UT PICTURA POESIS, 2018
Every substance is like a complete world and like a mirror of God or of the whole universe, which each expresses in its own way.
(Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics)
We have an idea we might know what we look like, and yet it remains a difficult thing truly to apprehend.
I wonder if we’ll be better at it in a hundred years. Seeing ourselves, and each other, as an artist would, as another would, without guile, without shame, and exuberantly-- as one who loved and understood us would.
Bodies naked of everything, in the archaic and uninnovatable flesh, naked in haircuts and hair color, naked in style and naked in tattoos, naked in makeup, adorned with jewelry, in shoes. Are we ever stripped of our cultures & subcultures, our favorite bands, our parents’ pain, the people we sleep with, our cigarette brands, clothed in nothing but flesh and bone, creams and oils, what we ate last night and who with, our bodies charged with information, dense with history and mystery in the transparent air, wearing their slenderness, arrayed in the eloquent generosity of their muscle and organs and fat? Unbelievable beauty, in a garment of scars. Living soul peering out from within its living house.
This is a hospitable book.
The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
(John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror)
The earliest mirrors were the still surfaces of water, or such is the logical conjecture most sources propose. The first manufactured mirrors were made of polished stone, such as the obsidian mirrors that have been found on the Anatolian peninsula, dated to 6000 B.C.E. Pliny the Elder says the metal-coated glass mirror was invented in Sidon (now Lebanon) in the First Century C.E. After Louis XIV poached glaziers from Murano for his hall of mirrors at Versailles, thus breaking the Venetian glass monopoly, the mirror began to become a commonplace in households throughout Europe. When the glaziers returned to Venice, they were promptly murdered for their treachery, but the spread of mirrors thenceforth could not be checked. With the nineteenth century came mass production.
To behold oneself has at length become a common privilege.
It is as if we all have been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
(Anne Carson, Glass, Irony, and God)
Some 180 people have photographed themselves according to the instructions set forth for them by Ryan McGinley. With a few exceptions they have used actual cameras and multiple mirrors. All are naked and many seem to be at home. Their bodies are manifold, their beauties multiple, their dispositions many. This is a book of nudes, of self-portraits, of society portraits, of interiors, of mises-en-abimes. An alien from outer space could learn a lot about us from this book.
It is entrancing, contemporary and ancient, revealing and mysterious, shy and exhibitionist, sly and forthright; it makes you feel you know the people shown here, and it makes you want to know them.
And this book makes you want to know yourself, or at least to discover seeing yourself, the way the people here seem to have discovered knowing and seeing in and for themselves. All the pleasures of portraiture are here, and of nudes, and of selfies, but there is so much more here than the sometimes grim enclosure of selfies.
The barbs and abysses of afflicted self-regard are reflected in our leaders, our murderers, our wars: everything that is wrong with us is apparent. Everything shows.
This book is, among other things, an instruction manual.
It is a demonstration of great generosity. Ryan McGinley has transferred his prodigious gift to 180 friends, and you too can see as he does, as they do, and so can I.
Narcissus fell in love with his own image; the nymph Echo, deprived of speech, could only reverberate the broken ends of others’ speech. The mirror in Narcissus’ eye vibrated in poor Echo’s throat when she fell in love with him.
Eros: eye and ear and throat. Water in the mouth, something shining, fascinated & craving, inside the great portals.
To look at someone beholding themselves is to become their Echo. The myth teaches that it can be impossible to penetrate another person’s self-regard. In this era of continually metastasizing reflective surfaces, increasingly minute and omnipresent cameras, and creeping data, in a culture whose new structure is reverberation, what we are shown is often hideous; gorgonic. You turn to stone. It’s either arousal or something far beyond that, something harder, wearier, worse, more dead. And yet. We are a pleasure to behold.
And the pictures in this book are lovely.
Why are they lovely?
Because there is privacy in them.
Because although these images are cousins of what you see on social media, on dating sites, on hookup sites, or in the privacy of your own phone, something detaches from them somehow that sends you back through the entire history of the nude. The nudity as a costume of virility in Mesopotamian and Greek statues. The naked women clothed in ample flesh and attended by putti and bouffants of clouds. The fake nails and sneakers and moles and tattoos and grins of people in porn.
The people in this book are clothed in the gentle space of what frames them: everyone has chosen where and how they wished to pose for us, and with what, and with whom. Houseplants, pets, rugs, lamps, spray bottles, stickers, lovers, babies, dogs, cats, beds, bed clothes, windows.
And collections. Art collections, book collections, sneaker collections, clothes on hangers and bags on pegs. Boxes of stuff. Proof of good taste. Open defiance of it.
A dildo obscures the human member and rhymes with a worn boot and buildings. The many buckles on a platform fetish boot echo striped pillowcases in the background. A garden bust as codpiece, a green slipper, a cactus, a plastic chipmunk on a desk. A can of Modelo, a long wooden mala, plastic flip flops, statement eyewear. You can relax here.
