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Unconscious Materials

Bridget Riggir-Cuddy



New Zealand-born artist Dane Mitchell has employed the tools of the perfumier, shaman, scientist, witch, alchemist and, most recently, the hypnotherapist, to aid his audience’s capacity to experience — both in art and the everyday — encounters with the immaterial. In a union of Minimalist and Conceptualist art with ‘outside’ practices that coerce immaterial forces, the artist produces highly crafted images and sculptural forms that assist his viewer toward experiencing the otherwise intangible.


In his latest series, Mitchell gives material form to a space between waking and sleeping — mapping the in-between place where these states collapse into one another and charting a discord between the conscious and unconscious body. In foregrounding automatic and unknowable processes within our own constitutions, the limits and thresholds of our perception are made apparent.


Seven recent photographic prints take, quite literally, sleep as their subject. The images depict yellow rheum — the hardened fluid residue in the eye’s corner that gathers after a night’s rest. Each print contains a single piece of this ‘unconscious material’ collected by the artist upon waking (along with eyelashes and lint).


Photographed through a microscope camera, these crystalline structures take on a precious dimension; the material appears almost celestial, picturesque. Yet, when the material’s origin is revealed, it becomes somewhat repulsive. A token of our sleeping and dreaming, rheum confronts us as the remains of our body’s activity during our dormancy, and is representative of forgotten labor. Mitchell seizes the uncanny value of this substance in his microscopic images and invites us to contemplate the residue and the wonder of this ‘automatic’ crystalline form.


In other recent works hypnosis provides Mitchell the framework to consider what may lie between the conscious and unconscious. Often confused with a type of sleeping, hypnosis is an alternate consciousness where the subject is directed towards experience that is inaccessible in conscious thought. Hypnotherapy attempts to command a ‘twilight state,’ and in Mitchell’s appropriation of this paradigm he too attempts to coerce his audience into the space of the in-between. 


Hypnosis Venn, 2013 (a three dimensional Venn diagram) assists us in our contemplation of these in-between states. Formed by two interlocking brass rings, one engraved ‘sleep’, the other ‘waking’, the sculpture shows all possible relations within the given set of parameters, including the intermediary zone where the rings overlap. The material itself has a hypnotic quality; generated perhaps out of the infinity of the circular form, or perhaps in the power associated with the material’s formation under enormous heat.


A second Venn-sculpture with etchings that read ‘dusk’ and ‘dawn’ elaborates upon Hypnosis Venn, to further investigate the dualism that characterizes our experience. Here, Mitchell pinpoints the twilight zones where day and night cease to exist by becoming the other, disappearing into each other. When considered together, the Venn-sculptures, in their doubling, render visible the patterns and thresholds that govern our dormant selves.


Accompanying these works in their original display was the artist’s declaration that a single attendee of opening night would be under hypnotic suggestion to perceive an object not visible to the other guests (while this hypnotic state may not have even appeared visible to the other guests beyond the opening announcement). For this single viewer, the object would appear in a zone marked by the sculpture Teleplastic Alloy (Witnessing Separates Itself From Seeing), 2013, the negative space left by its four bronze corners becoming a place of potential activity. The intervention brought into play the perceptual ambiguities referenced in Hypnosis Venn’s intersect, heightening the dissonance between conscious seeing and the ungraspable perceptual modes of the automatic body.


For Mitchell, art can unfold at a molecular level of flux and connection. He re-imagines the space between viewer and art object without division. This is something he configures toward experience in his perfume works, where uniquely drawn scents pass across the artworks’ formal (often industrial and sleek) surfaces to become ambient sculptures, activated in the sensing body of the viewer.


In one such work, Vespertine (The Scent of Datura & A Bed Slept in Once), 2014, the artist composes a perfume that combines the odor of the hallucinogenic plant Datura — a nightshade that blooms and releases its scent only after dark — with the smell of linen left warm from a body no longer present. The notes of the nocturnal flower suggest the heighted sense experienced in darkness. While the linen scent captures the subtleties that cannot escape our senses. In the gallery, the scent seeps from a section of paper held between two brass clamps. The dynamic formed between the visible and the invisible in the work implicates the audience in the ambient qualities of the gallery space.


Collapsing and compressing together these oppositional states — the tangible and intangible, sleeping and waking, conscious and unconscious — the artist urges us to consider the binds of our given perception. Mitchell gives material form to bring in to focus our sense of perception, illuminating the blind spots of our corporeal being, particularly those automatic and involuntary processes of our bodies and the dreamlike secretions that take place beyond our conscious reach.






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