The mirror is an object of near alchemical potency. A tool of transformation. The mirror has the power to show us our reverse twin. The mirror allows us to look ourselves in the eye. The mirror shows us the world as it almost is.
The modern mirror as we know it was first produced in Germany in 1835 by the chemist Justus von Liebig who developed a process whereby a thin layer of metallic silver was affixed to a pane of clear glass. We might assume that before then, anyone wishing to gaze upon their own reflection would have had to look into the calm surface of water or highly polished silver or gold.
However, the very first mirrors are believed to have been created in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) around 8,000 years ago. They were fashioned from the black volcanic glass known as obsidian, which would be ground and then polished. An image which perhaps suggests the dark monolith of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968).
The mirror has been a constantly recurring theme within the history of art. It is often used to invoke vanity or narcissism, although sometimes it may be suggestive of verity. It is also frequently used to reflect an alternate or altered world. In Jan van Eyck’s ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ (1434) a convex mirror on the back wall reflects the reverse of the scene before us. In René Magritte’s ‘Portrait of Edward James’ (1937) a man stares into a mirror and sees not his face but a reflection of the back of his own head. From the early 1960s Michelangelo Pistoletto printed full length portraits on large mirrors of polished steel, so the figures depicted appeared to be standing within the rooms they reflected. Also since the early 1960s, Yayoi Kusama has been creating installations filled with strange gourd like objects in a space whose mirrored walls and ceiling give the illusion that the room stretches into infinity.
In cinema, the mirror is no less a potent tool and it features in some of the most memorable moments in motion picture history. From the poet passing through the mirror into the Underworld in Cocteau’s ‘Orphée’ (1950) to Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle talking to his own reflection in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976). From the shoot out in the hall of mirrors in ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ (1947) to the imagined mirror in ‘Duck Soup’ (1933) where Harpo Marx pretends to be his brother Groucho’s reflection.
And when a mirror appears in a scene within a motion picture, surely the majority of us have looked to see if we can catch a glimpse of the camera operator or crew in that reflective surface.
Images of mirrors – large or small, truthful or deceptive, cracked or haunted – occur again and again throughout Vicki Bennett’s ‘The Mirror’. But there are also other recurring visual themes; tracking shots moving through corridors, arrivals and departures through doorways, doors opening of their own accord, characters leaning into walls as if to test the limits of the reality they find themselves in, disasters both natural and supernatural, and extreme close ups on the human eye (something else which is often referred to as a mirror).
In amongst the harder to identify footage, we can see images extracted from the work of some of cinema’s true geniuses: Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang and André Tarkovsky.
It takes a brave artist to use the work of geniuses as their source material, but Bennett is nothing if not democratic in her process. As equal time is devoted to work which is generally deemed more low brow; horror and sci-fi. Also well represented are the stark and moody compositions of film noir – a low brow genre which has been allowed, via the passage of time, to be considered a worthy art. A consideration which remains perpetually just out of reach for horror and sci-fi.
The horror films of the Hammer studio are especially well represented here, with moments from ‘Dracula’ (1958), ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1968) ‘Taste The Blood of Dracula’ (1970) and ‘To The Devil A Daughter’ (1976). But Bennett has extracted elements from other more idiosyncratic horror films, such as ‘The City of the Dead’ (1960), the John Wyndham inspired ‘Children of the Damned’ (1964) and perhaps the definitive portmanteau horror ‘Dead of Night’ (1945) featuring a story of a haunted mirror which projects a quite different room to the one in which it resides.
Bennett also elects to include some of the most familiar material in cinema. There are extracts from ‘Mary Poppins’ (1964), ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) and ‘The Matrix’ (1999). There are sequences culled from some of cinema’s lodestones: ‘Metropolis’ (1927) ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941), ‘The Birds’ (1963) and ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’ (1968).
But here, as in all of Bennett’s work, she achieves a transformation. She takes material we feel perhaps over familiar with and, through its placement within a broader narrative, she allows us to see it from a fresh perspective. Musically too she often takes compositions which have become almost transparent through over familiarity, ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ being a prime example. But here too her editing process finds new portals within these soundworlds.
Bennett’s film work frequently exhibits an obsession with the lining up of cinematic motifs which she observes reoccurring across a range of genre. Sometimes the effect of this repetition can feel ludicrous and comical. A good example being a sequence from Bennett’s ‘Dreaming’ (2011) in which a series of individuals, in a variety of films, wake from a bad dream, sit bolt upright and stare wide eyed down the barrel of the lens. At other times, the effect of these segues of identical motifs can create a dream like lucidity. A prime example can be found in the sequence in ‘The Mirror’ where we see a series of doors opening one after the other. An image ripe with both potential and foreboding.
Bennett’s eye seeks out these instances of cinematic storytelling and links them across different eras and across different genres. But in the final analysis, her work would seem to celebrate those recurring modes of storytelling just as much as it delights in derailing and rerouting them.
Graham Duff May 2018.