Entering the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a viewer sees a perplexing sculpture hanging in the corner. As Yet Untitled by the modern sculptor Anish Kapoor comprises thousands of hexagonal mirrors, each no more than an inch across, which compose a reticulate pattern and combine to form an enormous concave disc. Its mirrored surface reflects light from every direction, displaying countless miniature images. From a distance, the structure appears nebulous, a distorted and unsettling reflection of its surroundings. As the viewer approaches the disc, he sees a warped and unfocused reflection of himself; surrounding this reflection, there hover thousands of miniature viewers, each staring directly back.
As Yet Untitled generates an unnerving sense of being watched, similar to the sensation described by Michel Foucault in “Panopticism.” In this essay, the French philosopher describes how society imposes discipline in the modern age. Using Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as an architectural model, Foucault unravels the intricate control structures that permeate society. Systems of omnipresent surveillance make everything visible and compel people into a state of submissive productivity, clouding their individuality. Although Kapoor’s As Yet Untitled functions by exaggerating visibility, it ultimately blurs reality, reproducing the systems of control at work in Foucault’s panoptic society. A juxtaposition of the essay and the artwork exposes the potency of each: Foucault’s essay explains the overwhelming effect of Kapoor’s sculpture, while the sculpture provides a tangible manifestation of the theoretical power mechanism described in the essay.
The Panopticon is a spectacular specimen of discipline and power. Foucault describes the structure as “an annular building,” the perimeter of which “is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building” (200). Each cell has “two windows,” one facing inwards towards the center of the building and one facing outwards, so as to “allow the light to cross the cell from one end to the other” (200). At the center of the building is a tower, “pierced with wide windows that open in the inner side of the ring,” so that a supervisor can “observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery” (200). When a person stands at the focal point of As Yet Untitled, he becomes the supervisor and each individual mirror becomes a cell, imprisoning the miniature reflection of the viewer. Like the cells of the Panopticon, each mirror is “like so many cages, so many small theatres,” in which each image of the viewer is “perfectly alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible” (200). Both structures require the constant presence of light. The Panopticon relies on backlighting to illuminate the inmate’s silhouette while As Yet Untitled relies on the reflection of light to produce the viewer’s image. In both cases, light effectively traps the inmate in a state of “permanent visibility” (201). Both mechanisms achieve their function not by force, but by an instrument of “architecture and geometry” (206). The power of each stems from the fact that a single supervisor can keep watch on all the inmates simultaneously
Kapoor designed As Yet Untitled so that it operates autonomously. As with the panoptic machine, it does not matter who exercises power. Foucault explains that “any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the [Panopticon]” (202). Similarly, any viewer “arriving unexpectedly at the center” of As Yet Untitled immediately finds himself in a position of power; he can keep watch on the many mirrors surrounding his field of view (204). Kapoor leaves the structure to hang alone in a museum, relinquishing control to anyone who steps in front of it. However, like the panopticon, the artwork sustains “a power relation independent of the person who exercises it” (201). No single individual governs the system, and this quality “assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). As Yet Untitled exists as a self-sufficient instrument of power, dependent only on the mechanical gaze of its viewers.
The sculpture fully integrates the role of supervisor and inmate. The viewer constantly watches his many reflections; the reflections, in turn, stare directly back, placing the viewer under perpetual observation. Foucault asserts that in the panoptic society, “an individual inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (202-3). Like Foucault’s panoptic society, As Yet Untitled requires no centralized power because the viewer effectively keeps watch on himself. The concave shape of the structure makes the viewer the object of surveillance. Concave mirrors reflect light towards their focal point, precisely where the viewer is standing. In the Panopticon, which focuses all incoming light on the viewer, light serves as a tool for total visibility and perpetual observation. The sculpture necessarily integrates the viewer in the process of observation, for the viewer has no choice but to participate. As Foucault writes, “enclosed as he is in the middle of this architectural mechanism, is not the director’s own fate entirely bound up with it?” (204) Ultimately, however, As Yet Untitled combines the role of observer and observed in a way that the Panopticon cannot: the viewer and his reflection—the surveyor and the surveyed—are in fact one and the same.
Because Kapoor constructs As Yet Untitled from mirrors, he attaches important cultural meaning to the artwork, contributing to the work’s panoptic qualities. Mirrors function as tools for self-modification, for surveillance and for deception. They hang in conspicuous places—bathrooms, clothing stores, and dance studios—and constantly remind people of their appearance. Mirrors propagate self-awareness. Self-awareness fosters growth and development as people attempt to produce an image of themselves that satisfies their personal standards. Panopticism achieves a similar end, as its aim is “to strengthen the social forces—to increase production,” and “to increase the possible utility of individuals” (208, 210). As Yet Untitled contains thousands of mirrors and produces thousands of images of the viewer, generating an excessive sense of self-awareness. Mirrors also serve as an instrument of surveillance: two-way mirrors in interrogation rooms, convex mirrors in security cameras, and rear-view mirrors in vehicles all function to keep watch on others. Lastly, mirrors have the ability to distort reality and foster deception. Magicians use mirrors to create illusions; amusement parks use houses of mirrors to confuse patrons; and interior decorators use decorative mirrors to make rooms appear larger. The panoptic society is, at its core, a complex illusion that tricks citizens into monitoring one another—“factories, schools, barracks, [and] hospitals” are not the social organizations they appear to be, but rather sources of discipline and control (228). Similarly, As Yet Untitled’s densely mirrored surface distorts the world around it, thrusting the viewer into an elaborate panoptic illusion.
The image displayed in As Yet Untitled resembles the panoptic society as a whole. Standing at the structure’s focal point, the viewer sees his own distorted image in the center of the disc, surrounded by thousands of other miniature images. The central image of the viewer is blurred, his image diffused; he is no longer an individual, but the generic product of the panoptic machine. Each surrounding mirror contains a reproduction of the same person, and each person serves the same function; each is constantly watching, like a “faceless gaze that transform[s] the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere” (214). The result is a society of people without individuality, working to perpetuate what Foucault calls “omnipresent surveillance” (214). The image portrays a system “in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole,” by a homogeneous population of observers (207).
Turning away from As Yet Untitled, the viewer experiences a peculiar sensation. His vision is unfocused, clarity dislodged, because his eyes, confused by the artwork’s visual tricks, interpret a reality broken up into thousands of tiny hexagons. He walks away with a warped visual perception of his surroundings. As Yet Untitled’s distorting effects follow the viewer even when he is no longer viewing the sculpture. Like the panoptic society, it clouds the perceptions of the individual. There is nothing inherently unclear about either panopticism or As Yet Untitled. Both mechanisms function by generating visibility, not by obscuring it. Both, however, have the ability to illuminate as well as to conceal, and ultimately create merely an illusion of reality. These structures effect a loss of clarity, a blurring of edges between the observer and the observed; the individual and the society; the viewer and his image.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York: Random House Inc., 1995.