Kate Mitchell: Future fallout

Chalk Horse, Sydney
1 May - 7 June, 2014

The video that forms the sort of centerpiece for Kate Mitchell’s exhibition, Future Fallout, involves a strange building in the middle of nowhere with the word ‘psychic’ painted across the top, the façade covered in cartoonish icons of the spiritualist trade (a crystal ball, etcetera). The artist rides up to it on a bicycle, enters, and with typical grand guignol, the edifice falls apart. The work is clearly a coda for the rest of the exhibition, about anticipation, the tenuousness of belief and that it is our perceptions and convictions that shape reality. Or to use the words of the novelist J.G. Ballard, ‘We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind … We live inside an enormous novel’.

After the building falls down, the artist, unharmed and undaunted, shrugs and moves on. Thus the ‘Psychic Shop’ is a symbol of the fragility of systems of belief, but also the ease with which new forms of belief can be reconstituted and remade. The artist’s equanimity, her nonchalance, suggests that she is an intermediary between the phases of destruction and rebuilding. She is the avatar that exists in between the spaces where we situate knowledge and expectation. For everyone has a Weltanschauung, a world view, that is a cobbled together mixture of empirical reason, superstition, assumption and premonition. We perhaps dare not stare that truth too readily in the face. But it is the conviction in this view that drives us. With this simple video Mitchell suggests to us a world of straw men and toy houses—once the veil of Maya is drawn back it reveals yet another veil, and so on into recurrent indeterminacy.

Yet the attitude that Mitchell advances here—in fact a venerable one dating back to Lucretius or the Sophists—is necessarily pessimistic. While making the video work in question, the artist met a man who had committed murder near the very place they were working, and he proceeded to tell her about the circumstances of the murder and his ensuing life. This chance encounter was evidently the linchpin between the satirical nature of the video sequence and the more philosophical themes that underride it. In the course of their meeting, the man gave Mitchell a pair of stones and asked her to promise to keep them with her at all times for seven years. Hence the small work in the exhibition, titled Fell Into It, comprising two rocks and an accompanying text, written in the manner of a stylised, neutral-voice prose poem. One stone was quartz, the other the man suspected was fool’s gold, but he had not tested the hypothesis. After his mysterious bidding, the artist, partly to be rid of him, agreed. They shook on it and to her relief he rode off.

The odd covenant between the artist and the anonymous stranger symbolises the fundamental ethical bond that exists in human relations, and is the basis of morality and law. It is also the basis of belief, since it defines the codes by which people agree to temper their conduct and to direct their values. It is the very unprecedented nature of the meeting and the absurdity of the man’s imperative that exposes these elements. In signing up for the ritual, the artist thereby agrees to elevate them to talismanic status, but for what end she will have to shape for herself.

Hence the neon wall piece, A Light Sentence. Nauman-esque in its wry irony, the work complements the narrative sequence in a subtle way. Stating the obvious in material terms, the sentence is made of light (although technically it is a statement and not a sentence because it does not contain a verb, but we will leave that one). One can easily infer that what Mitchell had been tasked with by the eccentric stranger was relatively trivial, but something of a sentence all the same, but incommensurable with the twelve years that he had to serve as the sentence for his crime. But a tertiary reading is also possible, namely that any agreement which is accompanied by abstractions like those of duty and commitment to dispatch, is at the same time built on basic material conditions using mere words.

Yet it is this transition between the material, raw data of things, to something promising or binding that also defines art. With simplicity and grace, Mitchell’s Future Fallout was a meditation on the passage that the work of art makes from the world of things to another place, in which these things are as if magically modified to support a realm of presumption. The exhibition was a thoughtful and deft reminder of the extent to which we lay faith in a gamut of rules and conventions when we view a work of art, and the unspoken rules of agreement to which we entrust ourselves to know and understand. Without this, all we have is stones, a non-sentence, and collapsed house, nothing else, which makes for a world that is crude and harsh, as opposed to one that soothes us with promises, however much these promises may never be fulfilled. 

Kate Mitchell, Future Fallout, 2014. Installation view. Photograph Toby Dixon. Image courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse, Sydney. 

Kate Mitchell, Future Fallout, 2014. Installation view. Photograph Toby Dixon. Image courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse, Sydney. 

Kate Mitchell, Future Fallout, 2014. Installation view. Photograph Toby Dixon. Image courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse, Sydney. 

Kate Mitchell, Future Fallout, 2014. Installation view. Photograph Toby Dixon. Image courtesy the artist and Chalk Horse, Sydney.