Don’t look now

Megan Dunn speaks to Dane Mitchell about bringing science, religion, capital and Frankenpines to the Venice Biennale.

“I’m running a small data-collection agency rather than a studio right now.” Auckland-based artist Dane Mitchell is personable, organised and engaging. Three part-time researchers each work one day a week for him, mining data that is encyclopaedic in scope. Mitchell is also articulate about every aspect of his ambitious conceptual practice. In fact, he’s the least subconscious artist I’ve ever interviewed.

“Death is scattered across this thing but there are no bodies,” he says.

Mitchell is the New Zealand representative for the Biennale Arte 2019 in Venice, the 58th International Art Exhibition. For the past two years he’s been up from 6.30am to 2am working on his upcoming exhibition, Post hoc. “I’m a pretty terrible relaxer.” His index fingers are swollen from scrolling search engines like FRED, the New Zealand Fossil Record Electronic Database. What’s he been making for Venice? Lists. So far, 260 separate lists in Google Docs—that’s three million words and counting.

“I started thinking about language as a means of activating the unseen. The act of speech is like a conjuring trick. By saying something you call it up.”

In Post hoc Mitchell is calling up things vanished, withdrawn, absent or just plain gone. In the age of the Anthropocene he has created an “impossible, improbable data set.” How do you measure loss? How do you give weight to the hole left by a void? Ever thought about the former national anthems that are no longer sung? Or grieved for the solids that have now sublimed? Mitchell has. Sublimation is the transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas phase—it’s the kind of scientific detail only an artist like Mitchell would know. In Switzerland he once exhibited a vapour.

L to R: Lead curator Zara Stanhope, commissioner Dame Jenny Gibbs, artist Dane Mitchell and project curator Chris Sharp in Venice, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

Last year a Venice patron asked Mitchell if there would be anything to look at in the New Zealand Pavilion. The question wasn’t entirely off base.

Seeing is believing, yet Mitchell is renowned for making scents you can’t see and sculptures you can’t detect with the naked eye, let alone touch. His work is grounded in Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infrathin’, a concept so elusive even Duchamp said it was impossible to define: “One could only give examples of it.” Like the warmth of a seat that has just been vacated. Or perhaps the sound of an exhibition about to be installed…

Post hoc is Latin for “after this”, but is derived from the longer phrase “post hoc ergo propter hoc”, which translates as “after this, therefore because of this”. The title took time to materialise. Mitchell, in collaboration with co-curators of the New Zealand Pavilion Zara Stanhope and Chris Sharp, chose Post hoc first because Latin is a dead language, but also because the title originates from a phrase that cautions against assuming causal links between events. For instance, if we see a man with a gun, followed by a dead body, we should not conclude the two connect. “Post hoc is not a moral lesson,” Mitchell says. “There’s not necessarily judgement on the loss in these lists, and not all the losses are negative.”

Also, yes, there will be something to see in Venice.

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019 (detail), mixed-media installation, Palazzina Canonica, New Zealand Pavilion, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy of the artist

On 11 May 2019, at 10am Central European Time, in the former headquarters of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the Palazzina Canonica on the Riva dei Sette Martiri, Amy will begin reading the list of lists. “Extinct languages, regions of lost darkness, former trade routes, silent radio stations, extinct reptiles, discontinued fragrances…” Across Venice, six cell-tower trees nicknamed ‘Frankenpines’ will transmit her voice. A 5.2-metre-long anechoic chamber downstairs in the Palazzina will absorb sound. Upstairs, in the Palazzina’s abandoned library, an Epson printer will print the lists Amy reads at the speed of speech. Her accent is English, cordial, slightly officious, and she enunciates properly, pausing for two seconds between each item – not to draw breath, but because Mitchell has embedded a break into the computer code. Amy is a voice available in the text-to-speech programme Amazon Polly that Mitchell bought online. For seven months she will read the lists he’s compiled, eight hours a day, six days a week, beginning every morning with her 19-minute recital of the ‘lists of lists’. However, no other list will be repeated throughout the biennale’s duration.

“The other lists never repeat?” I ask.

“No, never,” Mitchell says. “That’s 15,000 words a day.”

Some lists are short. However, the New Zealand Paleontological Record takes four days to read.

“I’ve probably collated 70% of the data myself,” Mitchell says.

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019 (detail), mixed-media installation, Palazzina Canonica, New Zealand Pavilion, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy of the artist

He began Post hoc thinking about the Giardini delle Biennale as an example of the world in miniature. The pavilions inside the garden are “strange architectural expressions of nationhood”. Yet New Zealand—like many other countries—has no pavilion in the Giardini.

“How might one sneak in there…? How to be present without being present?” The answer: trees.

