Chinese bronze mirrors, like the one in this case, were initially intended as funerary objects. It was thought the dead would use these mirrors to light the way for the soul’s passage to the next world. One side of each mirror would be polished smooth so the bronze would provide a reflective surface; the other side was decorated with cosmological designs, perhaps providing a guide to navigate the cosmos. These two mirrors include depictions of the Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wangmu). Representing creation and destruction, death and the afterlife, the Queen Mother of the West provides a model of transcendence: overcoming the limits of mortality she directs souls to the eternal paradise of the West.
Mukherjee selected these mirrors not only because of their relationship to the Queen Mother of the West, but also to consider the meaning of the word speculate as related to Extracted. With its Latin root, specere, meaning to “look at,” and its link to the Latin word speculum—a reflector, looking glass, or mirror—the word speculate has more than one relationship to these mirrors, as they guide the dead through the unknown to the afterlife. These objects in their imagery and purpose remind us that speculation about the afterlife is common across cultures.