the mirrors of judgement

While we were in London a few weeks ago, we visited Michelangelo Pistoletto’s ‘Mirrors of judgement’ at the Serpentine Gallery. It’s a large scale labyrinthine installation, a really beautiful space, one of those where people stop to take a breath as they walk in. It breaks the rules of galleries, the rolling cardboard that’s layered upon itself stretching beyond the each room into unseen spaces, inviting one to explore further. It snakes its way through all the rooms of the gallery, filling corners and enticing people to keep following its path.

Labyrinths are designed to draw people in, to help you lose yourself in a path that you can’t become lost in. Along the meandering paths of this labyrinth, though, there are sacred objects to draw you out of yourself, and when turning a corner, you unexpectedly find yourself reflected back in a mirror. It’s an uncomfortable confrontation between the Other and the self.

It’s very lovely, but the curation and the gallery itself became a part of the art. The cardboard is compulsively tactile, desperate to be touched and photographed, neither of which are allowed. It was the instinctive reaction of everyone who came into the space to do just that – and the reactive instinct of the gallery staff was to fiercely invoke the unwritten rules. Yet to see over the layers of cardboard to what’s inside, we almost had to touch the cardboard or lose balance. At different points, while walking the path, we would come face to face with sacred symbols of faith – prayer stools and rugs; a buddha – which are allowed to be touched, knelt on, prayed with. There’s confusion about what one can and can’t do – an ironic [unintended?] set of mixed messages about what’s sacred and what’s not, and of what can be done with the sacred.

And then there were the gallery staff who hovered, talking, watching, detracting from what the artist intended to be a spiritual experience…

I asked one of the staff how people interacted with the objects of faith – did they pray, for example, or kneel. She said that people often did – but the Muslims never knelt on the Muslim prayer rug, because they had been walked on and were now dirty. By making a space that invited interaction with the practices of a faith, the space became ‘hostile’ to those to whom that faith is home.

There was a lot to think about. i left thinking it was a beautiful installation, but like i’d been tricked; promised something that couldn’t be fulfilled – a space that, on the surface at least, issued an invitation to me to lose myself while instead it made me become more acutely aware of myself. More disconcerting, though, was the uneasy feeling that i’ve done just the same thing myself when designing spaces, and never actually realised.