Mirrored The Photography of Maslen & Mehra
written by Eugen Blume, Chief Curator Hamburger Bahnhof Museum Berlin
The pair of artists Tim Maslen and Jennifer Mehra attained international recognition through their large-format colour photography, which most often presents landscapes. For these photographs, they have developed special light-boxes which, in contrast to the backlit photographs of Jeff Wall, for instance, mostly stand upon the ground and extend the perspective of the picture, as if in an extension of the pictorial space, right into these landscapes. Through their metal framing and rounded corners, they clearly recall the framed pictures of fine art, the discipline of painting which was the first to free itself from the wall and to lay claim to a frame for the demarcation which was henceforth deemed to be necessary. These details, however, constitute only incidental aspects in the works of Maslen and Mehra. It is in the silhouetted figures placed directly into the landscape that these artists, each still less than forty years old, have found their distinctive language. These figures, whose outlines render human shapes exactly, possess no interior structure but are cut in two dimensions out of mirrored aluminium. With their approximately halfway life-sized proportions, they are positioned within the landscape in such a manner as to convey the impression that it is a matter of full-sized figures, which, by means of their clothing, pay homage to a special camouflage technique. Of course, the aluminium mirror takes on those aspects of the landscape which are reflected upon it but which, because of the degree of inclination assumed by the two-dimensional figures, do not necessarily correspond to that which surrounds them in the landscape. From time to time, the blue sky is mirrored within an expanse of green grass, so that the figures emerge crisply out of their surroundings, in their colouration as well. They issue a reminder of the flat shapes of traditional silhouettes, which, however, by means of a black hue that is complementary to the mirroring aluminium, induce the viewer to reconstruct mentally the interior reality of the delineated figures. Strangely enough, this black hue functions in a manner similar to that of the mirrored aluminium. Even though nothing was represented upon its dull surface, still the viewer's memory associated all the pertinent details, so that a poor king limned in silhouette was nevertheless richly attired. One could even surmise his robe lined with ermine. In the animated films developed during the 1920s, there was mirrored - if one were inclined to range far afield - albeit with narrative intention, but closely related on an essential level, the spiritual dimension of an icon of Modernism, the black square of Malevich. This black colour functioned as well as a blank space, in a spiritual sense as the Divine Void, which has been described by both European and Asian mystics.
The mirroring figures of Maslen and Mehra play a role similar to that of these shadowy figures, even if the reflected segments of nature impart an interior delineation to them and the viewer comes to fantasize real clothing for them, for example, the weapons and uniforms of the figures which are often thereby made recognizable as soldiers. There is a simple explanation for the reason why human vision reacts in this way. The landscape reflected upon the shape is not considered to be real by the normative criteria stored in our consciousness. It is automatically replaced by an interior structure, which is more appropriate to the exterior figuration. The human being flows out of his natural limitation, as it were, into these diverse, occasionally magnificent landscapes. He is completely assimilated by the reflecting surface, absorbed into something out of which he was originally driven. The metaphor of a mirror-man awakens nothing other than the primal longing to be connected once again in an integral manner to nature. Human beings in the landscape are a quite common topos, which extends throughout art history. They refer to the primal scene, to the banishment from the paradisiacal garden through the knowledge of good and evil. Ever since this original exile, humanity has striven to reduce the intervening distance, to attain once again the homeland from which it became alienated through the mind, through cognition. A critical observation of the present era does not, however, lead to the uplifting conclusion that humanity is currently embarked upon the path of coming to understand itself as both nature and spirit in equal measure. The human violations of nature are too severe. It is as if humanity were attempting to establish an objective overview in the very act of retaliating for its banishment by means of a total annihilation of nature. The fundamental process, which has been unleashed, especially by the global industrializing endeavours of the twentieth century, is an all-encompassing destruction of the environment. In spite of various oppositional movements, this process cannot be stopped, but on the contrary, it is speeding up more and more. Humanity has begun, instead of recalling in a productive manner its origin within nature, to transform itself into a nature-less mirror-mankind. It is not by chance that armed soldiers arise in the magically photographed landscapes of Maslen and Mehra, without it ever becoming clear what goals they are pursuing. They as well are occupied by the landscape in an utter lack of distinction. They lose their subjectivity in a reflection, which is projected onto the figures. By means of the fixed delineation of their surface, they are at the mercy of nature, even while they cling to the mistaken belief that it is they who project their image onto nature. All military goals remain secondary in the face of the omnipotence of natural processes. The figures summon up reminiscences of the conquerors, the conquistadores, the foreign legionnaires and soldiers whose role it was to shore up the colonial ambitions of the European and American powers. This penetration of strangers into a strange land for the purpose of violence, such as was described so forcefully for the Belgian Congo by Joseph Conrad in his book The Heart of Darkness, is doomed to failure, as is announced metaphorically by the mirrored images. Nature is much more vast and mighty. It marks the human beings living within its realm, and not the other way around.
Of course, the works of Maslen & Mehra may be read, beyond these sombre considerations, as un-constricted, aesthetic play, even as a photographic paraphrase of Surrealism. Salvador Dali and René Magritte once painted similar reflecting figures, which could not be distinguished from nature to which they belong. Especially with Magritte, there are pictures in which the silhouette of a figure merges with the surrounding landscape. The mirror is an especially important metaphor for Magritte. He was the first artist to cut out figures and to project the surrounding landscape into their interior surface. In his case, however, it is a matter of a fantasized image of painting, a surreal action. Maslen and Mehra, on the other hand, are much more concerned with investigating the ways in which such shapes could function in reality itself. The effects are astounding where, within the reflecting figures in a manner quite similar to that of René Magritte, that which surrounds them is mirrored halfway, for example, a field of debris on the bank of a river. We could extend the sequence of associations even further to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, where Alice passes through a mirror to enter into an enchanted world in which all relationships and proportions seem to have been inverted. But here the figures placed within the landscape do not pass through a mirror into another space but are instead themselves a mirror, through which or upon which the landscape is reflected. The human being dissolves at the most intense instant of reflection and becomes indistinguishable from that which surrounds him.
The camouflage is a perfect success. The figures, whose visible weapons suggest soldiers, are of course particularly suitable for allowing the idea of camouflage to emerge into prominence. Soldiers camouflage themselves in order to no longer be seen by the enemy. The mirror seems to provide an ideal camouflage, inasmuch as it reflects nothing other than that which surrounds it. And yet the figures remain strangely visible, mirroring something incalculable and only in the rarest cases reflecting that which, with camouflage in a military sense, would be necessary for a successful attack. It is especially this military aspect which calls to mind the films of Terrence Malick, especially The Thin Red Line, a war film which takes place mostly out in the landscape of nature, in high verdant grass through which soldiers move as if they were mere vacant mirrorings.
Translated from German