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Dare to Believe

Zara Stanhope



Is it a characteristic of humanity that we lack confidence in the continued existence of belief, belief of any kind? There has been a decline in the adherence to many faiths and creeds since the numerous climactic events of the mid 20th century. The dissolution of modernist convictions and an oft associated utopia with industrialisation, urbanisation, secularisation, scientific and bureaucratic rationalisation and capitalism cast an uneven but wide shadow globally. As a consequence the idea of the possibility of shared belief has suffered and division has grown between those believers trusting in unsubstantiated principles and their opposite who are only persuaded by the code of proof.


In addition, the digital age is one in which the decision whether to be a believer or not is increasingly being taken out of our hands. Fake news, message hacks, email scams, phoney websites – the internet has opened a portal to interactions that are unbound when compared to previous ways of knowing. Digital networks privilege transactional speed and the visual over the other senses and processes of verifying knowledge. Belief is difficult in these times of tenuous truths.


Could a community or communities of believers exist today? Brought together in the process of perceiving what previously went unseen? In exploring the relations between the material and immaterial worlds the art of Dane Mitchell suggests an opening to this possibility. His works in recent yearsprovoke the questioning of known and unfamiliar realms, their existence and affect. Mitchell does not request unconditional devotion but sufficient trust to give the overlooked credence.


A number of Mitchell’s works in the early 2000s engaged with the art institution and show the beginnings of his interest in remaking the conditions of his context and bringing to light the normally concealed aspects of a setting. One work resulted from his dissatisfaction with a visit to an art museum and comprised his request that the director return part of his entry donation, which they did.[1] For another he displayed the legal correspondence of a director of an art space after having dug through their trash.[2] These works were positioned by commentators as institutional critique and postmodern appropriation, a reappraisal of a modern system, however, this is too narrow a frame when we look across Mitchell’s concerns. As is apparent in his subsequent projects Mitchell engages with ways the social can make sense of our institutionalized experience, developing an aesthetics or politics of the invisible that extends beyond prescribed codes of knowledge toward the acquisition of more fundamental and significant subjectivities.


In this way his practice contains the possibility of transformation, another overlooked phenomena today. One of his early projects, the Present Surface of Tell (2005), asked the viewer to invest belief in the future as a time of flux. Drawings of well known city and national art museums in New Zealand as ruined foundations along with graphs of the hierarchy of the art system as stratified geological diagrams suggest a redundancy of the traditional art establishment.[3] Similarly plaster casts of the slide, carousel, camera and keyboard embedded in what appears to be the earth, like another post Vesuvian moment, are apparently outmoded visual technologies from a near future. Resembling archaeological samples and field notes, the material in Present Surface of Tell offered a hypothesis, right or wrong, of the transformation of the art world as a result of its (lack of) social significance.


The strategy of revealing or suggesting other subjectivities beyond certitude, other voices, is ongoing for Mitchell. Beyond the Present Surface of Tell with its premonitions of the demise of cultural infrastructure Mitchell’s art in effect turns objecthood and the manmade material world upside down, to consider its overlooked undersides or opposites. This move has been described as a focus on “marginal phenomena and transitional states”[4] yet I suggest that Michell’s interest is larger, in being a concern to highlight the strange as a constant or implicit state of the present, past and potentially the future.


This strategy of privileging multiple and contrasting voices or presences is made manifest in numerous ways. One is to transfer practices or ideas, often techniques from a discredited or arcane profession, from one field to another discipline. The work Conjuring Forms (2008) at Art Basel is an example of one of a number of projects that confound the visual, especially the spectacular nature of an art fair which makes art into the optical eyecandy that Duchamp discredited decades ago. “A spirit has been summoned to this space. Do not Enter” reads a sign in the gallerist’s booth where a medium employed by Mitchell called up the spirit of the last person executed for witchcraft in Europe, Anna Goldi. Similarly, Fourfold Threshold (2015) at Art Basel Hong Kong, seemed to comprise four sets of stanchions protecting empty space. In fact, the barriers foregrounded the power of the paranormal, demarcating a grid inside which a spell had been cast by a sorcerer raising invocations against the artwork’s enemies.


