Mirror to the lips



'Mirror to the lips: Holography of Paula Dawson' Boutwell Draper Gallery (2004)

From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror... makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.

Michel Foucault 'Of other spaces' Diacritics 1986, 16, pp. 22-27, p. 24

Paula Dawson is well versed in the language of light. For thirty years, she has been exploring its mysteries, through exhibitions, research residencies, workshops, teaching and filmmaking. Unlike painters such as Cezanne and Turner who have studied its effects, Dawson works directly with the medium itself. Her brush is laser transmission and her canvas is holographic film. Dawson's career is a remarkable and enduring marriage of art and technology.

The longevity of this marriage is testimony to the primordial mystery of representation. The hologram is a mirror frozen in time. Like the mirror, it contains the capacity of motion parallax. Both grant us a view into the mirror world of our own.

But the mystery has gathered dust. A combination of industrialisation and familiarity has led us to take mirrors very much for granted. So used to these devices, we find it hard to recall the wonder of the mirror world. Colonists in Africa were able to trade whole valleys for one of these magical devices. Today, descendents of the white colonists are still known as 'mlungu', the magic people, for their powerful pieces of glass that could capture the entire world.

The status of a mirror as object makes it difficult to acknowledge its place as an artistic medium, alongside paint and marble. Dawson's artistic adventure is to explore the limits of this dimension, both as a material for art and a window into our minds.

To enter one of Dawson's holographic installations is to lose oneself. In her French work, Domaine Deux Maine (year?) , visitors approached a wash basin to find someone else's face in the mirror, and another person's hands visible below the water line. Her 1989 holographic installation To Absent Friends was based the mirror in Manet's A bar at Folies-Bergere . Visitors to Dawson's bar-room gazed into the background mirrors to see scenes from before, during and after New Year's Eve. The holographic scene in Eidola Suite (year?) contained a mirror which acted as a hologram within a hologram. And Shrine of the Sacred Heart (1997) created a contemplative space with room only for one person at a time to gaze into the scene.

In this exhibition, the works invite us into a labyrinth of mirrors, both live and frozen in time. The Hohlraum surrounds the viewer in a paradox. The room made of mirrors contains within itself holographs that depict another mirrorised room, where beams of light are broken by a wooden Aikido sword. As with many of Paula's works, we have trouble finding ourselves. The dramatic agency of the sword binds this scene together.

In Mirror Mirror , Dawson's reproduction of a Greek caryatid contains a holograph of one person's face. Holding the mirror and gazing into it, we see our own reflection superimposed over that of the original subject. Our transient breathing self is contrasted with the ever-present face that lurks below the surface. We can imagine the uncanny sensation of the person who first commissioned the portrait, now gazing into this other self.

The first subject for this treatment is the legendary dancer, Graeme Murphy. It seems fitting that someone known for his mastery of movement is memorialised in its frozen antithesis. Dawson has cast her subject in a solid mould of light.

While we lose ourselves in Dawson's works, we also know we are alive. After all, isn't that how you tell if someone is still with the living, to hold a mirror to their lips?