“Socrates, we are told by Diogenes, urged young people to look at themselves in mirrors so that, if they were beautiful, they would become worthy of their beauty, and if they were ugly, they would know how to hide their disgrace through learning. “The mirror, a tool by which to ‘know thyself,’ invited man to not mistake himself for God, to avoid pride by knowing his limits, and to improve himself. He was thus not a passive mirror or imitation but an active mirror of transformation.”
(Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet, The Mirror: A History)
There is a weird, constant cellular sense in me of being surveiled. It is like a whirring. There are times I can feel this whirring in my cells. When I move in silence I am aware of it, as though my curls were poking into the air to throw off some unkind gaze, as though my entire physiognomy were a colt bucking.
I feel like an old-time nymph trying to out-run the rapey god.
It is like a tickle, or a dread-provoking irritation; it is almost like nothing.
I go out and meet someone. I don’t photograph what we do. I come back to the computer after a walk in the dark and let its white light feed off me.
I shrink from my own image. I fail to appear. I don’t post. I drink diet cola at the end of the bar. I look out sidelong from under my hair.
The trouble in both eyes does not come from the same symmetrical carpet, it comes from there being no more disturbance than in little paper.
(Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons)
The wider the privilege of self-regard becomes, the deeper the government seems to go into our data, our money, our cells. We trade this intimacy for the right to ever-evolving versions or declensions of “being together”; the right to share of ourselves in books that are not books for the profit of various vultures and malefactors, the right to hold conversations that have the form of polemics descending vertically in places that are not places on subjects few can actually lay hand on and yet which touch us all.
The predicament has made some into celebrities, others murderers; it has depressed the many while stimulating some. It has removed older forms of loneliness and replaced them with new, more complicated loneliness. It has helped some stop lying to themselves, while goading others to continue.
The predicament is an extension of who we are. You could even say it is the mirror of God himself, who created us, I sometimes think, out of simple frolicsomeness and curiosity:
I think he wondered what he looked like.
Our predicament contains misery, but there is ecstasy in it.
A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.
(Simone Weil, Waiting for God)
In some faces you see loneliness, or the expectation of it, which is a particular expression I have come to recognize from selfies.
At times it is simply a weariness: the person thinks he knows what he looks like and is bored and disappointed to find that upon looking again, he still resembles what he has come to expect of himself.
In many ordinary selfies, this weariness, this loneliness, hides the beauty of the person. At times it hides almost all of it. It shows that they have forgotten something, and in so forgetting have earned the sad education of hiding their own beauty from themselves. They have looked too long at other people. Or they have forgotten that beauty also means to gaze with a loving eye. The pictures in this book are not like that, even when, at times, you see sorrow in a face, or dismay, or boredom, or, on occasion, something close to smugness, the pert reliability of those who give good face and know it.
Do you love your sibling
As they do
As they do
(Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Of Mongrelitude)
The cruel gaze of women against ourselves is famous. In one image, I see sorrow and an exhausted sense of familiarity around the mouth and the complicated eyes, her great beauty whorled into an intricate ambivalence, a loathing she has borrowed from someone else as though it would be safer if she wielded it herself. And that borrowed loathing she need not ever have taken on is mixed with an abiding tolerance, a sense of secrecy, the sense that even more beauty that is hiding within her and waiting even now, within her body which I sense is sore somehow, and protected by her great patience, great patience resolving almost into hope. And that wisp of hope makes me know she is loved and can be loved. And it causes me to love her.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.
(Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)
And when the lord had grown so full of his own substance he was almost nauseated by it, he began to wonder at his own image. The question of it filled his member and his member grew heavy in his hand. He spat into his hand and had congress with himself. At the moment of his pleasure he cried out and issued two beings. They lay upon the ground without moving, and they lay in the dust of the ground. When they began to turn blue he realized they weren’t breathing, and simultaneous to the thought “breathing” he blew into their mouths. Whereupon their mouths opened and the two set to feeble wailing. Aside from this they could not move. Their eyes were closed or they had not yet eyes. But they were beautiful. In the eyes of their maker they were beheld as beautiful. And they lay as worms upon the ground. And their parent beheld them there and there and then acclaimed their beauty.
It is a peculiar gift to be trapped in something so recursive as the present, on a planet reflecting the circuits of the stars, in a society that would kill itself to become a star. Mercury is in retrograde as I write this, upending the funhouse mirror of all perception. If we could see and believe how lovely we are, I want to say, as the people in this book seem to do, we might not slide so endlessly down the back end of the real the way it keeps happening, down the glass-fronted skyscrapers, down the touchscreens our slaves made for us, and scrolling down the long length of the think piece. If we could see ourselves differently, we might live differently.