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Dane Mitchell: The Auckland artist representing NZ at the Venice Biennale

Dane Mitchell. Photo/Courtesy of the artist

Dane Mitchell is preparing to head to the Venice Biennale with his high-concept piece about things that have vanished from the world. 

Auckland artist Dane Mitchell, New Zealand’s representative at next year’s Venice Biennale, is flicking through a sequence of large-format photos of the enchanting Italian city. They start with Google images taken high above Venice’s 118 small islands, then zoom in on the eastern end, with a clear view of the Biennale’s primary venue, the Giardini.

Closer still and the Giardini’s vaporetto boat stop and a path that connects to the Biennale’s second group venue, the Arsenale, come into focus.

At ground level, right next to the vaporetto landing, stands the neo-Renaissance Palazzina Canonica. The Palazzina, its three gardens and a smaller adjacent building will be transformed into the New Zealand pavilion next May for Mitchell’s Post Hoc exhibition at the celebrated international arts festival.

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In terms of location and architectural splendour, the newly renovated Palazzina is an impressive piece of real estate, but it also brings another benefit to Mitchell’s project. It is owned by the Institute of Marine Science, part of the Italian National Research Council, and the institute is partnering with Mitchell and Creative New Zealand, the first time it has collaborated with a national pavilion.

“They are involved in my research, helping with the production of the work – the mass accruing and mining of information and data that I am building.” In other words, lists, and lots of them.

Post Hoc, which Mitchell interprets as “after this”, is an extreme immersion into his practice of creating systems of knowledge to understand the world. In this case, naming things that have vanished from the world. It’s a project that he acknowledges as a “colossal, impossible, improbable data set”. It’s a data set that will never be complete.

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc (detail) 2019, Mixed media installation, Palazzina Canonica, New Zealand Pavilion, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photo/Supplied

The list categories include burnt books, former nations, closed radio stations, extinct languages, dead religions, missing aircraft, discontinued fragrances, cosmic debris, things that melted. And on it goes. Mitchell sees it as “like spell-making, prayer, elegiac”.

“I just finished the list of discontinued fragrances,” he says. “That’s 175 pages long. The list of supernovae is 3000 pages.”

The lists will be fed into a computer, which will intone them in a non-human voice via seven 7m-high steel “trees”, two in the pavilion, five placed around the city, all synchronised to broadcast for at least eight hours a day. The material will be broadcast in two ways: across an electromagnetic bandwidth accessed via an app, and in situ, as a kind of “burning bush”.

The readings will advance through the data until the Biennale ends next November.

There will be other sculptural aspects to the show, which Mitchell won’t reveal just yet. He adds that when he had a meeting with the New Zealand Biennale Patrons recently, one of them asked, “Will there be anything to see?”

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc (detail) 2019, Mixed media installation, Palazzina Canonica, New Zealand Pavilion, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photo/Supplied

He laughs. “Yes, there will.”

Mitchell, 41, trained at the former Auckland School of Arts, which became absorbed into the Auckland University of Technology, where he later taught on and off for nearly 10 years. He is known for intellectually agile work that isn’t immediately obvious or readable.

He employs invisible elements such as vibrations, a fragrance or an aroma. In one show, he collected sleep (rheum) from his eyes, then enlarged and photographed it to reveal its crystalline composition. In another show, he used a hypnotist to add a mysterious, undetectable layer known only to himself.

His work is in high demand in solo and group shows around the world. His motivation for making art is not commercial.

“I try to be truthful to the idea and to myself and my intentions and not think about the commodification of the forms,” he says. “Occasionally, I could make something and think, ‘Hey, this might be something that could survive outside the experience of the exhibition.’ And I would always get it wrong.

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc (detail) 2019. Photo/Supplied

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have to worry about money, because, like everybody else, I do. If I was thinking about those very real physical pressures, I would get it wrong for the work and be doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Iris, Iris, Iris, Mitchell’s solo exhibition, which has just opened at Auckland Art Gallery, follows a season last year at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. A sophisticated project that was two years in the making, it explores the various meanings of iris: the iris of the eye, the plant, the functional part of a camera lens – an entanglement Mitchell describes as “an interesting poetic tool”.

Iris features 1090 thick, 70cm-high iris-coloured incense sticks to represent time, a reference to the historic practice of burning incense hung with bells to mark time in Japan and China.

The show also includes an iris flower in a glass dome; a glass bottle containing the synthetic essence of the iris rhizome released by a hidden magnetic spinner; a rice-paper eye/iris umbrella called a janome, which was used by priests and doctors; an Olympus camera lens; and a silk-screen print of Mitchell’s eye, taken from an iridology slide shot when he was 10 years old.

Mitchell is also preparing for a show at Hopkinson Mossman gallery in Wellington as part of “a strategy to continue the conversation here around what’s happening in Venice”.

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc 2019, Production still. Photo/Supplied

Tuning will fill the gallery’s entire space with a huge radio antenna, known as a discone, plated in brass.

“It looks a bit like a space probe,” he says. “It will transmit a signal through the gallery across an FM bandwidth, producing what’s called a spurious transmission, such as when a radio station fades in and out, the sound of radio static. It’s a way of thinking about this dissolving physical form.”

Mitchell seems cheerful about all the work he’s piling on, but admits, “I’m pretty manic, quite frenetic about reading and research. It’s colossal and mind-boggling, which is actually what the project in Venice starts to push up very hard against – the impossibility of what I am trying to do.”

POST HOC: Venice Biennale, May 11-November 24, 2019.

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.