Dane Mitchell, The Smell of an Empty Space (Liquid), 2011, perfume, glass, mirror, clamps, 53 1/8 x 17 1/2 x 96 3/8".

Dane Mitchell, The Smell of an Empty Space (Liquid), 2011, perfume, glass, mirror, clamps, 53 1/8 x 17 1/2 x 96 3/8".

Dane Mitchell

Artspace Aotearoa

Dane Mitchell, The Smell of an Empty Space (Liquid), 2011, perfume, glass, mirror, clamps, 53 1/8 x 17 1/2 x 96 3/8".

In 2009, Dane Mitchell was the victim of a peculiarly vicious attack by the New Zealand press after his piece Collateral, which was made that year and used packaging material such as brown paper, blue plastic strapping, bubble wrap, brown tape, and envelopes from other entrants’ works, won a prestigious art award. The mainstream media’s problem seemed to be that (a) Mitchell hadn’t made the piece himself and (b) he’d appropriated material from other artists. The hoopla was an unfortunate reminder that in this country, artists with a Conceptual approach often still face out-of-touch criticism from local hacks. Within the New Zealand art community however, Mitchell is rightly regarded as one of its rising talents. The controversy probably didn’t cause the artist himself much distress; he was in Berlin when it happened, participating in the city’s DAAD residency program (he now lives in both Germany and New Zealand). His “Radiant Matter” project, recently presented in three New Zealand institutions, of which Artspace was the last, was probably his strongest work to date: a series of complex environments that managed to establish rewarding connections between the artist’s trademark Conceptualism and an overwhelming physicality.

Mitchell’s primary medium in “Radiant Matter” was fragrance. “Part I,” at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, used the smells of rain and sea—synthesized in the first case, natural in the second. In “Part II,” at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the smell, developed with perfumer Michel Roudnitska, was more bodily. For “Radiant Matter III” at Artspace, he presented The Smell of an Empty Space, 2011, also a scent developed with Roudnitska, in three states. In the main gallery, an atomizer emitted the perfume unseen (gas). In the long gallery, mists of it slowly transformed unfixed photographic paper (solid). And in the smallest room, handblown glass vials, balanced on a large mirror, held the perfume in liquid form. With hints of cleaning products and near-clinical freshness, the smell was unmistakably what its title evoked—that of a gallery between exhibitions. But this wasn’t just another “white cube” one-liner. Mitchell has said that perfume is the only sculptural form that literally enters the brain. Though not entirely convincing as a proposition, the statement points to the real strength of this project: its exploration of smell’s neurological potential to confuse the signals we get from language, memory, and physical experience. Mitchell’s difference here from the many other artists interested in neuroscience and perception is in his avoidance of the visual and the scientific, and his decision to focus on the cultural implications of odor instead—its heady associations with nostalgia, mysticism, sex. The smell, in his words, is a form of “cartoon air”—an animation of the real air we breathe, a scent designed to heighten our experience of the spaces it permeates.

The New Zealand artist Billy Apple, who is an influence on Mitchell (as he is on many younger New Zealand artists), and who has arguably done more for Conceptualism in this country than any other figure, also deserves mention here. Mitchell’s “clean” fragrance seemed to nod toward Apple’s 1970s cleaning works. And the level of finish was Apple-esque—an ultraslick attention to detail that lifted Mitchell’s piece above the rough-and-ready Conceptualism of some of his antipodean peers. Then there was the touring aspect of “Radiant Matter”—the sense of a homecoming by a local artist done good, which recalls Apple’s tour of New Zealand galleries from New York back in the ’70s. But the delicate vulnerability was all Mitchell’s: the balancing of ideas and states that could easily have gone wrong if he’d tried to extract too much from the concept. Apparently, Mitchell is now working on The Smell of it All—another olfactory work, but one in which he intends to push the relationship between art, language, and physicality to its outer limits. The project also points to the ambitions of an artist starting to fulfill his own sensory promise.

Anthony Byrt