Trajectories of Immateriality
Toward the beginning of T.E. Lawrence's classic memoir of the Arab Revolt, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), there is an unforgettable anecdote regarding scents. Lawrence recounts how he and his guides encountered a ruin from the Roman period in Northern Syria, which according to local lore, had been built by a prince for his queen fromwith clay kneaded with various precious oils. The English adventurer writes, "My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from crumbling room to room, saying, 'This is jessamine [sic], this violet, this rose'". 1 And then he goes on to lyricise:
“But at last Dahoum [one of the guides] drew me: 'Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all,' and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past. That slow breath had been born somewhere beyond the distant Euphrates and had dragged its way across many days and nights of dead grass, to its first obstacle, the man-made walls of our broken palace. About them it seemed to fret and linger, murmuring in baby-speech. 'This,' they told me, 'is the best: it has no taste.' My Arabs were turning their backs on perfumes and luxuries to choose the things in which mankind had had no share or part”. 2
One of the more striking things about this little fragment, beyond its eligibility for the One Thousand and One Nights 1001 nights, is the process and reversal that takes place within it. Coming in from the desert, they pass from scented room to scented room, appraising each impregnated fragrance, until they come back to the desert, the "sweetest scent of all" because it "has no taste", is not tinctured with the magical meddling of humankind (a touching anti-humanism worthy of Jonathan Swift or Jorge Luis Borges). In other words, it is by theoretically traversing a passage of perfumed odours that the absence of odour ("taste") becomes perceptible.
The work of Dane Mitchell pulls off a similar exploit and what is more, in similarly if not magical, then debatable, and I would even go so far as to say elegant terms. He goes to great lengths to confront his viewers with that which might not otherwise cross their minds, alluding to occult phenomena, noumena of immateriality, and the most minute margins, nay blind spots of unfathomed perception. It is tempting to refer to him as an artist on the threshold, in that his work not only continually investigates and puts pressure upon conventional definitions of art, but also how and where it takes place, to what extent it needs to be visible in order to take place, and finally how such questions might be formalised at the beginning of the 21st century. From earlier works where he invited a witch to create portals to other worlds in an exhibition space, to more recent pieces involving perfumes and their makers, in which he seeks to replicate such fantastically banal scents as that of an empty room, the work often exists beyond any measurable boundaries in a conceptual and literal ether.
The three part cycle of exhibitions entitled Radiant Matter is no exception to Mitchell's elaborately ethereal rule. Over the course of 2011, the artist worked with a heterogeneous group of artisans and highly specialised professionals, including one of the world's top perfume makers, a witch, glass blowers, and industrial fabricators to explore the above mentioned issues in an eloquent series of highly precise exhibitions of a rigorous aesthetic economy. Radiant Matter I revolved largely around the presentation of a scent entitled Your Memory of Rain (2010/2011); the more eclectic Radiant Matter II addressed occult issues involving ancestral invocations and absence in a variety of modes, while Radiant Matter III focussed primarily upon Mitchell's former exploration of representing an empty room through the presentation of The Smell of an Empty Space (2011) in three different declensions of vaporised, solid, and liquid. But before discussing some of the work in these exhibitions, and what historically contextualises it — which is what this text intends to do — the question needs to be asked: just what is ‘radiant matter’? And how does it relate to, well, the matter at hand?
Radiant Matter was initially postulated by the 19th century English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday who, in 1819 hypothesised a fourth state of matter in addition to solid, liquid and gaseous, as that of ‘radiant’. Sixty years later, another English chemist and physicist William Crookes delivered a paper entitled On Radiant Matter, in which he argued for the existence of a state of matter which was neither gas nor liquid, and which was officially identified as plasma in 1928 by the American chemist and physicist Irving Langmuir. Similar to gas, plasma has no definite shape or definite volume unless enclosed in a container, but unlike gas, it can conduct electricity and form filaments, beams and double layers. Plasma can be most commonly seen in the stars, neon signs and those funky, pseudo-sophisticated glass spheres from the 80’s whose writhing interiors of electromagnetic energy would temporarily glom onto a fondling finger or hand as if feeding on it, and which were otherwise known as plasma lamps.
Thus, as far as Mitchell is concerned, one suspects not only a definite kinship with the fluid instability of radiant matter (plasma), but more importantly, its erstwhile status as pure, poetically charmed hypothesis, as fanciful conjecture — , a kind of will-o'-the-wisp, which may or may not exist. Such hypothetical territory in turn opens up a few cans of art historical worms, which, it just so happens, can be found on the same shelf — sometimes even in the same can — in the vicinity of which is where Mitchell's practice can largely, though not exclusively be located. The contents of these cans is hard to describe, not necessarily because they, to all intents and purposes, seem to contain nothing, but rather because what they contain — and they contain quantities and qualities of great vastness, as vast as, some might argue, the desert — is difficult to prove. Furthermore, those same contents seem more closely aligned with the hypothetical than the empirically verifiable, and as such, continually run the risk of fraudulence (possibly the most dogged legacy of the historical avant-garde). Mitchell himself is certainly no stranger to this risk: his winning entry to New Zealand's 2009 Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award, Collateral (2009), which consisted of presenting the castoff packaging of the other competing artist's works on a plinth, not only stretched the general public's belief in contemporary art to its gleeful breaking point, but also earned him more than a few of the more predictable epithets associated with such purported charlatanism (e.g., the splendidly tautological "rubbish!"). But where such works are clearly engaged in rendering visible the invisible structures that govern art, the majority of what was featured in Radiant Matter has come to inhabit a more hypothetical space, one jointly occupied by the narrative neo-conceptualism of Mitchell's peers, like Jason Dodge and Kirsten Pieroth, and which was originally hypothesised by Duchamp, consummately theatricalised by Yves Klein, and radically literalised by Robert Barry.
