Grasping Reflection

Grasping Reflection

Sculpture of a tilted mirror resting in a pile of sand.
Robert Smithson’s “Leaning Mirror,” 1969

The dirt dispels quietly against the cold hard concrete floor. Growing out of the ground, taking on an organic state in such an inorganic environment. The dirt is not smooth, but instead grainy and rough with intermixed stones that one would find scattered about in front of a construction site. Not the glossy, fine dirt one would expect to be housed in a “sleek” contemporary art museum. Leaning Mirror (along with Smithson’s others) sticks out among the works in the museum, as it possesses a certain raw unfinished quality. Upon first sight, one might assume that the piece is incomplete. With only two basic components, a slanted mirror and a heap of dirt, there is a straining for  larger gratification from the materials provided.

The dirt is so commonplace that it is initially difficult to comprehend that it makes up such a key part of the piece. While sitting by the piece, writing my thoughts down on the Dia:Beacon comment cards, a European couple approached. After circling it once they began taking pictures of each other posing behind the piece. The man, standing on the edge of the piece, stepped onto the dirt and left a footmark. His significant other asked him if it was okay that he stepped on it and he replied with: “Is it even part of the sculpture?” This interaction highlighted the atmosphere that the dirt establishes for its viewer. Comprising most of the sculpture’s physicality, the dirt ushers in an unpretentious, even lowly, quality. It shifts away from the tendency to “art gaze,” but instead to experience the piece in a natural and rudimentary way.

Out of the dirt emerges the mirror, a shining flat blade slicing through the rough, grained nature of the dirt. It hovers at a 45o angle, always appearing to be on the edge of losing its grip on its organic anchor. The top side of the surface is clasped to the earth by a triangular layer of dirt, seemingly immutable and everlasting, the dirt fixed in the time and space of the museum. While the dirt should slide off the face of the mirror it remains unwavering in its position. The mirror materializes in such a jarring manner but also has an ability to slide out of sight, to slowly melt into the dirt.

With nothing given other than the surface image one is required to think of what lies dormant underneath. Is it all just dirt or is there some more to it? I tend to believe there is something far less deceptive about this piece. It is so inviting in a sad, melancholic way, as if begging to be seen by its viewers. It wants to be known, to be felt at a deeper level. There is a level of desired intimacy that is rooted in its simplicity. The piece lowers itself from the “pedestal of art” so viewers can truly experience and feel emotions from the piece. The viewer literally peers down at the piece, furthering the fall from the piece’s “pedestal.” However, it cannot achieve this deeper postured connection due to the lack of subject reflection in the mirror. The desired subject, the viewer, walks around the piece completely without seeing one’s own reflection. From every angle around the mirror one is unable to view oneself, unable to meditate on oneself and unable to feel comfort in the presence of a mirror. It is so natural to expect your own image when seeing a mirrored surface, almost to validate your presence in the space you occupy. The piece does not give the viewer any sense of this satisfaction. This creates a distance between the piece and the viewer, never allowing a viewer to fully immerse him or herself in the piece. What one sees instead are the tall, white-beamed ceilings and open windows letting in soft gray sunlight. The expectation is to be seen and to find something profound while viewing the piece, but Smithson does not allow comfort for the viewer. Instead of establishing an immediate knowledge and recognition in the piece, he forces the viewer to circle around the reflection and dig deeper into the meaning of the piece.

There is a deep conflict within the piece, as if it desires to be seen. To be reveled in and experienced. Simultaneously the work refuses to allow attachment, harshly rejecting the viewer from creating personal ties to the piece. Smithson seems to have a conflict deeply rooted in his work. This is also seen in his piece Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis),which consists of shattered glass scattered across the floor. In both pieces there is a pain that is ever present, a closed yearning that the viewer senses but never is able to truly process or empathize with.

One of the other reasons I truly felt enamored with this piece’s mystery was due to the lack of response it got from the majority of viewers I saw. I sat in front of the piece for about forty-five minutes, and during that time the majority of people I saw come in contact with the piece either brushed it over or ridiculed and minimized it. The basic silhouette of the shape, the use of virtually two colors, and the use of household materials leads viewers to the often-arrived-at conclusion that “anyone could do it.” Smithson’s untitled piece does not refute this point but optimistically seeks to dismantle this thought process in the viewer.


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