Twenty years ago, telecommunications towers appeared on American landscapes and people complained, so cell-tower ‘trees’ were invented. These camouflaged trees attempt to hide in plain sight yet have an unashamed role as transmitters. They are “undynamic, colossally weird objects”. Mitchell first used them in 2017 for an installation at Connells Bay Sculpture Park on Waiheke Island. Stealth Transmission Tower 1 was a manufactured pine, made at a factory in Guangzhou, China, that transmitted a radio signal. Mitchell is continuing to work with factory-made Frankenpines for Post hoc. Why pine?

“It’s capital,” he explains. Pine trees grow faster in New Zealand than anywhere else, and are “industrialised objects”.

“New Zealand seeks national identity through our natural environment, but I would argue that all our engagement with nature is technological. We are reliant on pine as an economic resource but the moment it leaves a certain area it becomes an invasive species.”

Venice is no stranger to death, but it is a stranger to Frankenpines. Three trees will be situated in the New Zealand Pavilion grounds (in the end, ironically, attempts to place a tree in the Giardini met bureaucratic hurdles), and the other four occupy offsite locations significant to Post hoc, including the internal courtyard of a hospital (“a place of naming and death”), the school of architecture, and among a stand of actual pines in the Parco delle Rimembranze, Remembrance Park, on Sant’ Elena.

“I wanted to create a contagious field of activity across Venice. The trees form a network greater than their physical presence. Transmission is a way to extend an object’s physicality.”

The trees—like Amy—mimic ‘nature’. Visitors can approach a tree, choose its network and Amy will read any list selected. “List of extinct sign languages: Kentish Sign Language; Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language; Old French Sign …”

Post hoc is distributed via transmission ‘waves’ – apt for an exhibition set in Venice, that city on labyrinthine waterways, always threatening to sink, yet never sunk in the imagination. Instead Venice is forever reflected in art and literature, from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to Nicolas Roeg’s supernatural thriller from 1973, Don’t Look Now. In the latter, Donald Sutherland stars as an architect trying to restore a cathedral, while plagued by visions of his young daughter’s ghost.

“I loved that film!” Mitchell says. “Did I tell you the site of one tree overlooks the church Sutherland was renovating?”

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, 2019, digital working drawing. Courtesy of the artist

Mitchell emails a Google map with a pin marking the location of the Frankenpine. Across a small bridge is San Nicolò dei Mendicoli—Saint Nicholas of the Beggars—a Roman Catholic church built in the 12th century that was restored in the early 1970s, while Roeg was filming Don’t Look Now.

“In religious frameworks, the mouth is the first tool. It activates incantation and prayer,” Mitchell says.

“I’ve always thought of you as an atheist,” I reply.

“I’m an interested non-believer.”

Mitchell isn’t Jewish yet was sent to a Jewish primary school, attended synagogue and learnt Hebrew. Later he went to a “god-awful” Anglican private school. “We got on our knees there. We sang different songs…” Of his childhood he says, “I was like a religious tourist.”

“What happens after death?” I ask.

“We metabolise.”

Contradiction defines Mitchell’s practice. His art attempts to capture the place “where the shaman and the scientist illuminate the unseen”.

“Do you identify more with the shaman or the scientist?”

“I squint at both.”

Star sign: Libra. His work Weight of the World (North) (2015) is a set of scales placed upside down, tricked into measuring its own force. “The mass of the planet is an impervious constant regardless of people being born or dying, so in a way, nothing vanishes.” Mitchell has collaborated with perfumers and witches. In person he’s warm, yet he makes ‘cold’, clinical exhibitions with forensic attention to detail.

Iris, Iris, Iris (2017) was co-commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. It was the best-smelling show in Auckland. I felt like donning a lab coat as I looked at an iris under a bell jar. The flower was hooked up to technology from the fragrance industry used to trap the volatile molecules emitted from objects. Also under glass: a Canon camera. Iris, Iris, Iris punned on the differences between sight and smell. Can you extract scent from a camera? Yes.

“Freud said the moment we stood up, sight became our predominant sense. The olfactory bulb is located in the ancient reptilian part of the brain. It’s older than sight, and so fundamental to being an animal, but it’s the human condition to denounce the animal.”

I didn’t start out a fan of Mitchell’s work. Back in 2009, when Mitchell won the Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award for Collateral, exhibiting the discarded wrapping from the other applicants’ entries, I saw only the losers’ hurt feelings. Now, I’m a convert. Post hoc examines communal feeling—and confusion—on a macro scale. It’s an exhibition that tracks consciousness rising.

“The work looks head on at Western frameworks of encyclopaedic thinking and the notion that we can hold the world, store it and archive it. We can’t.”

If a Frankenpine transmits a list at the 2019 Venice Biennale and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Yes, and that sound is Post hoc. Don’t look now.

Dane Mitchell’s Post hoc is at the New Zealand Pavilion, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, from 11 May to 24 November.

More from Issue °184, Winter 2019

Frances Hodgkins: Essence of place

This April marked 150 years since the birth of Frances Hodgkins. Ahead of this auspicious anniversary, Mary Kisler traced the artist’s journeys around Europe, mapping paintings to places and ‘acts of looking’. Finn McCahon-Jones explains.

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Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

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