Perhaps the most operative historical reference to this whole discussion is Duchamp's inimitable infra-mince. Immortalised in Duchamp's notes, infra-mince is actually not so much theorised therein as it is characterised by way of a series of pithy and scientifically absurd reflections on what could be described as fleeting and residual phenomena that happen at, or just beyond the very threshold of perception. A handful of Duchamp's examples seem particularly relevant to Mitchell's practice. For example: “Les buées — sur surfaces polies (verre, cuivre)” 3 (Mists — on polished surfaces, (glass, brass)) — here it is impossible not to recall of Gabriel Orozco's photograph, Breath on Piano (1993) — an image of that which the title describes and which could be considered a phenomenological relative, by way of ancestral filiation, to what Mitchell does;, Duchamp’s own 50 cc of Air de Paris Air (1919) — a work which consists of a small glass ampoule supposedly containing 50 cubic centimeters of Parisian air, and which bears a striking relevance to Mitchell's current output in more ways than one. While Duchamp's observation that, "Odeurs plus inframinces que les couleurs" 4 (odours [are] more infra-mince than colours), of course also merits special mention here. Indeed, one suspects that the former chess player would not have hesitated for an instant to linguistically apply the infra-mince stamp of approval to much of thise young artist's production (a funeral lament contained in glass ampoules? Infra-mince; a glass vial which contains sea-spray? Infra-mince; the smell of an empty space? Infra-mince), effectively exalting Mitchell to the status of a master artisan, a polyvalent crafter of the infra-mince.
For all the blithe humour and playfulness to be found in Duchamp's description of the infra-mince, it should not be forgotten that it is indissociable from his well known disenchantment with the retinal regime of art. The infra-mince forms a key theoretical part of his valorisation of the cognitive or conceptual over the sensuous, or rather retinal experience, and can be interpreted as such. What is particularly interesting about this, so to speak, ‘body of work’ is the extent to which it implicitly articulates certain latent avant-garde anxieties and preempts their prominence among any experience of art throughout the rest of the 20th and still, the 21st century. Namely, the ever present suspicion that a work of art is concealing something, that it's not all there, indeed, that some crucial, occult element can only be gleaned by a very select coterie of superhuman initiates. Either that, or it is what the French bluntly call, ‘fouteage de gueule’ (roughly translatable as, a spit in the face). In fact, these two sides of the street cannot in themselves be disassociated from Duchamp's legacy, which, incidentally inheres with miraculous tenacity in any kind of art in which virtuosity plays no apparent part. From the most diluted mongrel of 10th generation readymades to the most rarefied example of monochrome painting, art always seems to be tiptoeing along that razor's edge. It could even be claimed that if there is an essence to art, this is it: its capacity to partially conceal itself in plain sight, to always maintain some component of itself secret, no matter how uniformly transparent it might be — , as if the visible art object were but a decoy, a subterfuge — and the real thing, the arcane platonic ideals for which it was a mere avatar, were quite simply elsewhere, in the ether.
