Friday, 14 September 2012

Elephant No. 348: Mirror

A couple of weeks ago, I saw some mirror tiles in a dollar store, so today I thought I'd buy one and see what kind of elephant I could make.

A mirror is technically any object that reflects either light or sound in a way that preserves much of the original quality. There are variations on this, of course, including mirrors that deliberately distort the reflection, and mirrors that absorb some wavelengths of light while reflecting others. In addition to their most common use as something we look at, mirrors are also found in optical and scientific equipment such as cameras, telescopes, lasers and machinery. Some aren't even used for visible light, but are instead designed to reflect sound or electromagnetic radiation.

The earliest mirrors were probably pools of still water contained in a dark bowl. The first manufactured mirrors were produced in Anatolia around 6000 B.C., and were made of pieces of polished obsidian: a form of naturally occurring black volcanic glass. Similar stone mirrors have been found in Central and South America, dating to around 2000 B.C.

A chunk of obsidian. Found in many parts of world, obsidian
was used for the earliest manufactured mirrors, and is still
used today for some new age mirrors and scrying glasses.

Mirrors made of polished copper were produced in Mesopotamia from around 4000 B.C. on, and in Ancient Egypt beginning in 3000 B.C. By 2000 B.C., bronze mirrors were being produced in China and India, along with mirrors made of a copper-tin alloy. Mirrors made of this alloy, as well as mirrors made of precious metals, were more difficult to craft at this period in history, and were owned only by the wealthy.

Reflective surface of a Chinese bronze mirror, Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907).

It is thought that metal-coated glass mirrors were invented in Sidon in modern-day Lebanon around the first century A.D. Glass mirrors backed with gold leaf are mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History in A.D. 77, and the Romans had also by this time developed a means of coating blown glass with molten lead to make cruder mirrors.

As early as A.D. 500, the Chinese were experimenting with mirrors made with silver-mercury backing, and by the early Renaissance, Europeans had found an effective way of coating glass with a tin-mercury amalgam. By the sixteenth century, Venice had become an important centre for the production of mirrors made with this technique.

It wasn't until 1835, however, that silvered glass was used in mirror-making. The process invented by German chemist Justus von Liebig involved depositing a thin layer of silver nitrate onto glass. This was soon adapted for mass-production, and mirrors became more affordable. Today, mirrors are often produced with a process that involves vacuum sealing aluminum or silver onto the glass.

The coating is a little more complicated than a simple metallic layer, however. The glass is first conditioned with tin chloride because silver won't bond directly to glass. The silver is then applied, followed by a chemical activator to harden it. A copper coating is then added for durability, followed by paint to protect the coating from scratches.

Mirrors have had many uses throughout history. One of the more interesting is the "Archimedes Death Ray". According to legend, Archimedes used a massive array of mirrors to burn Roman ships during the Siege of Syracuse in 214–212 B.C. A recent re-enactment of this event proved, unfortunately, that it was impossible to light ships on fire using the bronze mirrors of Archimedes' time. The mirrors did, however, make it very hard for people on the target boat to see anything, which may have given rise to the original legend.

Artist's concept of mirrors used by Archimedes to set Roman ships on fire.

Another unusual use of mirrors is far more recent. Because of its location in a steep-sided valley, the Italian town of Viganella gets no direct sunlight for a full seven weeks during the winter. Accordingly, in 2006, a computer-controlled mirror measuring 8 x 5 metres (26 x 16 feet) was installed, and now reflects light into the town's piazza.

Mirrors have also featured prominently in works of art, sometimes functioning as a symbol of vanity, the passing of time, and even death. Artists have also used mirrors to assist them in their work. During the Renaissance, Brunelleschi discovered the principles of linear perspective with the help of mirrors, and Leonardo da Vinci famously recommended that, if you want to see whether your painting is an accurate representation, take a mirror and reflect the actual object in it. If your painting and the original object look similar, you have been true to life.

The Betrothal of the Arnolfini, 1434
Jan van Eyck (ca. 1395–ca. 1441)
Collection of the National Gallery, London, U.K.
This is one of the most famous mirrors in the history of art,
reflecting the entire room in miniature.

In later years, artists such as M.C. Escher, whose work generally featured optical illusions, used special mirrors to help him draw more than what he could see directly. And of course, the large majority of self-portraits would not have been possible without mirrors.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935
M.C. Escher (1898–1972)

Artists also use actual mirrors in their work, either as accents, or to create massive reflective works. The form of East Indian embroidery known as shisha work also uses mirrors, which are embroidered into the fabric.

Rabbit, 1986
Jeff Koons (1955– )
Koons made multiples of this mirror-finish rabbit, based on a popular
Easter inflatable from the late 1960s. I actually had one of the original
inflatables—and probably still do somewhere.

Mirrors are also found in the world of entertainment, from disco balls to halls of mirrors in amusement parks. They also feature prominently in literature, both literally—as in Alice's adventures through the looking-glass—and figuratively, as in the biblical "through a glass darkly."

