It’s a fascinating, often overlooked, fact about Lewis Carroll’s classic Through the Looking-Glass that Alice never actually sees herself in the mirror, even though everything happens within, and because of, the mirror. Alice sees the house, the garden, the flowers, and the red queen. Just not herself. And why should she? Is she supposed to identify with a house? a garden? a matriarch? Is that who she is or who she should be?
On the cover of Trine Søndergaard’s 203 Works, a girl holds a mirror’s edge to the corner of her eye, near her tear duct. It’s a strange image—one that Carroll might easily have imagined for his book. The girl, like Alice, doesn’t use the mirror as it ought to be used. But even if it were facing the girl, what would be the point? Her eyes are closed. Variations of this picture occur throughout 203 Works. Sometimes the mirror functions as a portal, an entrance to a room where everything appears the same, except for the fact that the woman holding the mirror exists nowhere at all in this reflected version of her reality. And in other images, the mirror ornaments the backs of women’s headdresses, which, I can imagine, would make for a bizarre encounter, not with the person wearing the mirror, but with oneself. The more the mirror’s wearer turns away, the more we have to face, well, our own faces.
Despite its peculiarity, there’s something familiar about this type of picture. Something historically resonant. After all, it’s no overstatement to say that the story of women, for centuries, has been one of misuse, poor reflection, and terrible things gone unseen.
Nothing terrible goes unseen in 203 Works. Nor is there anything terrible to see. Søndergaard’s book is a pensive, quiet retrospective. On the darker end of the spectrum, one feels a brooding stillness. On the brighter end: a gentle resolve. But that’s not to say that the historical plights of women do not occur to Søndergaard. In fact, for her first series, Now That You Are Mine (Steidl 2002), Søndergaard lived near Copenhagen’s red light district, documenting the lives of sex workers and experiencing, by association, what the demeaning, unseeing gaze of the district’s clientele felt like.
Although the photographs from Now That You Are Mine were excluded from this new book—an editorial decision that may have had more to do with emotional cohesion than thematic continuity—203 Works distills the essence of that early series: the faces refusing our gaze, the empty rooms, and most importantly, the women who understand what these things mean.
Trine Søndergaard’s 203 Works is a handsome accompaniment to the photographer’s first solo exhibition at the Gothenburg Museum of Art in Sweden. If you weren’t among the fortunate few to have seen the show, not to worry. The book itself retains, quite remarkably, the feel of a museum exhibition, opening as it does, in the vanitas tradition, with an installation of apples (a not unfamiliar way to begin a story mostly about women). As the apples decompose, the color palette decays, leaving behind an assortment of bruised hues. We’ll see these colors again in Søndergaard’s monochrome portraits.
But first, the photographer invites us to step through the looking glass. In a series called Mirrorobject, Søndergaard exhibits intersecting mirrors, their surfaces timeworn and corroded. The exterior defects, at a distance, evoke landscapes, like Japanese suiseki—stones that look like mountain ranges or whose surface imperfections resemble landscape paintings.
The otherworldliness of the mirror object doesn’t originate with Lewis Carroll, of course. Archeologists have discovered several obsidian mirrors, framed by plaster, in Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Buried exclusively with women, these mirrors date back 8,000 years. (Check out Katy Kelleher’s excellent essay on the history of the mirror at Longreads!) In other words, the history of self-reflection, appearing out of a stoney blackness, has been dark, mysterious, and intriguing from the beginning. It’s not difficult to see why. When the mystery itself isn’t a sphinx or a god’s disembodied hand writing riddles on a wall, when the mystery is not the why and how of the cosmos or humanity in the abstract—I mean, when the mystery is simply and specifically you, it’s no wonder the mirror and its keeper accompany one another to the grave.
And despite the composure of Søndergaard’s subjects, despite the freshness of youth in many of the photographs, the grave never seems that far away. Two series of images, in particular, uphold the time-honored tradition of the memento mori. One series goes by the title Nearer the Time. The eyes of the faces in these portraits are closed and life’s warmer tones leached away, as in a Victorian postmortem photograph or like an embalming.
In a different series called Untitled Lace, young girls lie passively, as if sleeping, beneath finely patterned, transparent veils. It’s the pattern that is slightly haunting, given how its shadowy designs, when draped over a face, bring to mind those highly stylized, baroque skulls paraded all across Mexico and the southern U.S. on the Day of the Dead.
The veils remind me of table doilies too. Something about them feels domestic, like I’m constantly being reminded that death is near but home is nearer. And what we make of that nearness is left ambiguous. Unless we ask Alice, who might have an opinion about which is more confounding: death or domestication. Once she makes it past the looking glass, Alice rushes outside, anxious to see what the gardens are like in this topsy turvy universe. But all garden paths lead back to the house. She can’t get away from it. The more she tries, the quicker the garden shoves her back, until finally she’s pushed inside the front door without knowing how she got there. “I never saw such a house for getting in the way! Never!”
Søndergaard’s domestic interiors are dispersed throughout the book. They appear randomly between other series of portraits and landscapes. Maybe because they anticipate someone’s return. Maybe because someone can’t escape them. The windows emit a soft, tranquil light. But hard to ignore is the mirror-like, infinite regression of doors that open to other doors that open to other doors, but never lead outside again.
What does it mean to create a portrait with a face that remains hidden? What does it mean to hold a mirror up to an empty room? I feel an almost reflexive urge to politicize questions like these, especially when women figure so prominently in the work. After all, both the image and the question matter in the real world where the unseen are seldom unseen because they wish to be so. But I don’t think—at least the images do not give me the impression—that we’re meant to comprehend these portraits as reflections of individual identities. Surely these photographs say more about the artist’s psychological interiors than they do about the world outside. Which makes these 203 works a fascinating mosaic/self-portrait of Trine Søndergaard, a mystery as far away from the viewer as the fantasy of Alice and, at the same time, as close as the person looking back from any mirror.