There have been a number of contexts where Mitchell has seen fit to explore the potential for mediums and spirit guides.[5] The remnants of a witch’s spell in Gateway to the Etheric Realm (2011) was part of Radiant Matter II at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, an exhibition centred on essences of matter, space and time.[6] The organic material of hand blown glass is suffused with voices registering distinct pasts in Spoken Heredity Talismans (2011) and Bagpipe Talismans (Funeral Lament in Glass) (2011); Mitchell breathing the name of an ancestor into each of the seven vials comprising Spoken Heredity Talismans, and six glass orbs produced when a bagpiper played a lament into the glassblower’s pipe in the latter. These practices that utilise, counter or foreground alternative knowledge systems as well as what we see encourage the acceptance that understanding can take different states and, especially, even lie in ‘not knowing’.


Radiant Matter II is one of many projects in which Mitchell connects the elemental world with the ethereal. Ancestral Dirt (2011), six overscaled glass test tubes filled with earth suggests the presence of genealogies, of both the artist’s and a larger historical community. In the midst of Radiant Matter II a large fragment of black volcanic obsidian rock, Diabolical Object (2011) acted as a black glass or mirror. Obisidan is known to have been used in divination and other black arts in the 18th century, as well as used for its other properties across time, and like the other exhibition elements the beautiful specimen exuded a sense of ominous energies. Obsidian appeared again in The Dragon, The Purple Forbidden Enclosure (2013) at the Old Kallang Airport as part of the Singapore Biennale 2013 alongside chalk, charcoal and water, the remains of a spell cast by a medium. Connecting the artist’s star sign and one of the realms of Chinese astrology to a site of previous spatial travel Mitchell’s installation allowed the imagining of an unbounded spill of spirits between the building and the skies above.


Various engagements with the material world and its intersection with the unearthly appear and reappear. In Minor Optics (2009) at daadgalerie in Berlin dust collected on large sets of upright black steel sheets clamped together and carrying an electrostatic current, giving another view of the molecular stuff at the border line of our vision. Three more recent prints from an ongoing series demonstrate how we tend to analyse the micro world. From the Dust Archive (2003-) are images of flora in petri dishes with titles suggesting they were ‘cultured’ from Mitchell’s old chestnut, the art museum.[7] Idea of optics and different forms of sight between human and other species or worlds require more interrogation in Mitchell’s work as it is apparent that a scientific attitude toward things, living and non-living, contrasts with other methods, for example the ideas of speculative realism or object orientated ontology. Looking across Mitchell’s practice indicates how once that which was considered strange objects being invested with independent agency – may lead to shifts toward more mindful approaches to ecosystems.


In such examples Mitchell’s work brings conflicting concepts of flux or transformation into tension, say between the anthropcene, the organisation of the world by humans, and invisible and autonomous nature. Transformation is an idea that has fallen into disbelief, in its connections with religion and the unfulfilled optimism of modernity. The anthropocentric behaviour that has led to the loss of much native habitant and extinction and evolution of species sits in relation with other, opposing concepts of the world that need to be voiced as possible alternatives.


The potential of relationality, of counter experiences each requiring cognisance and respect, are a productive dissensus within Mitchell’s practice that encourages transformation.[8] Works can embolden the audience to leave credibility behind and invest in the vaporous world, in its intersection with nature, the senses, psyche and non-human sphere, say to imagine the synthetic air of a digital age as a possible warning or remedy for the anthropcenic age. For example, Epitaph (2011) an early work with his collaborator, French perfumer Michel Roudnitska, asks the viewer to lean to a cabinet to experience the scent of a (ghostly) body with a hint of dust, a tongue in cheek reprise of his earlier attitude toward art institutions but also connected to the engagements with genealogy, ghostly energies and the earth.


Whether comprising breath blown into glass volumes or perfume works Mitchell’s projects are elemental. The perfume on the paper swatch clamped between brass in Clairalience (The Scent of an Object Not Revealed to the Eye) (2013) would rapidly diffuse into the room and its inhabitants become integrated in the sculptural and molecular context. Aroma molecules, glass, paper, alloys, beliefs, visions; Mitchell’s materials are shaped and reshaped not by alchemy but bodies and minds across time and space. Another exhibition that evoked the otherness in oneness, titled Other Explications (2013), included a hypnosis event in which one person was hypnotised to see an object not visible to other viewers, the space in which the invisible was made visible defined by brass ‘corners’ on the floor.[9] These works require an openness to the simultaneity of belief and doubt to ignite the potential of transformation.


