Mark Lewis

Mark Lewis talks about Black Mirror at the National Gallery

Mark Lewis, Black Mirror at the National Gallery, 2011, still from a 4k 35 mm film transferred to 2k 35 mm film, 7 minutes 21 seconds.

Mark Lewis is a Canadian artist and filmmaker based in London. In 2009, he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. Here he discusses the relationship the camera has to composition in his 2011 film Black Mirror at the National Gallery, which has screened at the Venice, Toronto, and Vancouver Film Festivals, and is currently featured in “No More Drawing” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The show is on view until January 2.

I’VE ALWAYS LOVED the following haiku by Garry Winogrand. When he was asked, “Why do you take the pictures of the things you do?” He said, “Simply to see what they look like as pictures.” That’s what I try to do, and that’s how I understand my way of working. I make work to see what happens when I do it. I know that seems unbelievably banal, but for me it’s the only way I can work. Even if I have an idea of a good composition, I want the machine—and in Black Mirror at the National Gallery this means the camera, the mirror, the apparatus that carries the mirror and moves it through the space, and even the space itself—to come up with a composition through a collaborative exercise. The idea that the machine already has these possibilities programmed inside of it is something that feels right to me.

The film deals with a black mirror designed by Martin Szekely, and it literally plots the movement of this mirror as it travels through three of the small galleries in London’s National Gallery, in the rooms devoted to Dutch landscapes. The black mirror is mounted on a large cinematographic motion control machine, and the camera is mounted on a similar machine. These two machines have a balletic pas de deux in the galleries as they move. The mirror eventually finds an image of interest, and that picture, like the mirror itself, is circular. In a way, I thought of that work—Hendrick Avercamp’s 1608–1609 A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle—as the mirror’s doppelgänger, that in this picture it might find something of itself.

In general, we share a sense of what a good composition might look like. For Black Mirror, I thought of the historical relationship the idea of the “good composition” has to the Claude glass. The Claude glass was an instrument that was supposed to reveal a good composition out of a mass of detail. Painters in the nineteenth century were advised to hold this black glass up to a landscape and the condensed, reflected image would reveal whether or not you had a good composition. The point is that the mirror reduced the image.

When we started to shoot at the National Gallery, I wasn’t absolutely sure how the film was going to play out. I knew what the ending was going to be, and I knew more or less what the beginning was, and then I wanted to see what would happen when the mirror and camera started to move around. I did a lot of articulations and feints and eventually settled on the camera move that you see. I tried to imagine that if the mirror—and it’s very similar to the things I’ve imagined for previous films—if the mirror had a kind of consciousness, or a kind of sense of itself in relationship to other things, what would it look at? And I guess that it would skirt over most of the paintings, because it didn’t recognize them or had no interest in them or whatever. The mirror looks at the Vermeer for a while, and it looks at one or two of the other paintings, but in the end the only one it really looks at is Avercamp’s. In fact, what I think it does in the end is make a new composition out of that work and of the two other paintings that are on either side. It creates a kind of pictorial coherence that it didn’t know it was going to find.