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Shelf Life

Jim Barr & Mary Barr



As we write this piece, one of the works from Dane Mitchell’s series Present Surface of Tell, is in front of us.[1] Cast in plaster this object is both physically heavy and brittle. At first glance, it appears to be the model of an archaeological site. There are clear indications of an amphitheatre and some bunker-like buildings while the site itself is set in frozen chaos. Small rectangular frames are scattered about while the forms of the amphitheatre sit in a turbulent sea of plaster. Parts of the amphitheatre have been thrown up on angles as though they have been rent in two. Clearly these structures have been subjected to cataclysmic forces.


Closer examination reveals that the main structures are cast from the carousel of a slide projector, and that the scattered architectural frames are moulded from plastic or cardboard slide-holders. This realisation shifts the experience of the work from the science of archaeology to the abstraction of metaphor. From our bird’s-eye-view (the work is typically shown on the floor) this architectural ruin is rich in associations. The now virtually obsolete Kodak carousel projector, introduced in 1961[2], mechanized the presentation of art and made it very easy to finalize and protect the order of slides in projector’s finned carrier. Everyone had the opportunity to tell their own version of art history again and again.  Mitchell’s ruined carousel offers a poignant commentary on the death of narrative art history in a digital age.


Slides of art works had another life outside the formality of the carousel projector. They were presented by artists in clear plastic sheets as an introduction to their work to art dealers and collectors.[3] The image of an art dealer holding a sheet of slides to the light and peering at them with unfocussed eyes illuminates one of the cruellest engagements between art and commerce.[4]


The other thought that comes to mind looking at Present Surface of Tell is its complicating of inside and out. The carousel, typically used inside a darkened room, is re-presented here as exterior architecture. The meeting of the interior world of the projector and its projected image and its physical abandonment as an architectural relic in the series is troubling. Even the humour of the work is shadowed by this confusion of inner and outer experiences. We suspect the same interest in dissembling ideas of what is outside and what is inside will be a telling factor in the wall work Mitchell is proposing for the gallery A Gentil Carioca in Rio de Janeiro.


Behind the wall


For perversity’s sake, let’s first stand behind the wall, behind the outside of the wall, that is. We are told that the shelter Mitchell plans to suspend will be attached to the outside wall of the gallery. The initial plan was for him to work inside the gallery until he was asked to take himself outside. An outsider then by suggestion, if not by choice. It’s tough out there in the real world where art must foot it with the everyday rather than relax in the familiar context galleries provide. Even if it’s not a white cube, we know we are supposed to look for the art, and we know what to look for.


Playing the insider on the outside is a role that suits Mitchell. Think of it like peeling a glove from a hand. Just as the stitching is revealed and the structure made apparent in an inside-out glove, an outside wall has a roughness and directness that the smoother surface of any inside wall can’t match; especially one in a contemporary art gallery.


For the duration of Mitchell’s work nothing will so become the inside wall of A Gentil Carioca as its exterior. The thought of Mitchell’s installation hanging just out of reach is tantalizing. If anyone was to climb the wall and wait on this precarious shelf, they will be at once close to and distant from anyone inside the gallery. So near and yet so far. Psychology gives proximity a key role in analysing the forces of human attraction. But what do we make of a proximity that hits the wall?


This oddity of proximity is further confused by a potential dweller’s own freedom on the other side of the wall. While being lashed to a rope high above the street might be a strange idea of freedom, there is the freedom to stop, to pull out, to come down to earth. Other artists have pushed at this freedom through proxies. Mexican artist Santiago Sierra paid wages to a man who agreed to be bricked up and fed through a small gap at the bottom of the wall.[5] Edgar Allen Poe would have understood because even the art-required escape clause takes away none of the emotional and metaphorical resonance from Sierra’s work.


In front of the wall


By exhibiting behind the wall, Mitchell is plugging for outsider status, but despite the opportunities for passers-by to see the work in their world, he is very much an insider. This relationship with the audience is a conundrum that shapes the work of many artists today. A quick chronological traverse of this terrain by quote might look something like this:


“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Marcel Duchamp


“Everyone is an artist.”

Joseph Beuys


“If I am an artist working in a studio, then everything I make must be art.”

Bruce Nauman


“I’m interested in blurring the line, in terms of how art is perceived and how one approaches what is deemed to be art and the possibility of doing it another way.”

Rirkrit Tiravanija


The work is, in some ways at least, also about isolation. And isolation within a busy public space. This connection makes it hard not to reach for Vito Acconci. The resonance between Acconci scrunched beneath floor boards beating to the rhythm of steps on the floor above him and a dweller breathing alone in the small tent are irresistible. People inside the gallery might be forgiven for taking advantage of their own insider standing to reach for a glass to press against the wall. Whatever one chooses to do in these cramped quarters, however, can only amplify the very private nature of this public exhibition. Art, with its often suspicious and doubting audience, brings its own form of privacy with it.


Like the people behind the wall we can only guess at the technical difficulties that will attach themselves to this project. Walls are infrequently subjected to the insult of climbing bolts and it is anybody’s guess how the bricks and mortar will respond to such probing. Attempting to sleep on the shelf, even at this un-alpine altitude, is not for the weak kneed. The truth is that even a fall from a moderately high ladder can be fatal. At least with that famous pair of art climbers Picasso and Braque, there was someone to hold fast to the rope if one of them slipped.[6]


From here in New Zealand, a country that boasts Mt Everest’s first conqueror as its most valued citizen, the thought of scrambling up the wall of an art gallery reveals the same mock heroics that he gives his faux archaeological drawings. As with his other work this project is wrapped in a cloak of serious fun. Will it be the no-nonsense spirit of Acconci or the merry presence of Maurizio Catalan in that small tent clamped to the wall? Give us enough rope and we could let you know.






[1] A "tell" is a mound or elevated land that has arisen by repeated and long-term rebuilding of the same site. Layers of civilizations can be found at different strata. Intriguingly it is also a gambling term for an action that gives the game away.

[2] Kodak Carousal projectors were discontinued by Kodak in 2004.

[3] New Zealand artist, Julian Dashper has used the slide to interrogate the role it has played in contemporary art.

[4] For a quintessential example refer to Lord Snowdon’s photograph of Sir Anthony Blunt practising connoisseurship in Private View published by Nelson in 1965.

[5] He was isolated for 360 hours (three weeks) and paid $10 per hour. The work was installed in New York’s PS1 Gallery in 2000 and called Person renumerated for a period of 360 consecutive hours.

[6] Braque’s claim that he and Picasso were “like two mountain climbers roped together” was too good an opportunity to let pass.



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