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Minor Optics


daadgalerie, Berlin, Germany

Minor Optics, 2009
Berlin, Germany

Two circles on a grey plane. 'Threshold' is written inside each circle, and they touch. In fact the circles interlink. Each perfect circle is independently contained and complete. Subjected to Dane Mitchell’s program these circles intersect, forming new openings, new entry points and a new collection of thresholds.


Mitchell’s work dwells in a world of potentiality, inviting the viewer to believe in dimensions that are outside of our usual perception. Through employing the coy science of the Venn diagram, Mitchell describes how moves from one threshold to another in his work, gathering evidence and reporting back. Maintaining the integrity of both thresholds, this diagram offers the concrete possibility of two entry points colliding, opening new perceptive potentials. Mitchell traverses this passage offering insights into possible life forms beyond, describing shapes, understandings and narratives that are often unseen and unlikely, but are always enticing. More scientific than archaeological, Mitchell adopts the position of a cynical clinician, and through testing and measuring he offers belief as an option. Like an Enlightenment ethnographer, he dutifully reports back from beyond, in ever more descriptive ways.


The evidence that Mitchell collates is often seemingly incidental and everyday - dust build-up in an otherwise empty gallery space, celestial presences latent within institutional spaces, or as in this recent work, the smell of an empty room and an open space. By using elements that are already present within the empty gallery and the uninhabited institution, Mitchell reveals that all spaces are in fact alive with activity. While on first glance, the gallery or institution appears empty of content, with Mitchell’s sleight of hand, potentials are illuminated and openings appear, through which we are invited to travel. In his constant quest to feel the edges of these unknown forms and suspected presences, Mitchell has mapped activity by analysing dust samples and employing psychics to unravel the celestial occupation of a site. In Minor Optics Mitchell collaborates with perfumer Michel Roudnitska to open the scent threshold, further informing the essence of the previously unnameable and unseeable beyond. The perfume that Mitchell and Roudnitska created emulates three invisible and/or intangible events:  the smell of an empty room, an open space and electrical discharge. This scent is sprayed onto undeveloped photographic paper, framed and hung in the gallery – allowing for the perfume to become visible as it merges with light to stain the paper blue. This operates on a number of levels illustrating how the intangible can be made tangible, the invisible visible and for the collision of two thresholds.


Perfume and dust require air and movement for their existence. Without either of these factors, both perfume and dust would remain abstract. The imperative of movement within this process is reiterated through Mitchell’s electro-static sculptural monoliths. Like simplified bodies, these charged aluminium sheets are clinically bereft of viscerality, and yet through their electric agitation and their apparent ‘breathing’, they emulate the dust-attracting qualities of a human. Dust infiltrates and yet all attempts to penetrate the agitated periphery of these sculptures are resisted by these high-gloss, electrostatic human stand-ins.


Despite their agitated surfaces, these works are in fact hermetically closed with industrial rigour - they are the perfect empty circles of Mitchell’s Venn diagram.  Our bodies, on the other hand, despite the veneer of containment, are woven with holes and openings in a constant state of dilation. We are entities comprised of a series of thresholds - orifices and pores - accepting and releasing elements from within and without. And in relief to the smooth gloss finish of the aluminium pieces, Mitchell draws attention to our flaking skin through the particles in his dust collection; and to our porous sensory system, highlighting our inability to control the scents that reach our olfactory bulb. We cannot close out a smell in the way that we close vision with our lids. Dust enters through our pores, scent through our nose and pathogens through our mouths and skin.  We are highly porous with multiple thresholds - physical, psychological and spiritual all receiving and rejecting in a mostly autonomous manner.


Mitchell’s work acknowledges this agitated state. He challenges the edges and entry points of the conduits that not only channel air and bodily fluids, but also those that corral perception and even conventions of time and space. Almost sibylline in his compulsions, Mitchell’s practice seeks to illuminate the profane. He reports on its possible outlines, collecting the detritus that this amorphous void unwittingly creates – be it dust-like or celestial, or manufacturing the nuances of its scent.


The profane in this case is an unnamed space or dimension just beyond our reach, glimpsed every now and then from the corner of the eye. Often its presence is only noted by the hairs on our neck and as half-knowledge before the eye focuses. This meta-space is alluded to through humanity’s desire to believe in an other, more powerful force – a ruler of the realm beyond our own. It is Derrida’s difference, the gap between being and meaning where perspectives slip and thresholds of subjectivity collide. It is also the process of Bataille’s informé, the move away from the formless, amorphous mass as it is given meaning by being brought “down in the world”. Mitchell offers concrete evidence of these gaps, these moments before meaning, by attempting to define their shape, their smell, their essential qualities, perpetually testing and sensing, like iodine searching for starch, but always with the persistence of a sceptic and with the optimism of a lapsed believer.  These thresholds that Mitchell illuminates are both contradictory and interlinked. The seer, who heals through suggestion and placebo, relies as much on cynicism as he does on belief.


Much like a shaman, Mitchell asks us to believe in the intangible dimension from which he takes his readings and gathers his scents.  His work requires complicity with the viewer that is similar to that which is required when a shaman treats a patient. Mitchell has created a world that can only be activated, it’s form defined, it’s meaning informed through voyaging into his portals and between his thresholds. And as Michel Taussig explains, shamanism depends on this kind of  “corrosive scepticism”, where the “secret is contained in the trick that is both art and technique and thus real and really made up.” (Michael Taussig, Walter Benjamin’s Grave; Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)).


Text: Emily Cormack

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