Breathing and Dreaming: Dane Mitchell's Other Explications
Noticing a strong scent of frangipani in the room, he looked to see if a bottle of the perfume was lying about unstoppered, but there was nothing of the sort to be seen. He went into his study, then into the dining-room; the smell went with him. He rang for his servant. ‘Can’t you smell something?’ he asked. The man sniffed and said that he smelt nothing unusual. There was no doubt about it: his nervous trouble had returned in the form of a new sort of sensual illusion.1.
Running parallel to my encounters with Dane Mitchell’s recent work— investigations into dreams, scents, spells, hypnosis, and the workings of the unconscious—is a vague, more distant memory of a deliciously light feeling, accompanied by other feelings, more deeply submerged… and manifestly more hollow. It is the recollection of the affect of reading, many years ago, Joris-Karl Huysman’s, Au rebour (Against Nature, 1884); a strange book about an over-satiated aesthete, whose search for perfect, yet unique aesthetic encounters forms its narrative armature. As the reader becomes aware of the book’s melding of distinct styles, in particular symbolism and naturalism, and, as its protagonist withdraws further and further into an advanced state of ennui, Au Rebour induces discordant emotions in the reader—at once intensely fantastic and sensual, but also bleak, cold, and a little dark…
In their repulsive/attractive, wily ways, the conflicting energies that run through Dane Mitchell’s work are also irresolvable, undialectical. Working through the logic of minimalism, Mitchell produces highly crafted sculptural forms using ready-made industrial materials (non-illusionistic, cool, detached) that act as harbingers for secretive, expressive forces. He thinks of these as alternative sculptures, or perhaps more accurately, as single pressings of the tangible and the intangible, the clean and the abject, the physical and the metaphysical, with the non-material forces being as much part of his sculptural reserve as his physical objects are. To be ‘in the know’ about Mitchell’s work, therefore, means entering with certain expectations, to understand that unknowable thresholds will be crossed (Conservation of Mass, Switzerland, 2013) and alternative worlds opened—of shamans (Celestial Fields, South Korea, 2012), of ghosts (Spectral Readings, United Kingdom, 2012), of witches (Invocations, Australia, 2008) and scents (Radiant Matter, New Zealand, 2011–2012). 2.
Other Explications is a solo exhibition of works held at Hopkinson Mossman (Auckland) in late 2013, considered by Mitchell to represent a significant shift, both in its resolution of diverse fragments from earlier projects, and in the pathways it opened up for future making. 3.
As is Mitchell’s wont, the gallery space seemed fairly sparse. There was a precise positioning of objects (transparent, reflective, or monochromatic) that had been highly crafted into a series of planes and right angles that worked in tension with the two large brass rings leaning against the back wall. It would be a rash viewer, however, who thought this exhibition—so cool, even alienating in its coolness—might be grasped in a global vista, or understood by simply taking on the perspective of the minimalist. Indistinct sound emanated from a pulsating glass ‘pane’ at the other end of the gallery. And there was a shelf on the wall opposite that needed closer attention, for whatever it was holding was partly concealed from the entrance. Blocking the path to the shelf were four, lighted brass corners placed on the floor, their highly polished surfaces casting patterns of reflection from one plane to another. They appeared precious, auratic and untouchable…
However, with the first discovery of the hidden forces operating in Other Explications such a formalist approach to the work comes to an end…
For this exhibition, Mitchell engaged a hypnotherapist. In the Gallery stockroom, twenty-minutes prior to the exhibition opening, a willing volunteer was placed under hypnosis and given a secret about the work that only she would know. For nearly forty minutes, the volunteer wandered the space as just another guest, her ‘otherness’ hidden and unknown, her secret kept, and in this process she had morphed from guest to performer, albeit an invisible one. Thus, in turn, the unnamed volunteer became another element of the exhibition, another work, to be entitled Clairvoyant Vision, 2013.
This ephemeral act is secured, along with all the other works, by being included on the “List of Works” pinned to the Gallery wall.
Clairvoyant Vision, 2013
Person under hypnosis to see an object not revealed to the eye(opening night)
And yet, each descriptor —Person/hypnosis/eye/vision/edition/$value — far from containing, or even effectively communicating the meaning of the work, has left it open to infinite questioning… Thinking within the logic of the commodity, for instance, we might laugh at how exchange value has been established for a performance that isn’t a performance; for a performance by an unnamed woman to an unaware audience; for a performance that was about a secret accessible to this unnamed woman only through hypnosis; to a secret that cannot be known in the aftermath of the event or restaged in its original manifestation; for an event lost in the durational contingencies of time that would make such a return impossible…
But let’s put an end to our peripatetic thoughts to return to the glass plane structure that sat in the main Gallery, Spirant Object (Hypnotic Breathing). Attached to the centre of the glass was a resonance speaker that emitted sounds around the gallery but also caused the glass to vibrate. This was a recording by Mitchell of his own snorey-breathing that links the theme of hypnosis (in its title) to ideas about dreaming. Not only were the unknowable hours of Mitchell’s sleep heard in the sound that flowed through the Gallery spaces, but it was also linked to another work in the side gallery, Rheum (Unconscious Material), 2013.
