complexities of developing a character that is not only legible and plausible, but also relatable.

In the Exquisite Gucci fashion show, one is once again reminded of Michele's masterful ability to construct complex narratives through minimally elegant gestures. Michele makes a bold addition to the historical use of mirrors as symbolic creative gestures. In Exquisite Gucci, mirrors were a crucial component for constructing character, reflecting the poetic complexity of humanity.

The mirrors distorted and blurred the viewers' sense of reality, providing a new perspective where fashion and fine art have always and forever been linked. Mirrors are also windows, and in Michele's show they provided a view into a universe that's very much of the world-just not this one.