During the glory days of psychoanalysis, when one brilliant, amazing, creative and scientifically weak theory followed the other, Jacques Lacan locked onto a piece of scientific research and milked it heavily. Lacan read that starting at the age of 6 months, babies can recognize themselves in mirrors. This led to his theory of the mirror stage. Gazing upon him/herself, the young child realizes an exterior presence in the world. Others are a strong nurturing or intimidating presence on the child and the reflection in the mirror shows the infant that this presence is possible for the child as well. It looks cool and the kid gives it a go. The child thus creates the false conception that he/she is a whole being and not a hodgepodge of motives, emotions, drives and cognitive processes. The child objectifies him/herself and assumes a false identity which obfuscates the complex reality of the inner world.
This objectification process can alienate one from true insight and humane development, but it can also assist one in entering a group of like-minded peers striving to imitate the trappings of a social, economic or professional class. One can lead quite a comfortable life this way. This is the essence of our social world. One also becomes, however, simultaneously a defendant and judge. As an objectified human being who is a presence in the lives of others, one becomes vulnerable to unjust blame or one becomes an unjust blamer. For example, if a person harms me, I simply view him as a malicious or crazy person. I need not even try to understand what situational or emotional factors might have caused the harm. Mere external presence robs one of mitigating situational and emotional factors that lead to behavioral extremes and for which one is not responsible. Objectified, external presence creates the illusion of responsibility and eliminates the need for mercy, understanding and forgiveness. Mirroring leads to a harsh and cruel world.
This works very well as an artistic starting point, if not verifiable science, and it seems to be a big part of the work of Su Misu, represented by the Chi-Wen Gallery in Taipei, Taiwan. Fetishism seems to be employed in her work as an example of the process of the mirror stage. The images of fetishistic practices may, in fact, represent the fetishism inherent in our professional lives. Or the images of folks engaged in acts of bondage may reflect a basic conflict which arises for each of us when we feel compelled to mirror ourselves. Mirroring is our fall, our expulsion from the garden, and in the gazes of the fetishists directed at us we see that there is a complex inner world underlying the trappings. Folks who attended Art Basel Hong Kong and saw Su Misu’s work seemed to be fascinatingly engaged by the gazes of these folks.
Lacan also differentiated between desire and need, stating that the mirroring process allows us to get what we need, but not what we truly desire. Fetishism becomes a need we latch onto, buy into and derive immense gratification from, but it is not what we truly desire. What we truly desire can often be read through the eyes of those photographed. Su Misu also fills many of her photos with depictions of lotus plants or other spiritual symbols, perhaps signifying that one is aware of the unfulfilled desire of humane development, surrounds oneself with it as an ideal, but wallows in one’s needs. In one image we see a young woman dressed in a fetish nun outfit, fishnet stockings, cannabis sunglasses, posing with a selfie stick while looking intently at you with a wry smile. Does she recognize our complicity? Does she know our secret as we stare at her? This image is from the I am a fake but my heart is true series and in another image from this series we cannot tell whether the subject is, due to her fetish activity, in the throes of passion or seeking pity or perhaps both.
Another series of Su Misu shown at Art Basel Hong Kong was the ihategoodbye series. Lacan stated that the inner world was structured like a language and Su Misu possibly plays with this as she shows her subject decoratively tied and covered with writing. A young man is shown in bondage rope staring at us – is he showing self-awareness or a sense of confrontation? In another photo the female subject is squatting in an overtly sexual position, but her sunglasses have come off and we meet her gaze as she is in the act of playing her objectified role. In two photos of a completely naked woman on a couch, we see her in deep reflection, possibly at the moment of insight. In another we see her slightly turned body, with a look of innocence in her eyes as she looks at us. When expelled from the garden we were naked and ashamed (recall Masaccio); has she passed through a process where she has overcome shame and reconnected with the most meaningful aspects of her inner world?
Heinrich von Kleist once wrote: “… Just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity… grace itself returns when knowledge has gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness”. If mirroring represents a fall, in the photos of Su Misu, we see those who seem to be striving for the infinite consciousness, which, according to Kleist, will allow us to eat again of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as our departure toward grace. These are folks who have sensed something is wrong and are slowly working toward the humble acceptance of the full experience of their inner lives, by exiting through the mirror that once enthralled them.