The Place Inside the Mirror: Representations of those Heterotopias in Art.

Jean Cocteau. Orphée 1950


The starting point of my research in mirrors and heterotopias came through my own observations in the person. I realised then that specific occasions of people had their own unique relationship with the mirror, as with everything else of course. The mirror becomes an everyday interaction; most of the time being a mere affirmation of the image of the self, being as it is, therefore an assurance of existence. Sometimes the interaction one seeks is that of a judgmental character, a tool in the setting of appearance or a tool in interacting with an environment.

The mirror, in a simple definition, is a surface that reflects light without diffusion and produces an image of an object placed in front of it; simply, it is an object with a specularly reflective surface. The reflection in the mirror has always been an object of interest in man, particularly the reflection of ones own image, as it is one of the initial stages in identification of a self. Nonetheless, there exists an opportunity to redefine the identity, as it is, I assume, in the place where one first defines it. Why intrigued to see someone else in there? The first and simplest reason I could find reason in is that it is just for the sake of having the opportunity to do so. Sometimes the thought of existing as only one person can be more than unsettling on occasions, the need for illusion and dress up is quite a wide notion, and acquired by many more than one might assume.

The heterotopia as elaborated by Foucault is a concept in human geography, which describes non-hegemonic places and spaces of otherness. These spaces and places of otherness, these counter-sites simultaneously enact a utopia whilst at the same time deriving pieces from both existing and utopian states. In his lectures Of Other Spaces (1967) Foucault mentions that “from the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am, since I see myself over there” and further goes to explain that “the mirror functions as a heterotopia” (Foucault 1967, p.1) since the person alongside with ones environment is absolutely real yet at the same time absolutely unreal as in order for one to perceive it, one must pass the image through the virtual point of the mirror.

Mirror & Identity

Starting from infancy the human begins to unravel a sense of identity. As Jacques Lacan illustrates in his experiments on the Mirror Stage (1953) during the infants primary stages of world perception, comes a point when the infants external image of the body, when acquainted with the reflection, produces a psychic response that triggers the representation of the “I”. The infant identifies with the image, which is a gestalt of perceptions of an emerging self/I. Alongside with Pontys’ views on corporeity; in the sense that our understanding of the world is a combination of meaningful forms and elements rather than disparate elements themselves: “our perceptual field is made up of ‘things’ and ‘spaces between things’.”(Ponty 1945, p.18). Allowing in that sense a continuous redefining of both the self and the environment that surrounds it. In a reflection the space is provided for the anew compilations of illusions and imagination.

Certain ‘groups’ like the dancers, actors and performers in all, manipulate that sense of the mirror being an undefined place where anything can be placed inside yet reflecting back the image to be judged by ones own eye. The mirror is not merely recognized as an incidental realization or standard assumption that what the reflective surface provides is the image of the self and the body. On those occasions furthermore opportunity is given to enact each of their different images and complete characters in the mirror and manipulate that other space as an eye of an audience member. The mirror became another person; a spectator and the environment that he will cognitively create will be reflected in the mirror as the place where he wishes to form in the viewers’ eye.

Emerging from the interest in various personal responses that come from a relationship with ones own reflection, attempts have been made to illustrate the intriguing relation. The classic myth of the Narcissus is a very common example of that, a myth that is mainly a commentary on the power of reflection as a state of self-admiration and illusion within it: Narcissus did not merely see another person looking back at him through his own reflection, but he believed in it so that he fell in love with it. Many artists have used the myth as a basis in their own work, or gradually have concluded in that. Some have found, the work of Dan Graham to be a commentary on the narcissism of the audience, who sees themselves inside a character enacted on stage. Nonetheless, I read another comment on reflection in his work “Performer/Audience/Mirror”(1977). I believe he questions the relativity of his existence within a performance because of the reflection in an audience eyes. He places the mirror behind him, reflecting the audience and describing his actions and position. The fact that the audience’s attention has been stolen from the mirror placed in front of them, the confusing notion of looking at everyone else around them and having a performer describing his own performance, seems to me, as a struggle for attention on behalf of the performer, whilst a question on the need for his own existence, if the audience wasn’t there.

