• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The significance of Auckland artist Dane Mitchell's Venice Biennale appearance

Dane Mitchell. Photo/Supplied

Dane Mitchell’s enticingly cryptic lists of vanished, destroyed or bygone things join the bewildering array of works at the 58th Venice Biennale, considered the “Olympic Games of art”.

Extinct fish. Subduction zones. Non-military explosions. Lost musical scores. I’m surrounded by lists. They wash across the floor in beautifully rolling piles of white paper. Overhead, every three seconds or so, another entry emerges from a printer hidden on a stand on a giant scroll that cascades gently to the room’s hardwood floor. This will continue for six months, and I find myself wondering if the small emptied library of the Palazzina Canonica can hold this growing pile of paper.

Meet Dane Mitchell’s Post Hoc, New Zealand’s contribution to the closest thing the art world has to an Olympics: the 2019 Venice Biennale. Blessed (or cursed) with the theme “May you live in interesting times”, this year’s exhibition is a typically gargantuan event. There are 89 “national participations” alongside a curated international exhibition sprawling over the city’s Giardini and Arsenale and dozens of public and private venues, to say nothing of the official collateral events and unofficial opportunistic exhibitions featuring everybody from young art collectives to big names such as performance artist Marina Abramović.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Location is everything at the Biennale. In previous years, New Zealand works have featured at the Venice Marco Polo Airport (part of Simon Denny’s Secret Power in 2015) and at a building in the Arsenale (Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries in 2017), but Post Hoc’s base is nothing to scoff at. The Palazzina Canonica is on the shoreside walk from Piazza San Marco to the festival venues, just close enough to make a perfect artistic aperitivo. With dozens of other nations relegated to labyrinthine alleyways or neighbouring islands, Mitchell’s work is perfectly positioned to make a big splash.

But, unlike Denny’s giant floor coverings and gaudy vitrines, or Reihana’s large-scale video, Mitchell’s work isn’t visually maximalist. Often, his work is barely visual at all, and Post Hoc is no exception. Entering the tree-filled grounds, visitors to the Palazzina hear a computer-generated female voice, difficult to discern over the noise of foot traffic and the nearby canal, intoning words in a neutral British accent: “The eruption of Mt Vesuvius … the great Kantō earthquake …” It takes a moment to recognise the voice is coming from a fake tree, one of several scattered across the Palazzina’s grounds and at four other sites in Venice. The trees also double as Wi-Fi transmitters, providing smartphone access to an app via which you can hear any of the other lists.

Within and without: Post Hoc inside the Palazzina Canonica. Photo/Dane Mitchell/Supplied

It’s one way to access Mitchell’s inventory of vanished, defunct, bygone or destroyed things: discontinued cameras, haunted locations, censored films … The other way is to peruse the printed form at the library.

Less than three weeks into the Biennale, however, it’s clearly a fool’s errand to try to read them all. What is visible is fascinating, if enticingly cryptic. With the titles often obscured by folds of the accumulating roll of paper, you can wonder about the significance of “Boyacá, Colombia”, and assume that Madonna of Avenue A and Magda are lost films.

An echo-free chamber at the Palazzina contains a microphone and speaker, from where the lists are “read out” (so to speak) and then broadcast. That you can see this through a glass window is maddeningly irrelevant – after all, there are no moving parts, and no real proof to the viewer that this is even happening. But this is part of Mitchell’s working method – creating distances that the viewer has to bridge through webs of allusion. It’s a method that’s indirect and seems distinct from recent Biennale entries in its light footprint: a work that can only come together in the viewer’s mind, and one that resists simplistic political conclusions.

Within and without: Post Hoc inside the Palazzina Canonica. Photo/Dane Mitchell/Supplied

If Post Hoc is a conceptual triumph – and I’d argue it is – it’s disappointing that the details aren’t more refined. I’m undoubtedly a pedant for noting duplications such as “Human Centipede II” and “Human Centipede 2” in a list of banned films, given the massive volume of data involved. More perplexing are some of the utterances from the central tree. One day it was reading a list of lists, not seemingly part of the conceptual remit, while on another, a set of ordinal numbers. An obscure list, or implementation fault? Remote locations, meanwhile, didn’t seem to attract attention from either locals or staff. I stayed on the island of Sant’Elena, where the local tree was down for more than a day. I reported it on Twitter; two days later, it was down again.

Still, the traffic through the pavilion was bustling on a sunny Saturday, and the engagement felt serious. These aren’t things to take for granted, as some national pavilions can take on the feel of ghost towns. Others house serious and thoughtful work that struggles to maintain viewer interest. Angelica Mesiti’s Assembly, in the Australian pavilion, uses three video screens to patiently and masterfully weave themes of translation and participation in government. But its measured pace seems to leave many drive-by visitors nonplussed. Few last all its 25 minutes.

