Glass-eyed: A consideration of art, science, & optics

By Alan Dean Foster

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

It’s safe to say that Walt Whitman wasn’t thinking of fun house mirrors when he composed that line, but it fits what has always been a historically popular combination of physics and art. The reproduction of self or other objects, ad infinitum, has long been both possible and fascinating. Best of all, it requires a minimum of investment and effort.

When I was a kid, there used to be an over-the-water entertainment venue in Santa Monica, California, called Pacific Ocean Park. It had one decent, expensive ride, the Banana Train, to which was appended a host of Coney Island-type games and rides with ocean themes. It was over the water, so I didn’t care if some of it was a little tacky. But besides the classy Banana Train, I distinctly remember the park’s version of fun house mirrors. Along with the usual warped mirrors that made you look fat, or tall, there was an “infinity” room, where you could stand in the center surrounded by mirrors and see yourself reproduced over and over again, until your multitudinous tiny selves vanished like ants, swallowed up by distance and time. It was only simple optics, but it fascinated me.

It fascinated Orson Welles, too, who utilized the same fun house mirrors in “The Lady from Shanghai” and, later and more memorably, in 1958’s “A Touch of Evil.”

Something in us responds to visual tricks involving a combination of distance and duplication. Purely on an intellectual level, we react to the science. On an emotional level, to the art. Dresses in India, especially wedding dresses, have traditionally made use of bits of mirror when the bride’s family couldn’t afford gems, a practice still much in vogue today. Brides reflect others in the wedding party, who reflect back on the bride, and so on. Maharajahs’ palaces are filled with mirrored rooms, showing that our delight in infinite reflections reaches back hundreds, if not thousands of years. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles enabled kings and nobles to see themselves magnified hundreds of times. Which, after all, is what they really wanted all along.

I expect a hall of mirrors installation in the White House any day now.

I bring all this up by way of referencing what is arguably the most popular art exhibition currently running in this country: Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at the Hirschhorn museum in Washington. It looks like enormous fun and the demand for tickets is overwhelming, but I see nothing that deviates from the old infinity mirror room at Pacific Ocean Park. In saying that I don’t mean in any way to take away from the delight provided by Kusama’s work. What’s old is often new again, and if that means filling an infinity room with rows of illuminated polka-dotted fake pumpkins, why, I’ve always enjoyed whimsy in art, whether by Hogarth or Bosch or … Kusama.

If an art installation is worthwhile, you disappear into it, be it sculpture, painting, or glass. In Kusama’s vision, you don’t just disappear into it, you literally step inside it. It’s what we might call hard virtual reality: no fancy lenses or adjuvant electronics necessary.

I have a small infinity box. Inside, a single light source is multiplied by mirrors. The idea is to stare deep, deep into the artificial infinity to help relax your mind. I guess it doesn’t work appropriately for me because staring into it makes my mind churn as I contemplate physics and optics and bulbs and all the practical stuff.

There’s a better example inside the elevators of the Burj Khalifa. Located in Dubai, the Burj is currently the tallest building on Earth. Visitors can only ride as far as the upper observation deck, located at 555 meters (1821’). To reach it, you rise via specially designated high-speed elevators which are lined inside with … mirrors. The lights go out, and you are invited to gaze into your own ascending infinity mirror room, inside a working elevator. The idea is to get your mind off the fact that you are rocketing skyward in a little box suspended on cables, and to make the journey pass more quickly. It works. I compare it to standing outside at night and gazing up at the night sky, trying to gather in all the stars, while time passes.

So … I love infinity mirrors. Art plus optics. Maybe another time, I’ll talk about kaleidoscopes.

Right now, I’m thinking of Kusama’s work, which contains multitudes. Even if, unlike Whitman’s poetry, they do have to be plugged in.

*****

Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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