Mirrors figure prominently in the world of superstition as well. Spectrophobia is the fear of mirrors, and some traditions hold that mirrors reflect the soul and can even capture it. By the same token, a vampire cannot see itself in a mirror because it is undead and has already lost its soul.

If you break a mirror, it is said to herald seven years of bad luck, and witches often used mirrors to cast spells or to see into the future. There is also a Buddhist belief that a house with a triangular-shaped roof allows a negative spirit to enter through the door. Hanging a small circular mirror in front of the door prevents this.

In the animal world, an ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is considered a mark of high intelligence. To date, only a few species have passed the so-called mirror test: humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, organgutans, gorillas, dolphins, orcas, magpies—and elephants.

For today's elephant, I bought a mirror tile with a bevelled edge, measuring 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inches).

I thought I might try glueing little bits of mirror onto the surface in an elephant shape, so I pulled out all the mirror shapes I had. Some of these are shisha mirrors from India, but I thought I might need a few smaller pieces. The small bags were purchased at a dollar store a couple of years back, and cost a dollar per bag.

I started by laying out the mirror pieces on the tile. I didn't photograph the process, as mirrors are obviously so reflective that it was hard to see anything but the surrounding room when it was lying flat.

I mostly used square mirrors for the ear area, large round mirrors for the head and trunk, a few diamond-shaped pieces for the mouth and tusk, and tiny round mirrors at the end of the trunk and for an eye. I also let some of the square ear pieces trail over the bevelled edge, because I thought it looked more interesting that way.

To secure everything, I used a glue gun. This worked fairly well, but because the mirrored surface is so slick, a few of them popped off when I washed the final mirror. I reglued them with a larger amount of glue, but I'm not sure how secure they are in the long term. Next time, I might use silicone instead.

I was surprised at how well this turned out. Interestingly, the mirrors don't fragment the reflected image as much as I thought they would, so you can actually still see yourself. One thing I didn't like was that, because the different types of mirror have different colours of paint on the back, there is a faint difference in colour and edges. It's not catastrophic, but it's something I'd take into consideration next time. In the final mirror, you can see the difference in the diamond-shaped pieces, and the smaller circles. These have an orange backing, whereas all the others are dark grey.

It took me a little under half an hour to place the mirrors and glue them down, so it wasn't at all time-consuming. I also like the final result well enough that I might actually hang it up somewhere, either in a frame, or with a simple hanger of some sort affixed to the back.

Elephant Lore of the Day
This is one of the most sobering elephant stories I've read in a while, and rather heartbreaking in its way.

Despite the best efforts of conservationists in Vietnam, it is now considered inevitable that elephants will soon be extinct in that country. In 1990, there were an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 elephants in Vietnam. Three years ago, there were about 150. Today, there may be only a few dozen.

The problem, of course, is poaching. In 2009, a representative of Fauna & Flora International spoke hopefully to reporters about a feasibility study aimed at creating an elephant centre in Vietnam's south-central province of Daklak, where most of the country's domestic elephants were then located. As of September 2012, however, Vietnam's conservation groups had essentially thrown in the towel, giving up on the possibility of saving Vietnam's last elephants.

The most immediate reason was the recent slaughter of two of the country's few remaining elephants. For several years, there has been a tiny and poorly funded Elephant Conservation Centre in a national park in Daklak province. The Centre has been sheltering a herd of 29 elephants, trying to rebuild their numbers. In late August 2012, however, a pair of the herd's elephants were found slaughtered in the forest, including the herd's only male. His head and trunk were severed, and his tusks of course were taken.

Without an adult male, the herd is no longer considered sustainable. Even worse, this was the sixth male from the herd killed in 2012. Poaching is rampant in Vietnam, and males are the only Asian elephants with the much-coveted ivory tusks.

Poaching is not the only issue in Vietnam, however. As in many other parts of the world, elephant habitat is rapidly disappearing in favour of rice, coffee and rubber plantations, as well as roads, dams and factories. Hardwood forests which stood for centuries, and once sheltered elephants and other wildlife, have also been clear-cut and the wood exported.

Unfortunately, there is little general understanding of elephants in Vietnam, and no real political will to save them. When new areas are being developed for industry or human habitation, scant thought is given to the elephants and other animals already in residence. Further, farmers have essentially been given carte blanche to destroy any elephants straying onto their farms.

In the past, some efforts have been made to relocate elephants. In 1993, authorities sought to relocate 13 elephants from southern Vietnam to make way for an industrial farm. All but one of the elephants died. The lone survivor was sent to the Saigon Zoo.

By all accounts, the rise of the middle class in China is largely responsible for the disastrous depletion of elephant populations worldwide. Ivory is highly coveted in China for everything from chopsticks to sculptures, and it has been suggested in many quarters that, if China ever lost its taste for ivory, the worldwide epidemic of elephant poaching would collapse overnight.

Male Asian elephant in Vietnam, 2004.
Sadly, this elephant has probably since been killed for his tusks.
Photo: Thomas Schoch

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