Claude Glass Re-visited: ‘…the largest down to the smallest balls of mercury reflect the entire universe’

Alison Dalwood

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

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The book in which this essay is published Wonder in Contemporary Artistic Practice specifically focuses on the topic of wonder and the way in which artists utilize the function of wonder consciously in their work. Although established in the philosophy and history of science, the topic of wonder in relation to art practitioners has so far been largely unacknowledged and under explored. In this context my essay examines how wonder can be construed by destabilizing our perception of reality. Specifically, the chapter questions how our too-casual replication of the world impacts on our experience of wonder and presents practice-led research concerned with the possibility of experiencing wonder through the poetic transformation conjured by a contemporary version of the 18th Century Claude glass.
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The chapter examines how the 18th Century Claude glass has significance for a contemporary practitioner in relation to the philosophy as well as the science of this largely forgotten optical apparatus and how the Romantic aesthetics which inspired the original 18th Century traveller to carry with them this small mirror are not so far away from our own contemporary quest of wonder. I discuss how applying the simple technology of this traditional device converts an image of the world into a site of wonder and how perception of the shifting light reflected in the surface simultaneously activates liminal and illusionistic space. I examine how artefacts and installations I have produced overlap location with mirrored space to achieve a dialectic of site, surface and viewer, functioning in a similar way to the original Claude glass. The essay argues that reality, if mediated, for example with a clouded mirror to produce blurred or veiled distortion shows us the world as we experience it, through imaginative association. In this case the mirror has another function from the one originally envisaged when the glass formed a subtle barrier for the tourist which rendered nature manageable. Instead, my use of a landscape-mirroring device offers a point of axis, a point of consciousness, which transforms through heightened awareness – a tool used to surpass perception.
Ultimately, this chapter explores a radically new relation between the largely forgotten Claude glass and contemporary art by examining my own practice, for example the permanent installation Time Visible as Moving Light, 2007, alongside Robert Smithson’s Third Mirror Displacement and Robert Irwin’s exploration of attentive viewing. Whereas writing about the Claude glass or black mirror tends towards historical understanding, this essay goes well beyond a study of the original glass and its uses and instead explores artworks which are contemporary versions of the black mirror and which are of significance to the topic of wonder today. This carries debate into the studio and into phenomenology, blending richer questions about the use of mirrors in art, the destabilization of the picture surface by digital media and how and where wonder is inspired in contemporary culture.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWonder in Contemporary Artistic Practice
EditorsChristian Mieves, Irene Brown
Place of PublicationOxford
ISBN (Electronic)978-1138855816
ISBN (Print)978-1138855812
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2017

Publication series

NameRoutledge Advances in Art and Visual Studies


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