One of its fake transmitting trees at Iuav University. Photo/Dane Mitchell/Supplied

It’s an occupational hazard at the Biennale, of course. It’s an overwhelming show, in all senses, and attention-grabbing tactics abound. There’s an inside-out private plane at the Polish pavilion, a loud and proud trans dance troupe in Brazil’s Swinguerra, and an interactive medical facility-turned-screening room in Israel’s Field Hospital X. Climbing onto glass platforms in the Philippines’ pavilion, meanwhile, sends you hovering over an abyss of mirrored objects, while Iceland invites visitors into a candy-coloured fabric cavern.

There are other strategies. Some countries engage in serious attempts to reckon with national identity. Canada and Finland both give space to indigenous art collectives (Isuma and Miracle Workers Collective, respectively). Chile’s Hegemonic Museum confronts colonialism, while Ghana’s first pavilion resonates with a strong grouping of six artists that earned the country’s place on the international art scene.

Other nations essentially take a punt, giving their pavilions over to artists of historical interest (Austrian Renate Bertlmann, Czech Stanislav Kolíbal) instead of promoting new voices. Some have opted for group shows that lack cohesion. And authoritarian states generally play it safe, from Singapore’s celebration of childhood musical education to Saudi Arabia’s anodyne pottery collection.

Roman Stańczak’s Flight. Photo/Getty Images
Finding a unifying thread in the muddle of country-specific pavilions is maddening. Charged with making sense of it all through two international exhibitions is festival curator Ralph Rugoff. His selection of artists has been criticised by the cognoscenti as frustratingly middle-of-the-road – full of figures such as Christian Marclay and Julie Mehretu, familiar to those with Tate Modern memberships, while missing truly marquee names.

The Biennale is just as likely to attract cruise-ship tourists as gallery regulars, and it’s hard to fathom what Rugoff thought the former would make of being greeted at the Giardini’s festival pavilion by marble sculptures of garbage bags. The garbage continues inside, both literally – Romanian artist Andra Ursuţa’s Divorce Dump series contains rubbish from her former marriage stuffed inside bins in the form of human ribcages – and figuratively.

With many artists sharing rooms, a profusion of objects turns into a chaotic mess. There are too many artists with too little space. Artwork that cuts through is as subtle as a brick wall. In the case of Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, it is a brick wall.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself. Photo/Getty Images

There are a few showstoppers: a giant flailing robotic arm surrounded by blood-coloured liquid (Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself); a metal gate pounding its impression back and forth against a wall (India’s Shilpa Gupta). Two video works by black American artists also stood out: Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS and Arthur Jafa’s The White Album.

Rugoff’s curatorial strategy means that, in contrast to other years, each artist is exhibiting at both of the Biennale’s main venues: the industrial Arsenale and lush Giardini. In principle, this has given artists a chance to create works that resonate across the two spaces, an opportunity some use wisely. Soham Gupta’s black-and-white photographs of Kolkata nightlife, tucked in the shadows of the Giardini, gain strength in tandem with his prominently displayed colour images in the Arsenale. But just as common is a “more of the same” approach, such as New Yorker Carol Bove’s creased, fallen sculptures, or an A-side/B-side mentality, with one piece clearly more central than the other, as seen in Christian Marclay’s 48 War Films. At the Arsenale, it is a towering achievement, but his still images at the Giardini are quickly forgotten. A few lean on what seems the artistic equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”, either recycling old pieces or, in one case, screening their Instagram feed.

Two of the strongest pieces at the Biennale pair with Post Hoc in satisfying ways. Ryoji Ikeda’s data-verse 1 uses giant data sets from the likes of Cern and Nasa to provide an overwhelming visualisation of that which does exist. Tomás Saraceno, meanwhile, provides his own webs of connection with Spider/Web Pavilion 7, part of a sweeping project that includes his Arachnomancy app.
Shilpa Gupta’s Untitled work. Photo/Getty Images

It’s perhaps significant that neither found a home in their respective national pavilions. As with Post Hoc, these works don’t scream their origins. Some may see Mitchell’s inclusion in our pavilion as a missed opportunity, but others may find gossamer threads to a national identity.

What’s most New Zealand about Mitchell’s installation, though, is how securely it fits in a 21st-century tradition of using the Biennale to give one of our artists a rare chance to work at scale. Beyond the flaws in implementation, his conceptual audacity earns him a place next to not just Denny and Reihana, but also Michael Parekowhai, Bill Culbert, Francis Upritchard and Judy Millar in our quickly accumulating collection of striking Venetian successes.

And amid the international pavilions filled with faceless group shows and celebrations of past glories, Post Hoc proves that New Zealand’s tradition of providing ambitious artists with an opportunity to create large-scale works is an approach well worth continuing.  

The Venice Biennale runs until November 24.

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.