It is perhaps no small coincidence that much of Mitchell's work just happens to consist of quite literally essences, both verifiable and unverifiable. To wit, the admittedly more pointed interrogation of subjectivity in Your Memory of Rain (2010/2011), a perfume that purports to emanate the smell of rain in the city; Epitaph (2011), an essence meant to be evocative of a ghostly presence, of the sense of some other invisible presence in the room; and the forthcoming Smell of It All, an as of yet (at the time of writing this text) uncreated perfume meant to evoke, well, the hyperbolic ‘smell of it all’. An important distinction should here be made between the immaterial hyperbole of Mitchell, which tends much toward understatement, and that of Yves Klein — an essential stop on this immaterial trajectory — which is of a decidedly more stentorian order. I am thinking of his Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1952-1962), which were comprised of the sale of said immaterial zones, and optionally accompanied by the ceremonious burning of the cheque (receipt), which had been exchanged for gold, half of which was thrown into the Seine in an elaborate ritual which in itself was a kind of theatrical performance. Such antics clearly err toward the side of fraudulence, and are best characterised by Yve-Alain Bois when he writes:
“For what Klein was touching upon […] is one of the essential conditions of modern art, at least since Courbet and Manet (since the crisis of representation that presided over their work). It is the awareness that the risk of fraudulence, the risk of being laughed at and being called an emperor with no clothes, has become a necessary risk, but also that every work of art must confront this risk — it must even solicit it, challenge it — if it is to be at all authentic. More than any other artist from the immediate postwar years, Klein experienced this condition as if haunted by it”. 5
I think it could even be argued that what is particularly interesting about Klein is that in many ways he went on to implicitly make this risk the very subject matter of his work. Indeed, it is as if that risk were so fully incorporated into what he did that his own will to continually confront his own potential fraudulence effectively negated that risk — rendered it null and void (a strategy perfected by Andy Warhol, and later exploited by the likes of Jeff Koons and more recently, the American painter Josh Smith). But this is clearly not the case with Mitchell — something else altogether is at stake here. Despite the marked formal differences, I see a much closer link to the early work of Robert Barry. Not so much in the Inert Gases Series, (1969), in which the artist released gases, such as helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon, into the atmosphere and recorded the act in a photo — which goes without saying, is a direct ancestor to Mitchell's essences — but rather in other works such as, Closed Gallery Piece (1969) and Marcuse Piece (1970), in which Barry, leaving the gallery space empty, simply wrote on the wall, “Some places to which we can come, and for a while, ‘be free to think about what we are going to do.’ (Marcuse)”. Or, simple language pieces such as All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking - , 1:36 P.M.; June 15, 1969 (1969). For where such works ask what can in fact be thought, what can be conceived, , demarcating unexplored spaces of conception —, Mitchell's works in turn ask what can be perceived, how, and to what extent they need to be perceived in order to exist? Such questions and investigations necessarily require, if not a demanding level of perceptual engagement on the part of the viewer, then an unusual form of engagement (for example, the nose).
These considerations lead me to qualify Mitchell as an ethical artist, as someone directly engaged in the ethics of perceiving, of paying attention, and asking from his viewer a heightened, at times super-sensory level of attention (and what is curious about this is that while such an ethical mode markedly distances him from the self-consciously fraudulent antics of Klein, it in turn invests Duchamp's infra-mince with an unexpectedly ethical quality, thus creating yet another bond between them). And for this required attention, he gives in return the possibility of perceiving things one might have never thought to perceive in the first place (e.g., the smell of an empty space), which in turn necessarily, inevitably, yields a greater awareness of the everyday world.
It is important to mention that this ethical attitude is not limited to the content of the work, but extends to its form as well. I must say that I was initially not quite sure what to make of the extreme elegance with which Mitchell fashions and presents his works, but it has become clear to me that it couldn't be any other way. While the subject matter and content of Mitchell's work is dominated by questions of micro-perception and the immateriality that inevitably attends such questions, the work itself is very much of a material and sculptural order. At the beginning of the 21stst century, Mitchell has no illusions regarding the bygone historical radicality of immateriality; his investigations are meticulously embodied, foregrounding their own material form with as much care as the extensive scientific research that underpins them. For in order to convince the viewer of the care, precision and engagement with which looking needs to take place, he himself as a plastician, must invest if not as much thenas much if not more care, precision and engagement into the works presentation. This no doubt helps mitigate any possible suspicions of being ‘taken for a ride’.
I should state that if I make such an ethical claim, it comes not from art, but from literature, and a very specific literary tradition which includes Flaubert as much as it includes Nabokov, and which generally privileges vivid description and accuracy over every other consideration. When I first encountered Your Memory of Rain (2010/2011), I couldn't help but think of Robbe-Grillet (an essential figure among said tradition), and a particular phrase from his book of essays, Towards a New Novel (1963). At one point, while taking the poet Francis Ponge to task for his inability to simply describe and anthropocentrically anthropomorphise everything that comes within his poetic ken with reckless abandon, Robbe-Grillet writes, "He knows quite well, probably, that his texts will offer no help to archeologists of the future who seek discover to understand what might have been, among our lost civilization, a cigarette or a candle". 6 Thanks, however to Dane Mitchell, the same archeologists (living on the moon?) might be able to know what rain once smelt like in the city on planet earth.
That said, it goes without saying that art and literature are two very different things and cannot be expected to carry out the same services as one another. In neither case, however, is it a question of mere documentary. Then what exactly is it a question of? I am inclined to think it is of rendering a certain quality of texture. A texture of experience created by something so simple (or fantastical, depending on how you look at it) as guiding an individual through a ruin of scented rooms so that he might experience something that was already right in front of his face.
1. T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom [online text], Project Gutenberg Australia text
converted by Wes Jones <http://www.wesjones.com/seven%20pillars/sevenpillars%2000.xml>,
accessed August 3, 2011.
T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Hyperlink http://www.wesjones.com/seven pillars/sevenpillars 00.xml, accessed August 3, 2011.
2. 2 Ibid.
3. Marcel Duchamp, Notes, Ed. Paul Matisse, (my translation), (Flammarion, Paris, 1999), p. 33.
4. Ibid., p. 34.
5. Yve-Alain Bois, Klein's Relevance for Today, OCTOBER 119, Winter 2007, (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts), p. 83.
6. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pour Un Nouveau Roman, (my translation), (Les Editions de Minuit, Paris,
1961), p. 62.
Text from Radiant Matter, published in 2011 by Berliner Künstlerprogramm / DAAD & Artspace, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.