This is the first time I have written for the Young Arnolfini blog as I have been away at Warwick University, studying for my final year. Now university has finished and I am back in Bristol for the summer it is great to be a part of this group again – and to see how much it has evolved and progressed from the initial meetings I attended this time last year. I thought I would begin contributing to the YA blog by sharing some thoughts on one of the drawings that most stood out for me in the current exhibition of Sophie Ryder’s work at the RWA.
‘Minotaur in a Mirror’ is the largest pencil drawing on display in the RWA’s Monumental exhibition of Sophie Ryder’s work. It depicts a minotaur looking almost anxiously into a mirror, as though trying to ‘see’ himself clearly. The action of ‘seeing’ oneself, to negotiate one’s identity, as well as negotiating interactive spaces and relationships with ‘others’, are key motifs in Ryder’s work. This drawing however is the time she uses a mirror to represent these issues.
Mirrors feature in many feminist literatures, images and artworks in similar ways. For example the inclusion of mirrors is a typical feature of female photographers’ self-portraits in the 1920s. Isle Bing, Florence Henri and Lotte Jacobi come to mind. In terms of literature, ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall, and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter all use mirror motifs to negotiate or form a sense of subjectivity and develop knowledge of the ‘self’.
The minotaur’s masculine body is physically powerful. The attention given to the shading round the muscles clearly shows this. Yet, the inclusion of the mirror and attention given to ‘seeing’ suggest the beast has a searching and vulnerable mind. He could almost be looking in the mirror in search of a companion to comfort himself. In this way, there is a discrepancy between the inside and outside, between inward and outward realities. The outside appears strong, but the inside is acutely vulnerable. This dichotomy is emphasised by the inclusion of the mirror in the composition. It makes the minotaur both the subject and the object, a self and an other. He is simultaneously in a passive and powerful position.
The mirror – and the way the minotaur is reflected in it – throws up many questions. Is he looking at his idealised self or a projection of his imagination? Is there even a mirror at all, or is it just a prominent metaphor for his ‘second’ or ‘sub’ conscious? Is the mirror a barrier? Does it mark a division between imagination (or illusion) and reality? Does it suggest the limits and containment of the mind? Is the mirror a stage onto which one can project and ‘re-see’ oneself? The minotaur is turned inwards, suggesting the scene is not theatrical but rather a dramatic projection inwards towards the self.
However the drawing does not depict a clear mirror image because the minotaur’s head is not reflected ‘accurately’ in the mirror. Additionally, both bodies are drawn and represented in the same way – such as using the same amount of shading, depth and solidity. Therefore, it is impossible to tell which minotaur is the reflection and which the ‘real’ body and contemplative audience.
The way the minotaur and the mirror interact is indeed puzzling. There is no central figure to look at. This disrupts the viewer’s gaze, which provokes in the viewer similar feelings of insecurity as the minotaur is shown to feel. We have no mastery over the world, the idea of reality, what we see. Ultimately, we have no mastery over ourselves, and so the self remains unknowable.
This drawing reminds us that we are made up of split, fragmentary selves – and the different parts cannot be accessed all at once. With this in mind, I feel the overarching question this drawing poses is which side of ourselves are we going to see and project today?