A form of political writing often called advice literature (or fürstenspiegel) shared by Christian and Muslim lands, in particular during the Middle Ages but also with notable examples in the 16-19th centuries, mirrors for princes attempted to elevate statecraft (dawla) to the same level as faith/religion (din). These guides for future rulers (Machiavelli’s The Prince being the most widely known example) addressed the delicate balance between seclusion and society, spirit and state, echoes of which we continue to find in the US, Europe and the Middle East several centuries later.
Today, we suffer from the very opposite: there’s no shortage of political commentators around but a notable lack of intelligent, eloquent discourse on the role of faith, the immaterial, or what Rudolf Otto would call “the holy other,” as an agency in society or public life. The mirrors for princes genre further skewers contemporary society’s incontinent interest in self-help books. Instead of How to Marry a Millionaire or How to Lose 15 kgs in 15 Days, the mirrors offered instructions, aphorisms, and reflections on how to rule a nation, from economics to etiquette, astrology to agriculture. So it is that Slavs and Tatars choose to combine the macro and micro scales by looking at self-presentation as governance, that is, the individual, as a polity of multiples. For the first chapter, at the Kunsthalle Zürich, we look at grooming. The daily taming of hair is an act of civilization, battling the unruliness of the body. In this sense the rituals of daily existence, such as combing one’s hair, echo as objects the counsel of the Mirrors for Princes genre. Grooming, the stylization of appearance, once a sacred, ritual practice is often today a mere a cosmetic transaction or at most a tribal, gendered belonging. Both relate to a particular projection of a desired state – of minds, of heads, of civil affairs – as acts of imagination as of guidance.
Photos Kunsthalle Zürich by Stefan Altenburger.
Photos IMA Brisbane by Carl Warner.
Press release of exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich.