Weekly Travel Theme – Smoke and Mirrors


(South Korean exhibit that featured fracturing, functional mirrors)

“Smoke and Mirrors”, this week’s weekly travel theme photo challenge over at Where’s My Backpack required a bit of mental stretching on my part. I started by exploring a variety of interpretations of the expression, with Wikipedia offering the most general description: “… ‘smoke and mirrors’ may refer to any sort of presentation by which the audience is intended to be deceived…” Surprisingly for me, most if not all definitions implied deliberate deception, manipulation, or fraud. There seemed to be far more negative associations with the idiom that I had ever personally connected with this particular turn of phrase.


(Unfortunately, I took no notes/have no record of who/where contributed these heads. They were in the main display hall and were animatronic, chattering away and pulling each other’s hair. Despite the discoloration, the movements of the faces and emotions passing over their brows were disconcertingly lifelike.)

Ailsa’s take on her own theme followed suit, featuring photos of mysterious, smoke emerging from a glowing skyscraper roof, blurred, indeterminate images in rearview mirrors, and carnival mirror-like exaggerated reflections in the windows of a concave tower. She chose provocative images representing the enigmatic, distracting and misleading ways in which we may view the world, very much in line with a literal interpretation on the theme.

biennale banner

(Walking along the Grand Canal and getting close to the festival grounds)

My take has ended up slightly off-kilter. No matter how much I tried, I could not shake the certainty that I wanted to use contemporary art, in particular, pieces featured at the 2011 Venice Biennale, to represent the ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ theme. I have previously discussed the difficulties I have with (and, therefore, my resistance to) non-literal art. It is easy to develop an opinion of an artist’s interpretation of a well-known story, and representations of common themes or fables can help make certain pieces of art universal. However, as I have grown older and experienced more, I now recognize and enjoy the challenge presented in images that must be interpreted by the individual for themselves. Or, of particular import here, those artists that work within the boundaries of their medium only to create art that transcends those foundations to make a statement, evoke feelings of a different world or deliberately push the viewers buttons, whatever those may be.

south korea

(Also part of South Korea’s entry: flower-coated violence. Can you find the soldier? This was about 6-feet in height and one in a set of three. I was floored by the dichotomy of brightly colored flowers and cold steel. I could have stood, staring for hours.) 

Two summers ago, I had the great pleasure to travel to Italy with my closest, oldest friend. We traveled from Paris overnight by train to Venice, on to Rome and returned ‘home’ to Paris one week later. Our entire reason to put Venice on the itinerary was to visit the Biennale. My friend is an abstract painter and she was delighted to have her time in Europe coincide with one of the continent’s biggest contemporary art festivals. That year’s celebration centered around “Illuminations”. While initially this seems to be the direct opposite of today’s theme of “Smoke and Mirrors”, I found that the two ideas intertwined throughout the exhibit. Many of the featured artists, from countries around the world, used deceptive, manipulative imagery to pull in the viewer and provoke or evoke instinctual responses in the visitors that would, in turn, illuminate the central message of the art at hand.


(Venice’s submission to the festival – oversized gondolas containing screens in which water rushes by – also, unseen, was the rush of creeks, babbling of brooks and crash of waves transmitted over the audio system. 

Or, in some cases, the pieces were otherworldly and just plain beautiful.

knitting needles

(Giant knitting needles leading up to the main hall – of course this was one of my favorites)

blood vessel bridge(Medieval bridge towers connected with what appeared to be glass arteries and capillaries)

auroras(Auroras, in thick, textured oils)

pigeons(Pigeons, stuffed, as art. This seems somewhat mundane at first, but room after room filled with dirty birds in each corner brought out the dormant ornithophobia in me). 

Because of the difficulty in interpreting this week’s theme, and all the ways I can visualize that going, I am especially excited to see what other bloggers will submit! How would you interpret the theme? What images, places or pieces of art confer that unique mix of deception and truth?


One response to “Weekly Travel Theme – Smoke and Mirrors

  1. Pingback: Weekly Travel Theme – Benches | Researching San Diego

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