The subject of these seven Giclée prints was also sleep, but this time it is the yellow rheum (from the Greek ῥεῦμα ‘to flow’) that leaks from our eyes and nose cavities during sleep. Each morning Mitchell collected this “unconscious material”, from the corners of his eyes, along with stray eyelashes, and some red lint. With the help of a microscope, he enlarged the image, and then photographed it to disclose the material’s crystalline structure. In an earlier work, Talisman (A Year of Sleep), Mitchell displayed a glass phial of the sleep that had formed every day for a year in the corner of his eyes. 4. This is abject material, this ‘tautological-sleep-sleep’—a concretisation of our sleeping and a symbol of our dreaming—and thus, it brings together our bodies’ unconscious excretions, with the infinite possibilities of our imagination. The bodily with the cerebral is the material-invocation of something that cannot be materially invoked. It is a reminder too that our sometimes adventurous, but more often humdrum dreams, frequently disappear into the subterranean regions of our forgetting.
Between being awake and being asleep, however, there is never a clean border. The two brass rings, Hypnosis Venn 2013, that rested against the back wall of Gallery 2 were interleaved, one engraved with the word “Sleeping” and the other “Waking”. This work also referred to the intriguing condition of hypnosis, which along with Spirant Object (Hypnotic Breathing) appeared as bridges between Mitchell’s investigation into dreams and his latest probes into what might constitute a state of hypnosis. If the content of our dreams is able to seep into our waking awareness at times, then this work approaches the more impervious and much more perplexing sphere of the subconscious… And yet, without being able to will it, if one of our senses were capable of reaching our most entrenched memories, would it not be smell?
The wooden shelf, Clairalience (The Scent of an Object Not Revealed to the Eye), 2013, held a brass support, secured with wooden clamps, into which a fine piece of scented paper (almost invisible to the eye from a distance) had been secured. In the past, Mitchell collaborated with perfumers to experiment with such aromas as the smell of an empty room, or the memory of rain. 5. For Other Explications, Mitchell blended the scent himself from two pure molecules, ambergris and cedar wood. Might ambergris, one of our oldest perfume ingredients, be also our strangest? Bile vomited from the belly of the whale is an oily substance that remains un-emulsified on its meeting with seawater. Floating as waste, ambergris solidifies into a material suitable for perfumes only after washing up on shore. In the nightmarish history of humans and whales, this might be our most non-invasive communication with our sea-mammal relatives. In choosing the more commonplace cedar wood for the other ingredient, Mitchell hoped to stabilise the sea-borne material with something earthier and “more grounded." 6.
Clairalience, however, was not an elaborate structure built solely to show off this aroma, as though the point was to have a grand display to invoke a grand gesture. In citing Marcel Duchamp’s aesthetic theory of Inframince (infra-thin), 7. what Mitchell was hoping to reveal were the affects of the smallest, imperceptible intervals that occur between matter and phenomenon. 8. In Clairalience, it is the move between the association of wood, paper, brass, and perfume. We might consider, for instance, the undetectable separation between the paper and its infusion of perfume. But also, in choosing brass, Mitchell employed an alloy (part-copper, part-zinc), rather than a pure metal, so that the relation of inframince is not only an external one—brass to paper, brass to wooden clamps, or brass to perfume—but also an internal relation of copper to zinc.
Concealment, disclosure, exposure…
Perhaps a way to think about Other Explications, therefore, with its alliances of matter, is to consider the connection of contemporary modes of sculptural practice with the ancient science of alchemy. Another would be to think about Mitchell’s ordered and finely crafted installation pieces as carapaces of minimalist form that conceal unseen (unseeable) phenomena. In turn, however, these vessels are likely to corrode from the inside out, from phenomena to matter. And so, we go too far, I think, if we presume that Mitchell’s culvert-like forms are simply a collection of concealing/disclosing objects that will provide a certain truth about the forces over which we have no control. In trying to explain the pleasure that comes from Mitchell’s beautifully crafted pieces, with the cringe that comes from his abject excretions, or the anxiety induced by his unknowable phenomena, I began by analogy with Au rebour and its decadent description of a life given wholly to aesthetic pleasure. In aligning this with the disconcerting affect of its protagonist’s saturnine world-weariness, with Au Rebour, as with Other Explications, we are left in emotional netherworlds
MADA: Art Design and Architecture, Monash University, Victoria, Australia
1. Joris-Karl Huysman, Au Rebour (Against Nature), sometimes translated as “Against the Grain”), this translation, Robert Baldick, Penguin Classics edition, 2003, p.105.
2. Exhibiting Galleries and Institutions: Conservation of Mass, RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland, 2013; Celestial Fields, Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, South Korea, 2012; Spectral Readings, Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool, United Kingdom, 2012; Invocations, Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, Australia, 2008; Radiant Matter I, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand; Radiant Matter II, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2011; Radiant Matter III, Artspace, Auckland, New Zealand, 2012;
3. Interview with artist, December 18, 2013.
4. Part of a group show, A Way of Calling, 2011 Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts, St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia, curated by Melissa Keys. Also exhibited at Dane Mitchell, 2013, Sassa Trülzsch, Berlin, Germany.
5. The Smell of an Empty Room (Vaporised) was featured in Radiant Matter III, Artspace, Auckland 2012; and Your Memory of Rain (Encased) was a component of Radiant Matter I, The Govett-Brewster, New Plymouth, 2011.
6. Interview with artist, January 29, 2014
7. Marcel Duchamp, Paul Matisse, Notes, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1983