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Faces in Mirrors
Long Bui, Faces in Mirrors, 2023

I Will Never Finish Cleaning This Mirror: A Collective Panopticon of the Made-up Face

  • Article
  • PHI Foundation
By  Long Bui

I was a window
into something you didn’t like
so you blamed it on me
and you thought it made you free
SASAMI, I Was a Window [1]

A mirror is never just itself. In Nadège Grebmeier Forget’s latest installation, I WILL NEVER FINISH REMOVING ALL THESE FACES, presented at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, a mirror is both a window and a canvas.

Installation nadege article long 001
Installation view, Nadège Grebmeier Forget: I WILL NEVER FINISH REMOVING ALL THESE FACES. (GUIDED REFLECTION), PHI Foundation, 2022. Public engagement project © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: alignements
Installation nadege article long 002
Installation view, Nadège Grebmeier Forget: I WILL NEVER FINISH REMOVING ALL THESE FACES. (GUIDED REFLECTION), PHI Foundation, 2022. Public engagement project © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, photo: alignements

The installation is situated in the PHI Foundation’s Education Room, which visitors can access by a stairwell that leads them to the entrance, where they are enveloped in a bright green light. When a visitor enters the room, they have chosen to participate in the installation—in the posture of the observer. On the floor is a checkered pattern of squares, coloured white and different shades of green. An open circle of eleven easels stand in the center of the room, each holding a 2 x 3 foot mirror and a prompt, meant to be read aloud as a way to prime its “activation.” The active posture of this work is reserved for organized visits with groups, during which participants are each assigned a mirror to create their own self-portrait and delineate their reflections as they observe themselves and, inadvertently, others. The resulting portraits, made from lipstick, eyeliner, and liquid foundation, are then left on the mirrors for the public to study, reflect, perhaps even critique. 

The use of makeup in Grebmeier Forget’s work is a reference to the daily practice of beautifying, often in an attempt to make the features of one’s face more acceptable to oneself and/or others, so as to be recognized as a valid and valuable face/body. Applying makeup to the mirror, a reflection of one’s face rather than the face itself, suggests agency of self-representation by the “creator” as external perception is purely mediated by the mirror’s reflection. The authenticity of the self-portrait, then, comes into question: does it hide what the creator wants to cover, or show what others want to see? Is the portrait limited to its original function, or is the drawing on the mirror, after all, more real?

Phyliss min
Photo: © Stacy Greene

It is important to note that makeup was originally not a practice reserved to one gender; it has, however, been used as a way to define class, status, and religious affiliation. Historically, the application of cosmetics helped create a clear visual distinction between people of different strata, signifying their positions within a social hierarchy. People who used makeup (or who had access to makeup) were of higher status, considered closer to God, more powerful, and more attractive. The function of makeup has thus been to define a boundary—to draw the line between the “haves” and “have nots,” that which “is” and “is not.” During and after the period of the Enlightenment, this boundary further defined gender roles and beautification: as men ceased to wear makeup and their beauty standards changed, beautifying oneself was now reserved for women, and became a prerequisite for womanhood. Meanwhile, men were socialized to favour practical qualities such as usefulness, productivity, and austerity—hence the minimalist standard for masculine beauty and dress. [2] The effect is arguably still very relevant some 250-300 years later.

Gwen min
Photo: © Stacy Greene

One way to defy this gendered boundary is by using makeup subversively, for instance, on someone who “shouldn’t” be wearing it, or in a gender-nonconforming manner. In the United Kingdom, for much of the 19th century, red lipstick was considered impolite for its bold colour, when obvious makeup was deemed unfit for women with morals and dignity. The same red lipstick later became a symbol of defiance and female strength, worn by the Suffragettes in the early 20th century, as they marched for their rights to vote. Drag, the art of gender impersonation, also leverages makeup techniques of sculpting and contouring to create the illusion of a different face. It is through the reappropriation of makeup as a tool for collective exploration and subversion of norms that queer people are able to self-actualize, affirm themselves, and create their community. As curator and author Legacy Russell writes, “The body… is cosmic, which is to say ‘inconceivably vast,’” [3] filled with potential and movement, and containing multitudes. And as we seek the face/body that fits, we learn that it involves taking off the one we have on at the moment, to make space for another that promises to fit us better, whether it is true or not.

Omote miya turnbull shion skye carter
Still frame from Omote (面), a collaboration by Miya Turnbull (mask artist) and Shion Skye Carter (dance artist).
Claude cahun
Claude Cahun, Aveux Non Avenus., 1930

The name of Grebmeier Forget’s installation comes from a poem by artist and writer Claude Cahun:

Sous ce masque un autre masque
je n’en finirai pas de soulever tous ces visages [4]

This allusion to a performance or masquerade suggests that multiplicities are inherent to self-image, be they fictitious or sincere. A running theme is apparent in Cahun’s photography, revealed through their collages of mirrors and eyes, their use of dramatic costumes and drag personas, as well as their minimalistic self-portraits where the artist is without makeup or even hair [5]. Cahun's practice is an internal exploration of different possible identities, and the poem is very reminiscent of Judith Butler’s writing on gender—not immutable and natural, but a social performance simultaneously enacted, negotiated, and evaluated by all of its participants [6].

