It’s impossible to consider “What’s What in a Mirror” as separate from the rest of the gallery. Rather than a self-contained show, it is scattered throughout the Hugh Lane: encroaching upon solo exhibitions by Alan Phelan and Jesse Jones, dotted on landings, and tucked around the corner of the gift shop. Jones’ expansive curtain, dragged between gallery spaces at intervals as a part of NO MORE FUN AND GAMES skirts the piece Agent Relativity neatly and dramatically; Perceived Lightness reflects visitors searching the display racks for their name in Irish. To see all of Gillick’s work necessitates seeing everything here, punctuated by the repeated stool, mirror and table arrangement.
The modular components of the vanity-type stations recall a few modernist touchstones, ranging from constructivism to IKEA. Whilst loosely echoing the placement of the occasional, ornate fireplaces – presumably leftover from the building’s past life as a private residence – each one of Gillick’s forms retains enough of the coolness of the gallery not to become a domestic intervention. Instead, the work is complicit with its institution; it’s like a gallery reading-room experience, not comfortable or secluded enough to encourage a long stay by those who interact with the work. These thoroughfares between rooms become perceptible as gallery non-places, an opposing, propelling force to this work that encourages visitors to stop, sit down, and use the installation as they please.
In line with the reading-room feel, the repeated design of the desks is markedly decorative, considering its ostensibly simple purpose. Engaging with the work is low-commitment, with the viewer invited to do anything from reading the accompanying publication to checking their phone, or even using them to work – though most interaction is presumably more incidental than gallery hot-desking. The produced text is a montage of song lyrics and snippets of research on mirroring and reflection, interspersed with a story from Japanese folklore about sentimentality and selfishness via a reluctantly donated mirror. Much like the work as a whole, the booklet stakes out a wide perimeter of cultural references that are nonetheless almost ridiculously direct with its subject.
As a part of the Hugh Lane’s “Artist as Witness” programme, which uses the nationwide marking of the Easter rising centenary as a springboard, “What’s What in a Mirror” is grounded in the placement of the individual amongst these commemorative proceedings and the accompanying institutional clamour. It is literal self-reflection and location in the exhibition process: figurative self-reflection, not so much, although that seems beside the point of this ambiguously interactive work. For what at first appears somewhat contrived – tenuous references to 1916, the literal interpretation of reflection, the social media-friendly hashtag] – once experienced seems to be deliberately complicit with and in fact inherent to the work.
Unless otherwise equipped, sitting at these tables and mirrors is an understated and vague participative experience. You can do something, or nothing, as half-hearted as necessary, and even walking past these proffered rest stops won’t undermine their process. This imprecision is key: any and all active engagement feels awkward, conspicuous, and so in some way inappropriate. The feeling of disconnect in being physically self-focused whilst apparently immersed in gallery politics – maybe doing the supposedly modern, “wrong” type of introspection, yet still acceptable here – makes “What’s What in a Mirror” a tongue-in-cheek manifestation of the many issues of commemoration, grasping for connections across timeframes, individuals and subsequent groupings of peoples.
More sincere efforts to draw a contemporary audience into historical events, attempting to relate to the individual on a mass scale and locate them in all the machinations of history, society and the institution, are routinely patronising and rote; often giving people basic, active roles in contributing through something like rearrangement or writing. “What’s What in a Mirror” seems to toy with these deficiencies by paradoxically making the engaging viewer the passive body, most likely consumers instead of producers when sitting here. Whilst receiving information from their chosen source, be it the space mirrored from behind, or from somewhere else, any reflection upon this information is more of an afterthought.
In the near future, this work will impinge upon forthcoming temporary exhibitions for “Artist as Witness”. It’s a bridge between these show runs, while still echoing those more permanent fireplaces that seem like the opposing bookend to this project, a type of backward intervention in the gallery. What’s What in a Mirror’s open-ended, literal superficiality leaves the participative process arch and obtuse, where engagement is passing and un-monumental: much like observing milestoned time, and its mathematically significant, retrospective impact.
“What’s What in a Mirror” continues at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, until 25th September.