De Rerum Natura
Cay Sophie Rabinowitz
In a recent interview with curator Mercedes Vicente, Dane Mitchell discusses the anthotype — a 19th century technique of making photographic prints using photosensitive material from plants. Produced through making an emulsion from crushed flower petals, it is a process the artist aligns with perfumery, which, he explores throughout Radiant Matter as a molecular-sculptural material. Thus, at the very moment when it seems that photography is offered up as the artist’s laboratory for exploration, he returns to the volumetric qualities of traditional sculptural language to account for his interest in evocative scents, spirits, and speculative procedures.
Mitchell’s use of responsive and alchemical procedures, ranging in scope from science to sorcery, is as potent and provocative as the dispersal of his vapour molecules and their subsequent effect. As is evidenced by the Radiant Matter exhibitions at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Artspace, Mitchell’s parallax interdisciplinary procedures offer uncanny possibilities and multiple interpretations. Taking a cue from the artist’s imaginative poetic adaptations, this essay will cite wildly diverse points of reference to allow for potentially divergent but essential comparisons with the ancient philosopher Lucretius and with the contemporary artist Hans Haacke.
Gathering physical evidence, in particular microscopic matter, has long been a part of Dane Mitchell’s time-based activity and has been most evident in works such as Cosmic Dust Collection (Extraterrestrial Smithereens) (2010) where satellite-dish-like vessels were installed on a rooftop during the Busan Biennale entitled Living in Evolution to collect interplanetary dust particles, and MoMA Dust (2007) in which dust collected from the museum is propagated in culture. Herein Mitchell demonstrates that making something out of nothing (something immediately unapparent) is not only possible, but can yield substantial results. Taken to its logical conclusion, the transfiguration of a cognitive concept into a corporeal presence turns Mitchell’s visual art practice into a philosophical hypothesis about meaning — transforming the work into a phenomenological investigation.
Dane Mitchell’s work invokes many traditions and realms. Though he seeks out the most extremely divergent practitioners — common and anachronistic; contemporary and ancient; academic and everyday — his work is offered up for a rarified community of art viewers. Not that the specialised audience of the international art world alone will appreciate or understand Mitchell’s work, but it will ‘speak’ to them (or to us) in a way that it readily speaks, or rather ‘whispers’ to any other audience or ‘world’.
With his use of spells, speculative procedures and vapours, Mitchell seems to craft the most radical of his interventions in physical space. To phrase it in terms reserved for a specialised art public: Mitchell’s sculptural practice ends up using other media as a kind of host to cross-breed the history of photography with, say, a history of painting. To phrase it aptly, anomalously, and perhaps indulgently — it is a sketchbook of reflective encapsulations reminding us that a page, which appears blank to some, can be a rendering in invisible ink to others, or a detailed study to those who illuminate it in black light.
In one such work from Radiant Matter II, entitled Diabolical Object (2011), an enormous piece of obsidian (black volcanic glass) has been polished on one side to create a mirror reflection of adjacent work in the exhibition. Obsidian was the most common material used by painters in a device commonly called a Claude glass — its name invoking Claude Lorrain and used by both Matisse and Manet — a convex, dark mirror used to reflect a view and make tonal values. Early in our correspondence about this piece, Mitchell acknowledged a further interest in the way this black material has been used for divination and necromancy to “counterfeit the world”.
In another hybrid of sculpture and photography, entitled Epitaph (2011), an antique museum vitrine has been retrofitted with a mirrored bottom to double the glass box interior while also acting as a vessel for the dissemination of a perfume that is released through exposure to light. In conversation, Mitchell once described the perfume emanating from the cabinet as a musk-heavy scent “from the past…or…from the edge of experience. It suggests a ghostly presence now gone and in its ‘drydown’ the perfume becomes very dry, very dusty”. About another work, Your Memory of Rain Encased (Released) (2011) from Radiant Matter I, Mitchell remarked that it might resemble the more recognisable “smell of rain…not a country rain, but a city rain, of wet concrete and metal”, which might explain the title but not the manner of presentation — a hole in the wall that invites viewers to stick their noses into where the perfume gets dispersed daily. Installed in the gallery alongside a sealed glass vessel containing salt and black sand collected from the sea spray on New Zealand’s west coast, and nearby a plinth-supported glass object coated in silver nitrate, the installation feels at first glance like a gathering of unprecedented hypotheses.
In his time, Lucretius’ revered Epicurian poem, On the Nature of Things (54 BC) laid out some wildly unlikely proposals, such as the thought that worms were spontaneously generated from wet soil. Among subsequent generations, Lucretius’ opus was admired by Montaigne, Newton, and Shakespeare, and its core scientific vision remains convincing even today: that we are made of the same matter as the stars, the oceans and all things. Lucretius argued that the operations of the world can be accounted for in terms of natural phenomena — the regular yet purposeless motions and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space. It is a premise that forever assaulted intellectuals swayed by the tenets of organised religion.
