Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, Australia
I Called Up An Invisible Power Then Put It To The Test
When picking a mystic adventure – even as desultory as a newspaper horoscope and even when you don’t believe in its truth, wisdom or synchronicity – something of its invocation leaves a residue. The dust of an alternative reality provokes anything from nagging doubt, to cynicism, to awakened possibilities and the impression that things are indeed beyond our immediate control… For the cynics among us, in grappling with the residual effects of the encounter the temptation is to talk it out, reason with it and critique it, thereby minimising its impact. For the seekers, critique may be used for the opposite effect: as a threshold.
Dane Mitchell’s Invocations carries with it this dichotomy. On the one hand he wills spirits into the rooms of Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces utilising professional help to do so, on the other he leaves traces of these spirits rendered in a number of distilled and isolated forms. He goes as far as making the spirit world a subject of enquiry rather than providing an experience of the occult. Instead he offers some aids to – possibly, maybe, potentially – measure its presence. Mitchell allows as much as the ‘idea’ of the occult into the room, while maintaining the appearance of clinical distance, its veracity is carefully removed from any reading of the work. His methodology follows that of the archivist, enacting critical distance in his handling of the material. However, here the assumption of distance is implicated in the way collecting and cataloguing have been viewed as an objective and remote activity in the arts and sciences of the West.
In this instance, the subject of Mitchell’s haunting is the site of the gallery itself. In part he works within the conventions of site-specific practice – careful not to overlay the site/ physical environment with elements foreign to its confines and character, Mitchell builds upon existing myths of ghostly presences at the locale. Like the best of conceptual practice Mitchell is sensitive to include nothing other than the means necessary to convey the idea (in spirit language being ‘sensitive’ is also code for the possession of spiritual powers).
Experimenting with mystic technique is also a way of putting mythology ‘on the table’, or in the room, in a manner more potent than fiction, precisely because of the lingering possibility that other worldly discoveries may be revealed. This fusion of scientific methodology with mystic practice is not unfamiliar. The legacy of mysticism contains countless examples of quasi-scientific and technological devices adopted in the search for verification of the unknown.
Creating a schema or device for revealing the ‘unseen’ non-qualitative values and functions of a belief system – the beliefs of artists and their institutions even – has a history in Mitchell’s practice. At its most invasive (or interrogative), it’s something which has got him into trouble. Audiences still expect care when handling belief. And therefore, the equation of scientific or conceptual distance with cynicism risks undermining the project. If you’re a believer cynicism undermines the potential of the subject, closes it down, and if you’re not, mysticism cynically rendered is a waste of time – a one-liner. Cynicism means there is no interest, value or morality invested in the project, that it is a non-generative enquiry in which to coolly point towards the ‘structures’ of belief and their social organization – their forms. And maybe there is a part of Dane Mitchell that would prefer the mystics project to be viewed in this way.
However, there is something in the labouring with materials, their excessive formalism and the exaggerated acquisition of information, which reveals a wild or errant conceptualism. The overly careful avoidance of personal or artistic implication in the subject somehow implies the reverse, as Mitchell teases the subject like a schoolboy teases a girl who fascinates him. This is not a straight project. Mitchell responds to the interference of the witch and the negotiation with someone ill equipped to problem solve in the world of conceptual practice, but artful in a world thoroughly outside his experience. It creates a leach in the conceptual apparatus as it is conventionally appropriated – the cool, rational, non-subjective device for distancing the romantic.
This somewhat paradoxical impulse exposes a problem in our contemporary condition. On the surface of things, postmodern thought indulged the pastiche to the extent that it was possible for belief to have little more potency than its image. This generation arguably had all the keys in place, contending that the world operates on a smooth translation between the signifier and the signified. There is an absolutist trajectory to this language of surface realities which has been described as nihilistic – a dead end, a closed door. Somehow by reinvesting the language of evidential reality with errant and wild belief, the door is tampered with. It’s not so much opened – but signposted for the curious. Mitchell includes a Gertrude Street door with an audio track of creaking hinges in the show, it’s a gag, but one that plays on the ‘idea’ of transition fundamental to the mystic journey. Ultimately the project’s stark contrast between knowledgeable withdrawal and shamanic invitation asks the viewer to consider broadly what of the unknown is possible within the world of known quantities; furthermore, what are the ongoing risks of ‘sensitivity’ for artist and audience?
Text: Natasa Conland