Dane Mitchell: Thresholds

Litmus, Massey University, Wellington
Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch
April 2007

Red contusions stain a series of floor plans of the Rita Angus Cottage and the former Dominion Museum in Wellington, sites linked by Massey University’s Litmus artist-in-residence programme. Drawn by Dane Mitchell, resident artist through August 2006, the red rashes identify areas where a psychic commissioned by Mitchell detected paranormal activity. Channelling the medium’s message through video, tape recordings and drawing, in Thresholds Mitchell highlights the haunting presence of the restless repressed in modernist spaces and systems.

With his museological-mimicking practice, Mitchell was a canny choice for the site-specific, research-based residency. His practice involves using museological conventions against museums and the systems they symbolise. In Present Surface of Tell 2005 the languages of architecture, archaeology and geology are used to undermine the museum’s foundations. Mitchell says, ‘Strata are not stable and neither are the meanings of our museum collections, which are effectively our collective cultural memory’. Dust Archives 2006 was comprised of dust samples collected from museums and galleries around the world since 2001. Laboratory reports and photographs revealed the toxicity contaminating visitors’ breathing space. The invisible (if not immaterial) was given materiality.

What distinguishes Thresholds from Mitchell’s past work is that with the deployment of a psychic he has introduced Spiritualist research methodology—using technology to demonstrate the materiality of the immaterial—activating a curious tension between belief and empiricism, ours and his. This path leads the viewer to the irrationality at the foundations of Modernism, namely, the notion of a fixed, measurable truth and the emancipation of humanity through (Western) knowledge. Mitchell plays off Spiritualism, a Western, modernist belief system masquerading as science, against a post-modern ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Lyotard). As a post-modern subject Mitchell positions himself as a researcher, rather than a font of knowledge. He puts science and psychics in the arena, while his own voice questions what is ‘known’.

Thresholds mark the edge of perception. They also mark the boundary between visitors and residents. They are liminal spaces. In Thresholds Mitchell seems to grapple with his and Others’ relationship to place. A restless element shadows the work: a swinging door intoning the artist’s name, the roughly gestural tracings of spaces touched by occupants long passed on, the Blair Witch-like video documentation, the dry-as-bones delivery of the artifacts that comprise the show.

A life-sized graphite-on-paper rubbing of the floor of the Rita Angus Cottage studio lies like a welcome mat in the old museum foyer. Upstairs on the Litmus room floor sit two video monitors, one documenting the psychic’s path through the building, her disembodied voice identifying areas of paranormal activity, the other a continual loop of a room wherein a shadow appears to move through the frame. A third video monitor shows a door in the Rita Angus Cottage apparently speaking the artist’s name as it swings on its hinges. That is a strange moment in the show, the only point at which Mitchell inserts his subjectivity. Or does he? How does this show position the audience? There is a discomfort in revealing our own position in the face of the artist’s objectivity.

Another rubbing was taken from a nearby memorial to Maori prisoners of New Zealand’s land wars who passed on and through, displaced and dispossessed. Imagine the artist’s process, seeing words emerge under a gestural touch, negative spaces on the concrete face as if taking an index, a trace, a step further so that it becomes a narrative, an echo, a story about possession (as ghost stories often are).

The Modernist preoccupation with ‘presence’, the insistence that nothing exists outside the frame, is toyed with in Mitchell’s drawn marks. They hover at the threshold of index and sign, trace of a presence, signifier of an absence.

Mitchell’s project deploys the language of Modernist certainties, embodied in the machine (the video camera, tape recorder), and the power of the index (traced drawings, videoed shadows) with its implication of ‘presence’ to conduct a multi-layered critical research project of the spaces he occupied during his artist’s visitation.

In Thresholds, Mitchell has executed a martial arts move using the opponent’s weight against them. But who was tripped—the viewer, psychic, or the artist? Hard to tell. Either way, the research is compelling, the twin paradox of materialist Spiritualists and scientific artists warranting a second look, a double take.

Dane Mitchell, 2006. Graphite on paper rubbing of floor of Rita Angus Cottage.

Dane Mitchell, 2006. Installation view, videos.