If Lucretius had been applying his thesis to Mitchell’s Smell of an Empty Space (2011) posthumously, he might argue that the scent of a room is composed of the same matter as the room, but just in a different state. Might we rather consider that matter in general exists only in its contingent, momentary state and that there is no substance except that which we glean from the experience of a place, object, or condition? In other words, can we think of matter independently from our experience of it, and might our sentiment toward an object have a role in its actual existence?
For example, if one did not know that Mitchell spoke the names of different ancestors into each of the glass forms presented in Spoken Heredity Talismans (2011), would the ‘content’ exist in the same way? Is recognising a scent, or feeling the presence of a spectre from the past, an awareness or recognition we can create as much as locate? Should one return to the earlier statement ‘making something out of nothing’, or do we accept the concept that everything is always part of something else, as long as we have feelings for it, for Lucretius and Mitchell both seem to suggest that ‘nothing’ does not exist.
Consider the acts of translation Mitchell undertakes and asks his collaborators and visitors to decipher: to evoke a space through the casting of a spell; to allude to one’s family history through dirt from a gravesite; through the whispered names and laments of one’s ancestry; through the air emitted from bagpipes sounding funerary songs, trapped in glass. Here it seems Mitchell no longer endorses making something out of nothing, having taken Lecretius’ insights to heart. Rather, he puts to a radical poetic test the idea that the same matter exists in different states. Is the wind of the bagpipe the same matter — or rather the same material effect — as the ancestors who are being remembered, just finer, more ethereal, and in a different state? Or do we have to consider the issue of representation, of a fundamental division between object, person, memory and its construction in poetic form?
It might be useful to consider Hans Haacke’s use of uncommon materials, especially organic systems and processes, which go back to his early affiliation (beginning in 1959) with the Zero Group and their use of states of elemental nature as materials for artistic production. After leaving the group for New York, Haacke developed an unprecedented critique of both natural and institutional exchange with the well-known work, Condensation Cube (1963-65). This sealed plexi-glass box was installed innocuously in the gallery with a small amount of water that condensed to the inside walls and dripped to the bottom when exposed to light and heat — an ongoing process determined by surrounding conditions, especially the presence of a public in the exhibition space. Haacke is clearly one of Mitchell’s points of reference, or dare one say, an artistic ancestor.
Physically both artists’ sculptures are more than mere containers. Each seems to treat the presentation context and the visitor’s knowledge and experience as one of a number of materials active in making work or in activating an artistic encounter. As with Haacke’s Condensation Cube, all of the installations in Mitchell’s Radiant Matter series involve a co-configuration of organic processes and human presence to motivate material exchange.
Mitchell’s use of humidification and biological material in suspended but transitional states represents an uncanny choice of materials for the transportation of an artistic encounter to the ‘viewer’. Two Sides Coalesce (2010-2011) — with its de-humidifier collecting vapour produced by the humidifier, and the humidifier vapourising the liquid collected by the de-humidfier — is a classic closed-circuit (of hydro-thermodynamic molecular exchange) like Condensation Cube, yet it differs from Haacke’s inaugural attempt as institutional critique. Mitchell does not directly call into question the closed system of museums, galleries, and art fairs — in fact his ‘spell’ works (for example, Conjuring Form (2008) presented at Art Basel) need and embrace those very institutions as gathering places for a particular public — a public informed by common knowledge and experience. The framing devices and contexts that are so particular in allowing Mitchell’s work to perform as it does (or may do), seem to suggest that not all viewers will be equipped to ‘get it’. Ideas are not just there to be picked from an abundant vine, but if one has never before experienced a work of conceptual art like this, a certain amount of willingness to engage will serve as an excellent tool.
When Mitchell invokes the esoteric, as in his central work in Radiant Matter II, Gateway to the Etheric Realm (2011), he goes far beyond a staging of the customary fine art media and subjects. Presented simply with a series of interlocking powder-coated aluminum stanchion-like forms and a sign announcing the presence of a spell, some may be tempted to claim that there is ‘nothing’ to see in these delineated spaces. Certainly this is one of many hyperbolic configurations crafted to advance a material understanding of all things perceivable — a phenomenological exchange.
If matter is part of everything, or rather, if matter is nothing on its own, and everything is impacted by our sentiments toward it — if, in other words, belief and feeling, memory and lament, smell and touch do change the very make-up of the molecular world around us, then how can we consider a closed-circuit cause and effect system such as Haacke’s sufficient to explain the exchange that occurs on the level of the infinitely small, the atomic and molecular, even the sub-molecular level of pure thought or feeling? Isn’t Mitchell’s art a critique of an infinitely finer institution, a critique of the institution of matter itself? It is a celebration of matter’s infinite potential for transformation and an attempt to consider this transformation not through the concept of representation, but as an exchange of one solid state with another, maybe less solid and more ethereal, but real and material nonetheless.
Text from Radiant Matter, published in 2011 by Berliner Künstlerprogramm / DAAD & Artspace, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.