Artist at Life
Questions & Answers
(excerpts from an interview with F. Thibault — Vancouver, 22 January 2014)
Describe the Two-Way Mirror projects.
The Two-Way Mirror interprets visually the idea that the world is a construct of each of our own brains, in the sense that the entirety of our perception arises only in our mind, and not actually in the world that might exist without us in it. My work encourages you, as a viewer, to explore this idea by placing a glass screen between you and the world, and inviting you to draw or trace what you see through that glass. As you draw, your marks subjectively interpret the world, but also come to block out the world as the glass fills with your interpretive image. Metaphorically, the glass is like a mind filter. Maybe you begin life without one—you aren’t born self-conscious. But as soon as you realize your separateness from the world, or your isolation within it, self and self-consciousness are born. That’s really when you are born, rather than just your body, your organism. That’s when the glass appears, and when you start putting paint on it. Perhaps we’re all animated by the same life source, but from that point forth our individual perceptions of the world, and the meanings we make of it, are unique to each of us.
If the glass represents the filter of your mind, the painting crystallizes your perception of the object on its far side. This becomes most interesting when the object you’re drawing is another person—especially a person you know well—rather than just some inert object or abstract form, because our psychological and visual response to other people is so complex. It’s easy to feel like we can tell something about the lives and thoughts of strangers just by glancing at their photographs, and yet many of us can’t even recognize ourselves except in the few postures we vainly present to ourselves in mirrors. Of course, art has always celebrated the incredible psychic force of the human image, the human portrait.
In its most evolved form, such as in my "I See You" performance, the two-way mirror encourages both you and a partner—your lover, a parent, your enemy if you can get them to sit with you!—to paint each others’ images on opposite sides of the glass simultaneously. You begin the experiment as perhaps you began your relationship, as newcomers to each other with views of each other unshaped by desire or experience. As you add marks—as you begin to internalize your experience of each other—your marks and theirs begin to interact in the drawing, to complement or compete with each other, but also to obscure the actual person on the other side, painting you in front of you. Eventually their reality might become completely overwhelmed by your perception. The final result—which for both of you is simultaneously your co-created child and your two-headed monster—captures and mates together your perceptions of each other, and becomes an artistic externalization—a symbol or a sign—of your relationship with that person.
Why the title?
People know what a “mirror” is—you see yourself—and mirrors play a huge role in defining our idea of our appearance, our identity, and our self. People know what a “one-way mirror” is—you see yourself, but at the same time, someone else is watching you: the police, secret agents, the mad scientist, etc. “Two-way mirror” felt right for a device in which you can watch someone else watching yourself, and for one where the roles of watcher and watched are symmetric and in flow. The mirror effect in this case is created not by the glass but rather by the interactive drawing process. As each participating mind gets visually inscribed on the glass, the device for looking through—the glass—becomes more and more a device for looking at—the mirror.
Artistically, who or what are your influences here?
Well, people have been creating machines to help them draw since at least Dürer and Leonardo—probably since drawing began. I’ve been more directly inspired by two contemporary Vancouver artists. Alain Boullard paints on Plexiglas, raw expressive overlays that he lays on top of more traditional portraiture. When I saw these I was struck by how they were like layers of emotion, and I immediately wanted to do that but with real life: to layer an explicit emotional screen on top of it. That definitely inspired me to this notion of the transparent substrate. Then Michael Markowsky has worked in the past with blind drawings and with various devices that enforce artistic “blindness.” He’s been interested in exploring the disconnect between drawing where you can see the drawing you’re working on and situations where you can’t, where your perception of the subject isn’t influenced by your perception of your evolving visual recreation of it. In my work, this became an interest in having your actual vision of the subject progressively obscured by your actual drawing—in having a continuum of experience where your perception of the world becomes more and more explicitly your perception and less and less the world.
Considering the role of time in your work, it seems to me we naively believe that the more we interact with others, the better we get to know them—the more we work through or beyond our preconceptions. But your piece implies the more we “work” with them (the longer we paint them), the more their reality becomes replaced by our projection of them, by our fantasy or idées fixes about them. Is that the right implication, and if so, do you believe that? Is it hopeless—can we never come to know another?
I certainly do believe that we can come to know each other very well and I think that the best way to know another is to know oneself. (This is what the two-way mirror concept is about: all knowledge is self-knowledge!) The act of completely blocking the view of the other person with one's drawing of them simply illustrates the reality that this can also happen in our own minds when we make assumptions about the people that we feel we know. What I want is for the Two-Way-Mirror exercise to offer participants a visual and experiential understanding of this concept. The more we can come to recognize what our thinking patterns are and the ways in which our past experiences influence our perceptions of the world in each moment, the more of an “objective” view we can then have of the world, “objectivity” being the name we give to self-aware subjectivity. In terms of this project, understanding and knowing another could translate visually as considering the piece as one image with two sides that communicate in parts, or in leaving blank spaces so that one never totally obscures the “real” person behind their representation. It might mean something different for each person. Ultimately, this artistic exploration does not offer a solution but rather invites us to reacquaint ourselves, for a moment, with the role our own mind plays in convincing us the “reality” of our actual perception is somehow a perception of some actual “reality”
Are you “done” with this project, or is it still ongoing? If so, what’s next?
Since I first began exploring the metaphor of the “mind filter of the real” through drawing people or objects (“the real”) on transparent overlays (“the mind filter”), the most powerful energy so far has been in the situation I described earlier, where two people, especially two intimate people, draw each other. So I’d like to imagine an exhibition someday with one or multiple two-way mirrors set up, and with lots of glass or—cheaper—acetate, so that viewers could sit down, draw each other or, lacking partners, themselves. One station might have a mirror for “selfies.” Then we’d hang all their creations on the gallery walls.
I’d also like to pursue this project in art therapy, where in the hands of a good counselor it might be an interesting tool for couples’ introspection. There’s not a clear lesson or single insight that I think the two-way mirror delivers, but the process of using it and its images can be really rich. You’re performing the action of the theory of the mind-filter, and the tool makes the idea of subjectivity very concrete. It creates a physical object, separate from the participants or their thoughts and opinions and voices, that in turn opens up opportunities for fresh inspection and re-engagement through dialog.
Finally, at a less intense level, the two-way mirror makes explicit a lot of basic premises of art-making: the role of seeing, of interpretation, of “projection” both in the sense of flattening the world onto a canvas and in the sense of imposing your own subjectivity on things, and so on. It’s easy to draw with, and also pretty fun if you’ve got a good partner. So it seems to me this would be a nice tool to take into the arts-education classroom, perhaps even with very young kids, to use as a scaffold for discussions about what it means to make sense of the world, what it means to make art.