Dan Graham. Performer/Audience/Mirror 1977

Further on the attempt of the artist to capture their audience within their work, as to make a commentary on the identification due to reflection, one might find a sense of irony within it. The prolonging of the personal observation of ones image inside the mirror, is usually connected with the arrogant notion of self-admiration. Nonetheless, going back to the early stages of life, when ones confrontation with the reflection was a development of the sense of an ‘I’, I find that on certain occasions that sense is still, in later years, being a redefinition and an evolution. A conceptual artist that has worked a great deal with mirrors and mirrors within space, both redefining space and recapturing in a new sense the audience’s reflection, is Olafur Eliasson. In his installation work Take Your Time (2008) I believe he focuses mostly on that. He actually urges his spectators to spend time, as many visitors did, lying on the floor and observing their image and their environments image through a mirror placed on top of them. One might find such a push in spending time with your reflection also in his work Mirror Door: spectator, user, visitor (2008), yet I find this to be more concerned with the notion of the image in a communicative triangle, much like Graham’s work, previously mentioned (1977). In the Mirror Door triptych, Eliasson uses a mirror, a spotlight and the circular mark the spotlight provides to place the spectator in the according position: the spectator, user and visitor position. Through that, we find the immediate recognition in all three as to how the visitor of the exhibition viscerally responds, with the mere use of instinct. At the same time, the mirror is referred to as a ‘door’ (Eliasson 2008) which insinuates that it leads to another place, this place being a place where the visitor of the work can identify oneself in those positions, which are presupposed.

Within the context of redefinition and identification of a self, one cannot avoid the continuous theme of many artists being the self-portrait. In any occasion and medium one might use, the self is a continuous question in each, not only artist. Through, hopefully, an evolution of the person, the character that arises day by day is a new version of the same self; therefore one might find the artists who have attempted to define this ‘self’ as continuously re-evaluating it and trying again. In relation to the reflection, the self-portrait being obviously a reflection of the self, from the self, Jonathan Miller in the book compiled for the National Gallery On Reflection (1998) comments on the use of the actual mirror as a medium of self-portraying: “studying his own appearance as if it were someone else…the sheer oddness of seeing himself from another person’s viewpoint.” (Miller 1998, p. 200)

Bill Brandt Self-Portrait with a Mirror 1965

When the artist is using the mirror to produce a self-portrait –usually in the case of painting- the artist manipulates the mirror as if it were the retina of another artist, so he could represent himself from another viewpoint. The dynamics formed between artist-mirror-canvas are in compilation a dimension where the artist exists as himself, the image of himself and the ‘distorted’ image of himself as seen from another eye. This other eye nonetheless is still his own, and between him and his consciousness of the reflected self stands a mirror, a reflective clear surface, that can sometimes be clear enough as to reproduce and redefine the new space inside the artists mind. Yet as Jonathan Miller explains: in the mirror, one can have the disquieting feeling of being paired for life with an invisible counterpart of our selves, who almost feels to be someone else (1998).

Within the terms of being someone else inside the mirror, in the sense of coining a new image and expecting the reflection to provide the information of achievement to become the illusion of another self; one might find also an example in Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. On that occasion, the clients of the “house of illusion” (Genet 1962, p.34), advise or expect from the mirror to recognise them as what their illusion seems to be, and Madame Irma, the owner of the brothel to acknowledge that illusion and treat it with the outmost respect, as her employees will. Due to this, Irma, the mirrors and the rest of the staff are reflections of the images of the clients, with the distortion being expressed only in the mind of the client himself when the image from another viewpoint is reflected back to him. So, in order for the illusion to work, there need be a space in between initial and final image, a heterotopia

One of the many literary examples that illustrate the initial and then later long-term relationship with the mirror, which begins to share the sense of imagination, is that in Ruth Lakofski’s poem Mirror (2009). In this poem she refers to the mirror as a place that engulfs her and later gets lost in. She links the moment when she finds her way, with the moment of realisation of existence and then the “new era has begun.” (Lakofski 2009, p.57). She later on goes to illustrate that she was unsuccessful in living her life on this side of the mirror, on the one we all share, and considers that maybe the other side, that other place she initially was lost in, will provide her with what she needs: “Maybe to explore imagination, engulfment, not reality, is needed.” (Lakofski 2009, p.57).


A more popular example of the mirror as a depiction in culture is that in the film by Terry Gilliam The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009). In this film, using elaborate and surreal animation and designing overall, Gilliam uses the mirror as a gateway to someone’s infinite depths of imagination. Nonetheless, this depiction of the personal imagination is within a mirror, which is a place inside Dr. Parnassus’s head, who has the power, apparently, to depict each one’s deepest urges. A very literal and colourful depiction of the personal heterotopia inside the mirror, in popular culture, nonetheless, a quite obvious example of the point I find inside the mirror: that it is a place, and furthermore a place with infinite possibilities in form. This place can be manipulated to a certain extent, yet it must use elements that already exist, as it occurs for the reflection of the image to exist, so does for the creation of the imaginative place inside, it needs elements of an already existing unconscious.