Mitchell’s sculptures of Venn diagrams refer to such a coupling or duality – knowing/unknowing; body/mind, human/nature. The Venn diagrams, linked brass rings engraved with opposing terms (Dusk/Dawn, Sleeping/Waking), are sculptural spaces but closed circuits compared to the infinitude of experience awaiting a molecule released into the air. Mitchell’s more recent perfume and molecular sculptures comprising chemical structures challenge cognitive certainty. One work that comprised a perfume swatch only reached by climbing up a ladder into the art gallery ceiling, Concentrated Form of Loss: Alpa–Ionone/Beta-Ionone (2015) replicated the scent of a violet flower, a fragrance which also, Mitchell tells us, absurdly causes a temporary inability to register smell (a condition known as anosmia). This exhibition Let us take the air (2015) directed the viewer to question the degree of our reliance on the relations between the mind and the senses.[10]


Do we dare to believe in Mitchell’s contrary propositions? To commit a leap of faith? Can his collaborations with perfumery and chemistry bring a sensual and political consciousness alive? And can the personal responsiveness his work demands also become a social phenomena? Mitchell’s work troubles our certainties despite the language of industry and research that lends conviction to their poetic qualities such as in Remedies for Remembering (AI) and Forgetting (NACI) (2015/2016).[11] This project comprised 16 industrial scale containers labelled AI and NaCl in liquid form, which an attendant sprayed by hand onto the windows of the Art Gallery of New South Wales at regular intervals. An accompanying work, Ataxia, a container labelled Ag N O3 / “Argentum Nitricum for Agoraphobia, Ataxia and Anxiety” located in the Sydney Botanical Gardens intermittently sprayed its cure into the air. The extensive glass installation Sketches of Meteorological Phenomena (2014-2017), which comprises hundreds of sinuous glass rods emulating fulgurites, shows how Mitchell imagines the form of fused sand or rock lightening takes when it strikes the ground. The intensity in this work comes not from Mitchell closely following actual fulgurite specimens but giving us the idea of the impact of hundreds of lightning strikes and their affect in a way that can be imagined. To add another example, for Conservation of Mass (2013) Mitchell emptied out the space of his gallery RaebervonStenglin in Zurich and inlaid a brass plaque in the entrance reading: ‘Threshold | beyond this point the spirits of the past have been beckoned.’ With willingness, the quiet precision of these works silently advances their agency in time and space.


Transformation is a concept based in ideas of change or modification resulting from two things coming in contact. My use of the idea in regard to Mitchell’s practice is in connection with the dissensus or tensions that come into contact, say between earthly and ethereal substances and the social processes this contact might generate, without implying that his work causes enlightenment of the viewer. These latent possibilities are rich in their social potential if we can lend them some trust. Conviction requires a valid purpose. Experimentation toward a creative and social voice should be one of those reasons, as ways to be fully present in our human and natural world. Transformation can be based on miscommunication as much as direct alteration. Mitchell’s 2016 installation Smokescreen comprised scent used by hunters to mask human aroma which, situated inside copper sheets, slowly oxidises the material.[12] Moving a mode of deceitful trans-species communication inside the gallery and into the elemental material of copper highlights a perverted disconnect from our own senses and the animal world. Change can happen in many directions, from revolution to makeover, but a good test of the necessity of belief is to ask what is at risk if we lose interest in acknowledging the unseen or listening to the many unheard voices of world?


[1] Untitled Letter (Auckland Art Gallery), 1998.

[2] Risky Business, 2000.

[3] These drawings included Example of Mnemonic Structure and Example of True Stratification, 2004.

[4] Adriane Beyn, “Introduction,” Radiant Matter, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, 2011, p 2.

[5] These include the exhibitions Curse, 2006, Starkwhite, Auckland, Invocations, Gertrude Contemporary Art Space, 2008 and Inaugural Curse, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2008.

[6] Radiant Matter II, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, 2011.

[7] From the Dust Archive (AGNSW), 2017; From the Dust Archive (Museum of Modern Art), 2017 and From the Dust Archive (Stedelijk Museum), 2017, archival inkjet prints on dibond, 80 x 80cm.

[8]  ‘Dissensus fragments the community by making visible what previously went unseen, acting on the aesthetics of community according to Ranciere and operating on who is included or heard.’ J.J. Tanke, Jacques Ranciere, An Introduction, Continuum, London, 2011, p 29.

[9] Teleplastic Alloy (Witnessing Separates Itself from Seeing), 2013 as part of Other Explications, Hopkinson Mossman, 2013.

[10] Let us take the air, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland, 2015, which also included essences emitted by two humidifiers entitled Vaporous Materialism: Remedies for Remembering (Aluminium) and Forgetting (Sodium Chloride), 2015.

[11] A part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, 2016.

[12]  At Art Basel Miami Beach.


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