‘Disagreeable Mirrors’: Reflecting (and Complicating) the Urban in Uncomfortable Ways

 

“I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what white Americans talk about with one another. I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibiting. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see… People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (James Baldwin, in Ebony, 1965).

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Scene 1: ‘Walking Backwards’ in Singapore (Singapore Art Biennale, 2009) 

The artist (Amanda Heng, pictured), walks backwards against the tableau of Singapore’s glassy, neo-gothic and modernist towers of finance. She walks past the colonial-era churches and administration buildings; some re-purposed as posh hotels and museums. She walks past the tropical landscape and the taxis passing, passengers inquisitive. She holds her shoe in her mouth, biting and eating her high-heel, occasionally drooling. She is barefoot. In her hand, she holds a mirror: the mirror reflects the cityscape and at once Singapore is elongated and shrunk; bent and refracted; reversed and upended. An alternative city is presented; another path is traveled, another script is written.

The authoritarian city and its designated imaginaries are interrupted, reconstructed.

A crowd of observers follows Heng. Some drift away, others join. The crowd is at times confused, enthused, perplexed, bored. The reflected Singapore, barefoot and backwards, shoe in mouth rather than bought at the mall, is an uncomfortable and disorienting place. The hyper-planned City-State is unplanned, unlearned, unfocused. What does this other Singapore look like – the upside down; one in which the racial hierarchy (CMIO, or “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other), long convenient for colonial rulers and now entrenched in daily life – is scrambled and re-framed?

For more on Heng’s intervention, and theoretical linkages to De Certeau, Walter Benjamin and Debord / Situationist Internationals, see Goh (2014), Luger (2016).

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Scene 2: The Story Told by Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC, March 24th, 2018

I stand in front of the memorial on a sunny Spring day in Washington. I see in front of me the names of thousands lost to this vain war, fought in the name of someone’s ‘Domino Theory’ and the promise of American export markets. I see myself, reflected. Who am I, this visitor to Washington? I see the city reflected. The masonic monolith to Washington in front and behind me; the trees a duplicate of themselves.

Being at the Vietnam memorial, designed by artist Maya Lin, is a process of becoming. Its reflective nature differentiates it from, say, the World War II memorial nearby, grandiose and monumental in scale. As Cheryl Krause-Knight (2011:27) explains, ‘Viewer reactions to the memorial, even beyond the artist’s intent, attest to its ‘publicness’.” Miles (2004:103) notes that the memorial, as a mirror of collective mourning and imaginary, was quickly embraced “by an unusually diverse public.” Lin’s own impulses, in which she stated that her goals in the design were to avoid sensationalism, invite personal interaction, and trust the viewer to “think without leading her to specific conclusions” (Lin, quoted in Finkelpearl 2001:116 ,119), are, according to Krause-Knight (2011), “consummately populist ones.” Young (1993:6-7) observed that “in the absence of shared beliefs of common interests [memorials such as this] can lend a common spatial frame to otherwise disparate experiences and understandings of a fragmented populace.”

But what of this fragmented populace, and its populist voices? I look again at the mirror / monument, and see reflected a different kind of image – a visiting school group, numbering at least 50, waiting behind me in the queue to process past the memorial. They hold flowers, reverent facial expressions, and each wearing the red “Make America Great Again” hat. Populism reflects populism, and the memorial continues its becoming.

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Scene 3: The City Yet to Come? (Berlin 1931 or Anywhere, Anytime)

Berlin, 1931, as reflected at the Kit Kat Club in the imagination of author Christopher Isherwood; later adapted into John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I am a Camera”, and later, the critically-acclaimed musical and film “Cabaret”. The film’s final scene is one in which, rather than the audience viewing the cabaret stage, the viewpoint is reflected in a mirror to the audience. No longer the bohemian and libertine Weimar-era party-goers: the audience reflected is now a blurred representation of the Nazism that would consume Germany and the 1930s in fascist fire.

As always, the mirror reflects the city that is, and the city yet to come.

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