Who is looking back at me from the mirror?
“I came looking for the mirror that makes you young again when you look at it. Our King does not want to get old, and now he is searching the whole world for this mirror. Maybe you, my dear old mother, can guide me to the path of happiness?”
Juhan Kunder The Magic Mirror
Hanging in my bathroom is a mirror which I took from my grandfather’s bedroom after he moved to a nursing home. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, he had his name written on the upper edge of the mirror with a marker, so that he would always know who he was looking at in the mirror. Although I had wiped the letters off long before my grandfather died, I witnessed the ghostly letters reappear in the fogged mirror while taking a shower after his funeral. I stared at the blurred reflection of my pale skin and the name written in my grandmother’s handwriting above it: Kusti. I stood there naked in the bathroom, as myself and as him – another skinny man with pale skin and thick hair, who had looked in this mirror so many times before.
Many people believe that an old mirror carries the shadow of all the people who have ever looked in it. If we believed this, every mirror could be a mirror of the soul, not necessarily ghostly or evil, but perhaps supportive and bringing to bear. In my bathroom there is a portal that leads me to Kusti within me, and whenever I look at it, I travel far back in time. However, a mirror also compels us to face a version of ourselves with whom we never really have true contact. This version is superficial, not substantive, and consists only of our appearance and external opinions. In life, we still look outside of ourselves, not onto ourselves, and so the tension remains between the embodied experience, the external image of the stranger and what is seen in the mirror. What does a young slim person know about the pain of meeting the expectations and images of beauty, you might think, but the invisible ideals haunting us are so mirror-smooth and symmetrical that our immensely asymmetrical, gurgling, rustling and bubbling bodies are unable to meet them, either in the mirror or on a luminous screen.
Over the years, Cloe Jancis has dedicated a significant part of her work to modern beauty rituals. Using installation, photography and video, she has shown us the motions and behaviours that many of us go through, or even perform, in front of a mirror every day. Her work has reflected the self-care tutorials on social media, as well as the quietly repressive violence that accompanies this uniformly nude-coloured fake beauty. What does a person actually feel or think when they need to give the right shape to their body before putting their clothes on? Or paint their skin the right colour? In her previous works, it may seem that these rituals have been refined to the extreme, making it easier for us as observers to identify with the rituals presented. Even if we think we haven’t danced quite the same dance, we all do something in front of the mirror.
The works exhibited at the Wishing Well exhibition have emerged from the same process; however, a mysterious veil of parables has arisen between the art objects and the people experiencing them. As in previous cases, here too Jancis is her own model. We see objects associated with beauty rituals or their derivatives, yet there is something else here too … An intention reminiscent of a ghostly obsession that amplifies the sense that the artist’s hand has been directed by something bigger and older than herself. Who is the magpie who has filled the City Gallery with shiny bric-a-brac? Who is it that is not satisfied with just one mirror, but looks for help from a wishing well or a source of youth?
Jancis has said that she is interested in materials and objects considered beautiful – be they beauty products or materials like glass, silver and silk. Do we beautify them or do they adorn us? Are they as beautiful here, scattered and abandoned, as when decorating our homes or our bodies? Jancis is sceptical of the baggage of mysticism and abilities of these materials, and she is mistrustful of their seemingly self-evident beauty.
Reminiscent of a tomb, a treasure trove or a hiding cave, this exhibition touches on the inevitable tragedy of being a stranger to yourself, the most powerful embodiment of which could be the voluntary death of drowning, the decision to literally become one with your reflection. Whether we like it or not, our reflection chases us all our lives, staring at us from every reflective surface we look at. This has been the case since the beginning of time, from a pond of water to a polished bronze place, from a silver mirror to a smart screen. It is probably impossible to avoid the contradiction between our apparent and our essential side, but we can mitigate and simplify this contradiction. First, by facing the ideals of beauty, seeing their deceitful and toxic nature, and then by being kinder to ourselves and to our reflection, but also to others, observing people as they are instead of how they look.