Former nations…ghost towns…cured diseases…withdrawn drugs…dead words…extinct species…destroyed artworks…lost archives…closed libraries…disbanded political parties…
These are a sample from Auckland artist Dane Mitchell’s lists of vanished things which are part of Post Hoc, his installation representing Aotearoa/New Zealand at this year’s Venice Art Biennale. An automated voice reads the lists. This voice, by means of cell towers disguised as trees, falls into the unsuspecting ears of Venetians and visitors during the opening hours of the Biennale – for 168 days or 1,344 hours. A list is read throughout each day and repeated in the evening. Every day brings a new list.
In 2017, over 615,000 people attended the Biennale, so Mitchell may expect at least as many visitors this year to hear the sibilance of disembodied voices weaving through the other sounds of Venice: water, bells, diverse languages, feet crossing the many bridges connecting its 118 islands.
Post Hoc is Mitchell’s latest meticulously researched and executed exploration of ways of making visible, or heard, or smelled, things that are unseen, have been forgotten, or are lost – things that are ‘real but imperceptible.’
Post hoc comes from a Latin phrase, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means, ‘after this, therefore, because of this’. This represents a logical fallacy: the false assumption that one event is causally related to the event it follows. ‘Post hoc asks what our relationship might be to things that have disappeared,’ Mitchell told Kim Hill ‘… and what our responsibility to this information is.’ He has no wish to judge our relationship to abandoned entities, but is interested in how we experience them in a city as allusive as Venice. Hearing a voice incanting vanished things summons them like a spell to our ears, imagination and memory. ‘You may hear these things being read, and by naming them, they are momentarily preserved; you may be lost in this information.’
‘You’ encompasses a private and a collective response. Venice is a city of throngs: hearing strange lists brings strangers momentarily together. Venice also contains its own particular forgotten entities. The Bridge of Sighs, an enclosed bridge of stone with small latticed windows that connects the Doge’s Palace to the prisons, is named for the sighs of prisoners glimpsing their city for the last time.
In his way, you could say that Mitchell has turned the city into a living art gallery in which, for six months, its kaleidoscopic populace and dazzling palazzi, and his lists of forgotten things transmitted by carefully placed fake trees all become simultaneously artefacts and participants.
The Biennale takes place in the Giardini Publicci and the Arsenale where the older countries of the world have their own pavilions. Aotearoa/New Zealand has no such pavilion, and uses various public spaces; but this is liberating: the curve of a church becomes a possibility, or a room in a palazzo, and in Mitchell’s case, La Serenissima herself. The anchor of Post Hoc is the Palazzina Canonica, home to the Institute of Marine Sciences. Mitchell and his two co-curators are working with the institute to draw up lists of vanished watery entities. They will be absorbed into his own data-set, one he describes as ‘poetic’, unfolding and growing throughout the Biennale.
Stealth cell towers first appeared in an installation at Connell’s Bay on Waiheke in 2017. There Mitchell used a fake pine tree which transmitted a signal that could be tuned by visitors. Waiheke is essentially bucolic; apart from its communicating abilities, the pretend pine perhaps made a mischievous comment on the island’s zeal to expunge its own invasive pines. Venice, on the other hand, is a city of water and stone: the Giardini were built as recently as the nineteenth century when Napoleon drained marshland to make a public garden near San Marco. Of course there are trees in Venice, but most gardens are private, their trees glimpsed behind secretive walls.
Twenty-first-century stealth transmission towers pretending to be trees, therefore, are a powerful visual interruption in this encrusted built environment. Their presence is intended to shock viewers into finding ways of looking at them, and new ways of looking at Venice itself. And yet… the islands that form Venice, scraped out of the salt marshes of the Laguna, are actually built on wood: stakes of alder, oak, and pine driven into its marshy bottom a thousand years ago.
Submerging wood in salt water prevented the growth of fungi and bacteria, and the constant movement of the water around and through the wood transforms it into a hard stone-like substance. The structure of Santa Maria Della Salute, erected in 1632 after a plague epidemic, rests on 1,106,657 four-metre wooden stakes driven underwater into the mud.
So perhaps Mitchell’s trees are also an oblique homage to its wooden foundations.
Trees that talk or respond abound in many cultures: when the leaves rustled on Mount Olympus it was as if Zeus himself spoke; Celtic druids believed in the divining powers of oaks and rowans. We shouldn’t forget Tolkien’s Ents, or the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter. Responses to voices, lists and trees are undoubtedly various; Post Hoc evokes invisible histories and asks us to make fresh new connections.
Iris, Iris, Iris (2017–18) examined the connection between the eye and the nose. Iris, goddess of the rainbow, was a maiden with wings so swift and brilliant they illumined the darkest cave. Her light-bearing ability is recalled in the name of the irises which control the amount of light entering our eyes. A camera’s aperture is also an iris. Iris, the flower named after the goddess, is unscented, but its rhizomes are used in perfumes.
Iris, Iris, Iris was a meditative installation of blue incense sticks, a bottle of perfume containing the scents of the iris, smells emitted by a camera’s iris and a blue umbrella the colour of the artist’s iris. These scents were in constant motion, captured by technology used in perfumery which ‘entraps volatile molecules escaping off an object.’ Two brass Japanese frames (fusego), over which iris-patterned kimono were draped, and beneath which an incense burner diffused its scent, completed the installation. Scent has a ‘fusional’ relationship with the world – the scent emanating from Mitchell’s objects extends beyond their physical boundaries and alerts us to invisible forces present in our material world.
What is more material than dust? Dust Archive, begun in 2003 and still in progress, is Mitchell’s capture of dust from galleries and museums all over the world. Scientists cultured the dust in petri dishes. Each museum’s dust developed distinctive (and beautiful) worlds of microorganisms which Mitchell photographed and passed through a high-resolution scanner. Whitney Museum dust is a dramatic zigzag of purple beads; Te Papa dust resembles (ever so slightly) a clutch of cardinal-capped spermatozoa hovering around a serenely attendant ovum.
Dust Archive is both a serious and an anarchic play on notions of ‘culture’: dust is everywhere, even within hallowed gallery spaces where objects are sanctified and kept dust free. It also recalls Ash Wednesday with its portentous reminder: ‘Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.’
Extra Image credits:
Dane Mitchell, Iris, iris, iris, 2017, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2018
Dane Mitchell, From the Dust Archive, 2003 - ongoing, Bacterial Growth from various Art Galleries, C-Type Prints
First published Art Zone #79