Radiant Matter I
Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand
Radiant Matter I, 2011
Govett-Brewster Art Gallery
New Plymouth, New Zealand
There is a bunker-like quality to the gallery that Dane Mitchell has been allocated for Radiant Matter I, at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The first thing you take in when you move through the glass lobby doors is a central staircase that divides the space into two clearly defined exhibition bays. The grand staircase not only creates a distinctive architectural footprint, it also sets up an overwhelming desire to transition through this space and ascend into another realm. Rather than avoiding the obvious quirks of this site, Mitchell builds these factors into the delivery of his work. In fact, it is the very awkwardness of this architectural situation which provides him with the scope to test out a range of display options.
From the outset it is clear that Mitchell is interested in subtly referencing the transient and multilayered aspects of this built environment, by arranging each artwork at its own distinct level. However, unity is maintained through the artist’s tight control of the aesthetic, material and psychological imprint of the exhibition. For example, glass becomes an important physical and allegorical trope in this presentation: it houses, supports and enacts the art experience. With Your Memory of Rain Encased (2011), two sheets of glass are held together and aloft by a set of G-clamps, which both create a makeshift display table and a coffer for a synthesised smell of rain. The inherent deceit in this artwork is that what it holds or shows off is visually absent: as spectators we have to believe that what is not visually perceivable does actually exist.
Under these auspices the role of the artist becomes fascinating, as audiences come to depend on his word (and by extension that of the gallery); in this context Mitchell may be considered an intermediary presence. This is most potently articulated in the perfume works, as Mitchell stages a host of situations for encountering these substances. The most striking example in the Your Memory of Rain series (2010/2011), presents a sleek silver tube on a glass pedestal, which insulates the scent from exposure to UV light. In spite of the latent signs that this is a highly regulated operation, in particular the art gallery’s ability to create a hermetically sealed environment, the location of this artwork near the foyer entrance allows an intermittent ‘ambient’ factor into this artwork. At a deeper level it could be argued that Mitchell is interested in creating a series of clinical studies, which rely on social interactions to both initiate and determine a set of unknowable results. Mitchell’s appreciation of his audience’s role as both active participant and passive recipient is played out with cunning guile in Your Memory of Rain Released (2011). Having generated a series of alluring propositions, through the ‘encased’ perfume works, Mitchell provides unfetted access to this aroma in a hollowed out cavity that has been cut into a gallery wall. The tempted viewer can both satisfy their curiosity by getting up close and personal with the artwork, while also becoming the object of spectacle for other gallery visitors. The final artwork in this side of the gallery is in many respects the groundwork for all the components that exist around it. Landing the Sea (2010/2011) is comprised of a large beaker-like glass vessel and a framed photograph of the artist standing on the local foreshore with a container collecting sea spray. This oversized test tube, which has been hung vertically on the gallery wall, holds a physical trace of the local environment where the artist had spent a sustained period generating the ideas and materials for the exhibition. The photograph enacts and documents the event: the artist is captured performing the operation and he is clearly presented at an identifiable location. The indexical role of the photograph is as proof of the action by Mitchell in this community, and also the lineage of this gallery in contemporary art history.
Walking across the gallery’s false floor, a painted hardboard shell over the old tile and concrete base, it is hard not think about the relationship between the temporary and permanent aspects of this space. Various Solid States (2010/2011) may take its cue from the provisional nature of this fit-out, but what makes it compelling is the strange combination of elements; a domestic de-humidifier, plaster, measuring instruments, bubble wrap and an assortment of formless plaster casts. To a certain degree this artwork demystifies the creative act, as gallery staff follow a set of prescribed instructions; to generate from the water collected in the de-humidifier a series of bubble wrap casts over the duration of the exhibition. In other respects Various Solid States blurs the relationship between the artist’s studio activities and the gallery’s role as host, custodian and storehouse. In the context of this site, particularly its role in the development of performance and post-object art, this artwork does not speak out of turn or seem out of place.1 In a similar way, Two Sides Coalesce (2010/2011) utilises the physical and conceptual accoutrements of the gallery as an armature for generating a provocative and speculative artwork. Once again a de-humidifier takes centre stage, but in this instance its activities are counterbalanced by a humidifier. By enclosing both within a glass cube — which is suspended just off the floor and connected to a gantry at the apex of the building — Mitchell is able to create a sublime experience from simple off-the-shelf consumer items. The symbiotic relationship between these machines brings a strikingly human quality to this installation, which belies the cool aesthetic and conceptual dimensions of this exhibition. While Radiant Matter I provides plenty of scope for discussion about the relationship between art, science, accepted wisdom and the unknown, it is actually at a corporeal level that it is really affecting.
1 It is worth noting that the exhibition Points of Contact: Jim Allen, Len Lye, Hélio Oiticica (11 December 2010 – 27 February 2011) preceded Mitchell’s exhibition. Points of Contact is important in this context because it saw the recreation of a series of performances and the reconstruction of two seminal late sixties installations by Allen (where Radiant Matter I would later be located). Len Lye’s ‘active’ archive, held at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, is also worth considering in this discussion, particularly the ongoing creation of his kinetic works by the Len Lye Foundation, as a preeminent artist in absentia.
Text: Aaron Kreisler