Text by William Summerfield
"But don’t you remember, we’ve met before."
"We, we have…?"
"Well of course, you’ve said so yourself, once upon a dream."
You’d be forgiven for thinking this piece of gaslighting came from an online chat room rather than an exchange between Sleeping Beauty and her prince charming in Disney’s classic film. Re-viewed with a contemporary mind, the conversation takes on a darker meaning, evoking our understanding of memory and the gap between the real and the illusionary. Cypriot artist Marina Xenofontos’s haunting show explores these themes, examining our relationship with the digital realm and technology, exposing how it both fails and traps us, dragging us into its lies and fantasies. For as Sleeping Beauty sings a few lines before, “visions are seldom as they seem…”
At the centre of the show is the sculpture Twice Upon a While (2020), the figure of an oversized young girl carved out of wood and sat at a large desk with a mirrored surface. Stuck looking at her own reflection and unable to look away, Xenofontos recalls the pose of Caravaggio’s baroque masterpiece Narcissus (ca. 1597-99), creating a modern re-telling of the Classical myth. Here the girl becomes trapped not simply by her own beauty, but by her representation — how she appears reflected to others.
This wooden avatar is mechanically made, rendering it unnervingly smooth and featureless. Despite this, when seen in the mirror, the empty face is somehow changed, the reflection causing a split between the physical and visual being. This phenomenon is reminiscent of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s iconic Untitled (1928) portrait of Cahun standing in front of a mirror; the same look says something wholly different when seen in reflection. The work reminds us that that we have no real control over what we present; the illusion takes over and is stolen from us, until we become as empty as this wooden girl.
Through the prism of the mirror, the other pieces of the show come slowly into focus. Hanging on the wall opposite is a square of rusted bronze (Set Theory, 2020), a degradation of the minimalist square perhaps, echoing the corruption of the mind. Behind the girl, a wheel rotates, the sound of the spinning providing a hypnotic accompaniment to the show (Data Storage of a true spectrum, 2020). Attached to the wheel are pieces of broken CDs — once a breakthrough piece of technology for data storage, now all but obsolete. Once a day, sunlight hits the wheel, causing a rainbow to be reflected onto the gallery walls. Teasingly, this moment only happens outside opening hours, a transitory moment hidden from view, only visible in photos and Instagram stories.
The works build on one another, but never quite overlap, in a process the artist has described as like a Venn diagram. Working through the show, ideas come to light one by one, reflecting the process of memory as you cast around for meaning. The sheer volume of pieces on display and their wide variety can, however, leave you a little adrift; the gallery’s back room felt — despite the sustained quality of the works — cut-off, a step too far from the path. I found myself instead returning again and again to that wooden girl, just about stopping myself from getting caught too in the mirror.