Mirror & Heterotopia

As previously illustrated, the term coined by Michel Foucault ‘heterotopia’ (1967), is used to describe the other places, and as described by Foucault himself, a great example of this other space, is the action of looking in the mirror, itself. As the notion of heterotopia is created because of the pre-existing notion of a utopia, one can find the endlessness in the opportunities of illusion both ‘spaces’ may provide. For the heterotopia nonetheless, an element of realism must exist, for the utopia to build upon. The mirror can provide endless reflections and manipulations of a real reflection so as to create an almost atopic state, yet it cannot be atopic as the reflection of reality must be retrieved and used as a starting point, therefore being hetero-topic.

Many artists that have used the mirror and the heterotopia have each found within it, on various occasions, purposes and conclusions. Anish Kapoor for instance has managed to create an immensely sized sculpted bean shaped mirror referred to usually as the Cloud Gate (2004-08), which placed in a public location – in front of the Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois- allows a wide range of spectators to experience both a somehow disturbing grounding of the sky, due to its reflection, as well as a playfulness which instinctively arises through the observation of their own image and the image of the stranger’s that surround them in a gigantic distorted state.

Anish Kapoor. Cloud Gate 2004-2008

I find a sense of playfulness in this public display of distortion of the image, both personal and collective. Nonetheless, this playfulness of seeing realistic presentations of things that are, in situations that are not, yet manage to create the illusion in ones retina of something that cannot be, is a very intriguing merge of heterotopia and the mirror. As in Kapoor’s work, Olafur Eliasson in his installation piece Your Invisible House 2005, he manipulates the environments’ image in such a manner as to provide the illusion that the house does not exist. A carefully studied repetition of geometrically cut shapes of mirror, render the house invisible, with the supporting frame being the only element that betrays its existence. With the mere use of mirrors, Eliasson blends reality and the virtual image of it, achieving the illusion of invisibility:

Olafur Eliasson Your Invisible House 2005

At the same time, through the same artists work, we find the use of mirrors in opposition. Again the mirror is used to create a space that does not exist, whilst using the elements of a reality, nonetheless, on this second occasion, the mirror are use to repeat, recreate and render infinite, rather than invisible; accentuating in that sense the character and its chaotic endlessness rather that diminishing the girth a building must use in order to exist:

Olafur Eliasson Phaedra 2007

In this depiction of the myth of Phaedra, Eliasson uses the repetition of mirrors, which gradually provide a distortive evolution to the character, finally not being able to recognised herself from the plots and curses that were set upon her. Therefore, in this case, space and reflection are a composition descriptive of a state of mind, utterly describing the heterotopic space as a state of mind.

Further on, performing artists have used their own reflection to make a comment that deals more so with their identification within time. Recognition of the image as the self, within an unbound and non-hegemonic place in time, is perhaps so as to comment on the actual lack of clear cognition of time within the mind. Such artists are Bill Viola as seen in his video Reflecting Pool (1977-79), where the elements of time, water and gravity are being defied and intermingled. In this piece Viola creates an illusionary state of an almost literal depiction, in this case, of suspension in time, putting the idea of the Reflecting Pool to be another place, where other rules occur. Furthermore, the performer and theoretician Vito Acconci has filmed, among other existential videos, a piece that deals with the realisation of the self, the confrontation with the self as if it were someone else-much like a self-portrait- yet this identification is not a mere discussion of a few minutes, yet an almost dispute that takes up some time and constantly evolves, almost in a dispute, therefore accentuating the sense of evolution alongside with identity in an undefined and unimportant time space. All these take place in an interview-style video, where the artist films himself being in a reflective talk with the mirror, in Air Time 1973. Rosalinda Krauss comments in her article “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” , that Acconci is perpetuating his image and perpetuating time; she finds the response of the performer to be a continually renewed image of himself.

Vito Acconci Air Time 1973

Another film representation of the mirror relation to a heterotopic space is the work of Jean Cocteau in Orphée. On this occasion, the place inside the mirror is almost literally another place. Like in Viola’s Reflecting Pool the spectator can actually view, and in that sense experience the other place as a representation. In this film the place inside the mirror is a place/space that derives elements from reality within a utopian frame. The place inside the mirror is described as the counter-site of life; a limbo or as the final state, and death is the medium to enter or return from it. According to this film, the counter-site of life is death and its elements can only be linked and compared to those of dreams; like inexplicable topography, undefined time and the sense of movement and time being challenged by the forces of another nature.

