Radiant Matter II
Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, New Zealand
Radiant Matter II, 2011
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
Dunedin, New Zealand
In Radiant Matter II, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Mitchell's investigations have become occupied with liminal spaces where occult activities, memory and shadowy elements coalesce. The exhibition is situated in a cavernous boxy space, which has an off-centre single access point, high stud and polished wooden floors. Acutely aware that these distinct architectural features could physically and aesthetically overpower the art experience, Mitchell has obviously spent time on the execution of the installation so that each artwork has its own spatial integrity and yet the show still retains a unified presence. A ‘casual’ formality provides an important visual and conceptual pathway between artworks; this is particularly significant because an emphasis has been placed on reducing light levels and creating a sombre atmosphere, so there is a strangely ambient — gothic quality to the exhibition.
Discretely lit and occupying a small section of wall close to the exhibition entrance, Ancestral Dirt (2011) is a rather apt if not subtle introduction to this exhibition. This work consists of six glass vials which are hung vertically at precise intervals and distances from the gallery wall. Held in place by clamps these fragile vessels are filled with soil samples that the artist has gathered from selected sites in Otago, New Zealand. In the initial research around this project Mitchell discovered that his family connections with this part of the country went much deeper than he had previously realised. In this respect Ancestral Dirt hovers in an interesting nebulous zone; it is somewhere between self-portraiture and landscape, genealogical and archaeological field study.
If Ancestral Dirt memorialises both a familial and collective sense of place and time passing, then Epitaph (2011) condenses these elements down to their bare essence. Working with the perfumer Michel Roudnitska, Mitchell produces a scent whose base notes allude to a bodily (ghostly) presence, with a lingering hint of dust. The potency of this synthesised perfume is both amplified and clarified by its placement in a seemingly empty late Victorian vitrine. By utilising this remnant from a by-gone era and the gallery’s decorative holdings, Mitchell adds an important allegorical dimension to this work, while bringing the ‘dusty’ museological context to the surface.1 Through his placement of this cabinet and subtle intervention — cutting a 20cm hole three quarters of the way up the glass, so that gallery goers have to lean into the apparatus and turn away from the rest of the exhibition — Mitchell compels an active engagement with this sculpture.
Gateway to the Etheric Realm (2011), occupies a central place physically and metaphorically in the exhibition. This is a large sculptural work that has been carefully constructed and composed by Mitchell from an assortment of seemingly eclectic substances; dragons blood, herbs, owl feathers, blessed water and salt — the remnants from a witch’s spell cast in this space.2 These substrates, which momentarily open-up a fourth dimension, are barely contained by a set of multiple enclosures, or conversely these barriers come to embody the unknown and imperceptible sphere they are designed to protect. In this context Etheric Realm Spell Materials (2011) becomes an important companion piece; it holds samples of the etheric spell in a series of glass vials. Stored behind glass in a large white frame that is placed on slivers of obsidian and leans against the gallery wall, this work literally encases the witch’s results for further analysis or later use.
As the title suggests, Diabolical Object (2011) has more than a passing connection with these spell works. Positioned in close proximity to the etheric realm series, this large shard of obsidian rock has been placed directly on the floor, cut and polished face-side up, so that it casts an eerie reflection across the space — clearly delineating it as both a visual and conceptual point of reference. Black volcanic glass has a long and complex history, having been used by numerous cultures and particular groups, from the dark to the visual arts, as a means into another dimension.3 Obsidian’s lineage as a black mirror, to usher in the ‘unknown’ and deflect back the ‘real’, is an important thread that runs through the exhibition.
Mitchell’s simple alteration in Diabolical Object, revealing the reflection within the rough rock, is reiterated with the placement of mirrors in the bases of the museum cabinets. This is most beautifully articulated in Bagpipe Talismans (Funeral Lament in Glass) (2011) and Spoken Heredity Talismans (2011) where hand-blown pieces of glass appear to be entombed in a state of suspended animation. With Bagpipe Talismans, six engorged glass vessels are lined up in a sizeable rectangular antique vitrine. These are the fragile remains of the artist commissioning a bagpiper to play a funeral dirge while his instrument is connected to a glassblower’s pipe. There is a subtle interplay between all elements of this work, from the capturing of such an elusive and emotive audio transmission to the transference of these sound waves into such an elegant collection of delicate objects. It is the inherent instability of these swollen glass forms that makes them so captivating — as if they are defying their own physical structure and even the laws of gravity, as they float in a mirror world. Sitting alongside this work is an identical vitrine replete with mirrored base and a consignment of near similar glass curiosities. In Spoken Heredity Talismans, seven solid curvilinear objects take centre stage, their shape defined by Mitchell recounting the names of his ancestors into the glassblower’s blow tube. Channelling his familial roots into a molten glass cavity the artist not only connects with his past, he also creates something profoundly poetic — literally rendering speech bubbles. In Mitchell’s hands the most ephemeral states and conditions are momentarily captured, given form and displayed so audiences can wonder, desire and ruminate over the vestiges.
1. Mitchell sought to use the gallery’s exhibition furniture for its aesthetic and historical significance; the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is New Zealand’s oldest municipal art gallery.
2. The artist spent a sustained period as part of the Visiting Artist Programme seeking out the services of a local witch to enact a spell in the gallery space. Over recent years Mitchell has worked with a number of people who operate in areas of the occult, the results of which have been included in: Singapore Biennale (2011), Singapore; Conjuring Form (2008), Art Statements, Art39Basel, Basel, Switzerland; Casa Sem Dono (2008), Casa Triangulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil; A Guest, A Host (2008), Galerie West, The Hague, The Netherlands; Invocation (2008), Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, Australia; Mystic Truths (2007), Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand.
3. For further reading on obsidian, see Arnaud Maillet, The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art, (Zone Books, 2004).
Text: Aaron Kreisler