Conservation of Mass
RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland
Conservation of Mass, 2013
Dane Mitchell takes dematerialisation to an extreme in his first exhibition with RaebervonStenglin, Conservation of Mass. The New Zealand artist’s work operates at the thresholds of the rational and irrational, the visible and invisible. He explores transitional states of being through alchemical processes, treating knowledge, experience and the past as properties with substance. Conjured forms and smells envelop visitors to his exhibition at ReabervonStenglin, who must breathe in and conjure the artwork as much as they visually perceive it.
Entering the gallery, one is made aware of a past event that informs their present. In the doorway to the gallery a brass plaque has been laid announcing ‘Threshold. Beyond this point the spirits of the past have been beckoned’, leading into an ostensibly bare room.
Threshold to Beckoning (all works 2013) is a liminal piece which commemorates a spell cast by a pagan witch during the exhibition’s installation. It’s message not only alerts readers to a recent event (an esoteric ritual in which the artist also participated), but also allows for, in Mitchell’s words, ‘the possibility of an imagined or delusional experience to take place.’
The building’s previous existence is further invoked in the gallery’s back room, where a strange sculptural silver form fixed into the wall emanates a strong perfume. Titled Epona after a goddess protector of horses, the scent has been specially created by Mitchell with Michel Roudnitska, a famed perfumier from the South of France, as a facsimile of the smell of a horse’s stable, complete with overtones of hay in various states of decomposition and undertones of musky horse sweat.
Contrasting conceptual minimalist aesthetics with sensory abundance and ‘other ways of knowing’, Conservation of Mass is a hybrid proposition — part rarefied art object, part occult mysticism. Its olfactory efficacy has a mechanical relationship to memory, penetrating the body on a molecular level and physiologically summoning the past. Whilst the substance of the exhibition’s sensations are invisible and seemingly substance-less, they are attended by objects with evident physicality: the plaque and elongated arrow of the perfume dispenser; but also objects to be kept in the gallery’s office — a hardwood box permanently screwed shut hiding all the materials the witch has used to make the spell (whose title, Ark of Spell Materials, subtly suggests Robert Morris’s 1961 seminal work Box with the Sound of its Own Making) and a mirrored bell jar containing a further perfume dispenser sprayed each day with the scent.
Mitchell’s vessels for the intangible are thus brass, wood, glass, and silver — materials traditional both to alchemy and to sculpture, pointing to similarities between magic and art. In Conservation of Mass there is continuity between the two. States change and sublimate — transubstantiating between the visible and invisible, palpable and imagined, sorcery and art — yet their hold stays the same.