As Auckland Artweek draws to a close, Dionne Christian talks to local artist Dane Mitchell about making the unseen seen

For Dane Mitchell, art is not about what we see in front of us.

The Auckland artist, New Zealand's representative at the 2019 Venice Biennale, is fascinated with the invisible, the intangible and the indiscernible. How does this translate to the visual arts which, surely by the very name, are about what we see?

For an example of how Mitchell looks at art, it's worth a visit to Auckland Art Gallery to see Iris, Iris, Iris. His solo exhibition, some two years in the making, plays on various meanings of the word iris: A flowering plant, part of the eye, the adjustable aperture of a camera, and in Greek mythology a rainbow goddess.

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A multi-part installation, it includes an iris flower in a glass dome, iris-coloured incense sticks, a rice paper/iris umbrella, a camera lens, a screen print of Mitchell's own eye and a glass bottle filled with the synthetic essence of the iris rhizome which is released by a hidden magnetic spinner.

That essence permeates the room, engaging the sense of smell and creating a marriage between "the ocular and olfactory". Mitchell spent time researching scent production from traditional Japanese incense to the latest fragrance technologies.

Dane Mitchell, Iris, Iris, Iris, (installation view) 2017. Photo / Courtesy of the artist
Dane Mitchell, Iris, Iris, Iris, (installation view) 2017. Photo / Courtesy of the artist

He says Iris, Iris, Iris and his Venice work, Post Hoc, come from the same set of interests and concerns about how we're influenced by the intangible and how he, as a conceptual artist, can make that tangible.

"Iris, Iris, Iris does it by way of thinking about emanations, spirited forms and fragrance so think about when you smell something — you're encountering an object, it is a molecular object that is entering, penetrating your body. This thing has sculptural properties — it has weight, mass, shape, form — so what I've done, and have done with fragrance in the past, is to think about a way to materialise the immaterial …"

For Venice, Mitchell is doing this with "vanished stuff". Post hoc, from the Latin meaning "after this", is an inventory of things that have vanished and gone for the world. The list(s) will be fed into a computer and broadcast from the NZ Pavilion — also home to a "sculptural form" — across Venice via seven 7m tall "trees" which Mitchell likens to the stealth cellphone towers that started appearing in the 1990s.

Recitation of these lists begins when the Venice Biennale opens next May and continues six days a week, eight hours a day, for the six-month duration of the world's largest art fair. Are there enough vanished and gone from this world things to fill that time?

"So far, it includes a list of former nations, ghost towns, cured diseases, superseded medical procedures, withdrawn drugs, destroyed artworks, closed museums, underground stations, lost archives, extinct insects, disbanded political parties, destroyed mosques, destroyed churches, destroyed historical sites, dinosaurs, things that melted, discontinued photographic film, dead words, dead religions, closed nuclear facilities, contaminated sites, former currencies, discontinued perfumes - I just finished the discontinued fragrances the other day; it's 175 pages long — extinct languages, extinct plants, lost films, closed radio stations, closed newspapers …"

It's a sobering thought.

Mitchell says it's as much about what the act of speaking the names of these extinct entities means to us today.

"The project asks what our relationship might be to these things that have disappeared — lists of the vanished and bygone things of this world — and what our responsibility to this information is, leaving the question open.

"There is power in speech … Spells, prayers, naming things, naming children — these things have a force in the world so the idea is to use this form of utterance to call this material back up to the present moment."

Lowdown:
What: Dane Mitchell - Iris, Iris, Iris
Where & when: Auckland Art Gallery, until Sunday, February 24
Dane Mitchell's Post Hoc will be based at Palazzina Canonica, Venice Biennale, May 11 - November 24, 2019