If Claude Cahun disregards social convention and its external gaze, Grebmeier Forget, in turn, probes and questions it, examines the way it sees. The food she eats becomes a reflection of her, of her body, how she treats and wants it to be treated; the body is viewed as a site of consumption and is simultaneously grotesque and sexualized. The camera that looks as Grebmeier Forget performs for it, which at times wants to devour her, is also a mirror, a surface through which she sees and mediates herself. As elements of her performances embody more elements within them, so is the artist as she explores her own multiplicity—her art practice functioning as the ultimate mirror.

As a performance artist, Grebmeier Forget takes into account how a body navigates the installation through space and time. In her installation I WILL NEVER FINISH REMOVING ALL THESE FACES, the image of your own body follows you as you move from one mirror to the next to try on different faces—a window-face-shopping. The green checkered floor grounds each portrait with a (false) perspective, while also suggesting movement with its moving shades of green. Finally, the green light that seems to overwhelm the visitor at the entrance does so on purpose—when the eyes’ light receptors are fatigued by a colour, the vision is tinted by its complementary colour, which in this case is pink. The metaphor becomes obvious: the eyes become rose-tinted lenses, an analog filter moving through a non-space that feels like a game, as you see you see yourself.

Live drawing
Life drawing class, 1920s. Photographer: J.A. Lindh. Aalto University.

The arrangement of the installation resembles a live figure drawing session. During this activity, the object of attention is often a nude body in the center, surrounded by others. The body is exposed and platformed to be studied and observed—even dissected. 

A nude body is different from a naked body. The body feels naked not merely for its lack of clothes, but because there exists a spectator who witnesses the body being naked. A nude is the perception of this naked body, and requires the spectator to see it as an object—“most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” [7] The body performs and allures when it is naked to satisfy his gaze without challenging it [8]. For the spectator, it becomes a nude—when the body learns that the way it appears affects the way it is treated, it learns to survey itself and adjust accordingly to protect its nakedness.

In this context, the beholder and beheld are merged with the replacement of the paper canvas by mirrors, while at the same time facing inward to reflect the gaze right back at the observers. The subversion of expectations makes one feel caught off-guard and unprepared—the first moment of nakedness—while also feeling the presence of other gazes. All resulting portraits can be arguably recognized as nudes—the self that’s been cloaked with a form of dress—by both the gaze transforming it, and itself transforming for the gaze. 

This effect is amplified when we further consider another structure evoked by the installation’s form: a panopticon [9]. The surveillance principle of the panopticon requires two elements: a central monitoring figure and the monitored subjects—the “guard” and the “prisoners.” Traditionally, the guard remains invisible and can watch every monitored subject at once in the center. Using this framework, one can extrapolate the identity of the “prisoners,” “guard,” and the “structure” itself within Grebmeier Forget’s panopticon—in this case, a society and its policing gaze on self-representation. A participant, as they look into the mirror, is painfully aware of themselves and everyone else in the room. One only catches someone watching while also watching others, hence the impulse to surveil, protect, or police one’s self-image. Finally, when the policing gaze has been internalized by every person in the room, there is no need for an actual surveilling figure—every person is capable of exercising the policing gaze, thereby automatizing the process of societal correction. 

Perhaps that’s why the artist wanted to turn us into rose-tinted analog filters, to intercept our eyes so that we see differently, to shed the rigidity/confines of valid representation. Makeup is ultimately pigment, a tool that shapes a face/body into a form that is different and new. It lends its users to new modes of existence, inviting them to traverse the boundary of self/non-self (in a safe non-space), an artificial out-of-body experience. This process is sometimes constructive for the ego—through self-fragmentation, the body can learn what is part of itself, what isn’t, and what it can be. It’s the chance for oneself to be more true, when what they see outside doesn’t reflect how they feel inside. The mirror is never just itself. In Grebmeier Forget’s installation, her mirrors are windows and canvases; its participants are also canvases, looking at one another while learning to self-sculpt into shape.


1. Ashworth, Sasami. “I Was A Window.” 2019, Domino Recording Co Ltd. Accessed April 4, 2023.
2. Bourke, Joanna. “The Great Male Renunciation: Men's Dress Reform in Inter-War Britain.” Journal of Design History Vol. 9, No. 1 (1996): 23.
3. Russell, Legacy. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London, UK: Verso, 2020).
4. Cahun, Claude. Aveux Non Avenus. Paris: Éditions du Carrefour, 1930.
5. Canitrot, Armelle. “Cahun Claude (1894-1954).” Encyclopædia Universalis [en ligne]. Accessed April 4, 2023.
6. Butler, Judith. 2006. “Gender Trouble.” Routledge Classics. London, England: Routledge.
7. Berger, John. “Chapter 3 of Ways of Seeing by John Berger.” Ways of Seeing. Accessed April 23, 2023.
8. The article “his” refers to the male gaze in the nude tradition, when the perspective of the nude painting is assumed to be that of a man, and the woman is the painting his subject. For more, see: Berger, “Chapter 3.”
9. Steadman, Philip. “Samuel Bentham’s Panopticon.” Journal of Bentham Studies, 2012.


This article was written as part of Platform. Platform is an initiative created and driven jointly by the PHI Foundation’s education, curatorial and Visitor Experience teams. Through varied research, creation and mediation activities in which they are invited to explore their own voices and interests, Platform fosters exchanges while acknowledging the Visitor Experience team members’ expertise.

Author: Long Bui

Long Bui’s (he/they) art practice ranges from photography to poetry and graphic design. His work explores identity through lenses of queerness and Buddhist mindfulness. He understands that change is the only true given, and his practice is an attempt to grapple with the nature of impermanence—vô thường—while also learning his own place and that of others within a diasporic collective.

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