29 September 2010

Reflecting Pools

Recent attempts to capture video images reflected in the Thames have been frustrated by a number of factors: dim light on overcast windy days creates a surface that reflects little but the cloud and then that is broken up by ripples; the river is also prone to murkiness when the mud gets churned up, but there is something essential to the nature of the river itself that frustrates the attempts, it is deep and tidal, which means that it is forever a large bulk of water that never stays still.

Recently it was the ninth anniversary of the collapse of the Twin Towers of the New York World Trade Centre. There were reports of relatives of the victims gathering at a 'reflecting pool' at the former site of the towers.  What is a 'reflecting pool'? The answer that Wikipedia gives is that it "is a structure often used in memorials. It generally consists of a shallow pool of water, usually quite calm. A design with edges being slightly deeper than the center of the pool is often used to suppress wave formation."  It seems that there are a number of such things in various places around the world.  We are told that there is one at the Taj Mahal reflecting an image of the mausoleum and at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, US where "behind the basilica sits the famous, yet intimate Grotto - a Marian place of prayer and reflection. It is a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, France where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858."

Robert Osborn promises to 'deconstruct' the Lincoln Memorial, but does little to illuminate the intended purpose, meaning or significance of the reflecting pool that reflects both the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

We are also promised that the National September 11 Memorial and Museum will have two reflecting pools on the location where the Twin Towers stood.  If the architect Daniel Libeskind is a 'deconstructivist' as stated and holds to the postmodernist idea of architecture as a language capable of transmitting meaning, his Master Plan would suggest that there is indeed a meaning, a symbolic nature and a purpose to the reflecting pools.

The reflecting pool currently at Ground Zero, however, is provisional and really quite small; on Saturday 11 September 2010 was filled with flowers and, one would imagine, did very little reflecting.

It is perhaps appropriate that in order to deconstruct the idea of the reflecting pool, I have to work from reflection, from deduction based on referents, because I can find little specific or explicit reference stating what the intended purpose of such structures might be. Libeskind himself offers that the memorial site will be "...a quiet, meditative and spiritual space" and "a space of reflection, of meditation", and in the 'Site Program' I found reference to a "Memorial--Reflecting Absence", so there is the idea of both literal and metaphorical reflection embodied in this site of meditation along with the symbolism of the reflection of absence.

The concerns with meditation and reflection sound Buddhist and sure enough we find in the teaching of Dogen Zenji the idea of the reflecting pool representing the duality of form, being and non-being, and used metaphorically as a place for meditation.

Is Bill Viola's The Reflecting Pool linked to Buddhism? Ida Panicelli certainly thinks so: "Bill Viola's video The Reflecting Pool, 1977-79 perfectly summarizes some of the fundamental steps of Buddhist experience: self-inquiry, the negation of the individual ego, the interrelatedness of all human beings and nature... Viola conveys the radical transformation of mind that occurs in the practice of meditation, when the individual ego is purified until it disappears, the aesthetic and the ethical merge, and the void gives rise to innocent and spontaneous action." While Cate Elwes (in Video Art, A Guided Tour) takes the more formal interpretation that it is "reflecting the pictorial landscape painting that employed deep-space perspective anchored to a monocular viewing position." The figure is from another religious fable,"a modern day Adam" in "primal nakedness", while the "compression of different time-frames" producing this "illusory rural view", reveal both the video apparatus and the"artist's subjectivity", and finally at last the metaphysical payoff as the result of all this is to "suggest a harmonious, even spiritual relationship between humanity and nature".  Maria Luis Syring is quite clear about it being "a parable of mystic experience... He has trodden another sphere, a secret strange world of which we, as yet, know nothing". (Bill Viola, Unseen Images, Whitechapel Gallery, 1994) Wow. None of this is terribly surprising, Viola is renowned for his work being variously symbolic, metaphysical, metaphorical and concerned with mysticism.

The cultural construction and resonance of the concept of reflecting pools are then linked to the metaphysical, in art and religion as in symbolic architecture, as memorials they embrace both the deep thought of reflection and the non-thought of meditation. But who or what is reflected?

The idea of the reflection as memorial is reminiscent of Jean Baudrillard's writing in Simulations about the "precession of simulacra" and the "desert of the real" perfectly describing a landscape in which the mirage preceded the image. In Google images of reflecting pools many mirror buildings or monuments: the image, the reflection, but not the thing in itself, it is the simulacra that is the subject of reflection. Perhaps this is the key to its significance, the simultaneous existence of the notions of surface and depth, the simulation and the real, the reflection of absence, a duality of form, being and non-being, the narcissism of reflection, architecture and the memorial.

And so we return to 9/11.  Jarek Kupsc directed and played the lead role in a film about 9/11, The Reflecting Pool, a drama made as a vehicle for raising questions about what actually happened, positing the theory that the Government was responsible and the alleged terrorists were patsies.  The film is actually a rather pedestrian affair, presenting its theories via an investigation of the events by a Russian-American journalist and a father of a 9/11 victim implicates the US government in the attacks and reclaims the revelation of its truths as an act of patriotism, to demonstrate "what they're doing to our country".  Its central theory is that the WTC7 building was rigged for demolition in advance, and by extension so were the Twin Towers, the evidence being the trademark characteristic of sophisticated demolition planning is that the towers fell straight down into their own footprints. What is interesting is that the filmmakers decided to make a fictionalised account rather than a documentary: perhaps to distance the project from the plethora of YouTube 'conspiracy theory' videos and the lack of credibility inspired by their sometimes hysterical hectoring, they opted for a restrained but somewhat cliched dramatic approach. The commentary on the DVD version is full of details of the extensive research that underpins the film, careful to cite real world sources, reports, technical details and so on, describing where dramatised interviews are composites of transcripts of actual interviews, and so on, all to reinforce the veracity of the story.  The WTC reflecting pool is never referred to in the film apart from a brief graphic in the title sequence.  Perhaps the intention is for The Reflecting Pool to be considered to present a reflection of the facts, however in this case whatever 'truth' there is, is more likely to be found out of direct sight, under the surface, and on the DVD commentary.


  1. Interesting stuff – The reflective pool is perhaps just one strand of the human desire to be near water; to build ponds, lakes and other water features or even to just to sit in a chair gazing at a river or the sea.There is something about still or slow moving water that does seem to be calming and encourage contemplation or as you say reflection.

    The mirror/water narcissism relationship was of course delved into in Cocteau’s Orphee with the mirror as surface one could plunge into (with rubber gloves) to enter the underworld.

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  3. I suppose I'm trying to avoid the idea that there is an innate or essential desire to be in the presence of bodies of water, not so much because I want to deny that, more because I'm interested in how these things are determined or interpreted culturally. Cocteau uses water as a visual cinematographic device to suggest the mirror as a permeable surface. The conflation of narcissism and descent to the underworld is interesting.

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