In this Cocteau film, the mirror is the gateway between life and death – presumably the director was influenced by middle-age ideas of the mirror being a porthole for Hades – life is the alternate state, the counter-site of life. The one cannot exist without the other, yet what is mostly undefined and more so of a mystery in the study of human existence is the place in-between them: in historical terms, we find the place in-between to be the exile, in anthropological, the death row, in religious, the limbo and so on. Whereas in another film by the same director, we find the mirror to again lead to a sort of unspecified counter-site within the artists’ room, yet, that mirror leads to a perfectly surrealistic state, and much like dreams, this surrealistic and heterotopic space, carries completely irrational and expressionistic images and notions, that are nonetheless conclusions, with allusions to the experiences from an awakened conscious. (Cocteau 1930)

Jean Cocteau. Orphée 1950

Finally, as Jonathan Miller illustrates in Nowhere in Particular, using Wollheim’s theories of seeing apples in a painting rather than seeing the painting of apples, the idea of seeing something through cognitive processes allow one to realize that those brush strokes put together describe the form of apples, not an illusion, yet a representation of form through a gestalt of elements. The very same idea of forming an idea/image because of certain elements is the one that simultaneously allows one to deform an idea/image in order to both voluntarily or accidentally create a distortion or an illusion. “For some reason I see the clouds in, rather than on the face of the lacunae.” (Miller 1999, no page numbers).

In conclusion, I would further like to explore that other place; how it got there and how psychoanalysts and social analysts like artists have explored it, developed and defined it. The urge to use the mirror as a medium in the practice of human exploration, I believe comes from a need to redefine a self, and that place inside the mirror provides that opportunity, the allowance to be whomever one wishes to be and on certain occasions, wherever. Yet the magnificence of this place, and what at the same time allows us to name it a heterotopia, is the property of being able to see yourself within it. Whatever the illusion of the self might be the mirrors provides for you to see it, therefore believe. The mirror might be a cruel judge or might be the most acceptable place one can come across with. What one sees inside the mirror has to do with ones own personal idiosyncrasy and the paraphernalia that might lead to a crafted illusion.

In this essay I have presented certain examples of philosophers, psychoanalysts, conceptual and performing artists which have used the mirror as a case of study, in the terms of it being another place, a pathway or a surface under exploration in all. I will further experiment through my own applications of the notion using the medium of dress, space and film. In my current study of Irma, the character in Genet’s Balcony I will try to apply certain notions that have come through this research. Initially she is a powerful woman, who carries on her shoulders, the pieces of her own reflections of a self, alongside with the burden of providing enough space for her clients to see themselves in the illusion they wish to be, with her retina, as their mirror. Through this application of my study on the reflective image, I wish to illustrate the distorted image of a self-indulging personality, alongside with the property of being a person who is expected to provide an adequate reflection for its environment, and the burden that property is followed by.


Airtime, 1973. [super-8] Directed & Performed: Vito Acconci.

Anish Kapoor. (2004) Cloud Gate. Sculpture: Stainless Steel 10m x 20m x 13m. Millenium Park, Chicago, Illinois, US.

Foucault, M., 1967. Of Other Spaces. Architecture/ Mouvement/ Contivité, [online],  Available at: http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html [Accessed 10 February 2010]

Genet J., 1962. The Balcony. Revised Edition. New York: Grove Press

Jacques Lacan, 1988. Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique [online]. New York: Norton. Available at: http://www.lacan.com/seminars1a.htm[Accessed 10 February 2010]

Krauss R., 1976. Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism. October, Vol. 1, Spring, pp. 50-64.

Lakofski R., 2009. Writings. Copyright: Ruth Middleton.

Miller J., 1998. On Reflection. 1st Edition. GB: National Gallery Publications.

Miller J., 1999. Nowhere in Particular. 1st Edition. GB: Octopus Publisching Group Ltd.

Olafur Eliasson. (2005) Your Invisible House. Installation: Private Collection.

Olafur Eliasson. (2007) Phaedra. [Performance]. Slaatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Germany, 2009.

Olafur Eliasson. (2008) Take Your Time. Installation: PS1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, NY.

Olafur Eliasson. (2008) Mirror Door: spectator, user, visitor. Installation: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Orphée, 1950. [Film]. Directed by Jean Cocteau. France: Andre Paulve Film.

Performer/ Audience / Mirror. By Dan Graham. (1977). [Performance]. Produced: Riverside Studios London (GB). Directed & Performed: Dan Graham.

Ponty, M. M., 1945. Phenomenology of Perception [e-book] Paris: Gallimard Editions Available at: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=q3HwhfjRmswC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_v2_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=&f=false[Accessed 10 February 2010]

The Blood of a Poet. 1930 [Film]. Directed by Jean Cocteau. France: Studiocanal Image.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, 2009. [Film]. Directed by Terry Gilliam. UK: Infinity Features Entertainment.

The Reflecting Pool. 1977-79. [Video]. Directed by: Bill Viola.