Dane Mitchell’s works frequently oscillate between presence and absence, deliberately treading the line between materiality and immateriality. In ‘Post hoc’, his installation for the New Zealand pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Mitchell explores the notion of loss and extinction, through a never-ending list of obsolete things including: animal and plant species; political parties; words and languages; laws; media formats; and scientific notions.
The installation is set primarily in the Palazzina Canonica, the former headquarters of the Istituto di Scienze Marine. In the gardens, a computerised voice recites the list of obsolescence from communications towers poorly disguised as palm trees. The towers also appear at several other sites throughout the city of Venice, creating a dispersed sonic network. The towers are mass-produced, simulating nature in a perfunctory way, achieving only the bare minimum of tree-ness required to be recognised as such. The plant-like structures suggest we are living in a state of ‘after’-nature, hinting at the many ‘post’-isms we frequently use to define ourselves and our society: post-industrial; post-truth; post-human.
Upstairs in an empty library, a printer keeps time with the voice, printing the words onto spools of paper which spill onto the floor in a heap. The room – stripped of its books and devoid of its original function as a repository of information – slowly fills with printed paper, giving a material presence to the absences described in the list.
Physically confronted with the accumulation of losses our world has sustained, the viewer is reminded of the many extinctions and cultural exterminations of which we are all aware, but which we so often try to ignore. Moreover, we are forced to consider the effect of the many losses that are unreported and unmourned. The installation acts as both elegy and archive, speaking and synchronously printing approximately 25,000 words a day throughout the duration of the Biennale. Even this isn’t enough to record the infinite number of absent things, leaving the piece in a permanent state of incompletion.
The empty library suggests both the loss of knowledge and the simultaneous proliferation of information through digitalisation. Mitchell reminds us that we are living in an endless network of social, cultural and ecological narratives. The visualisation of the phenomenon of data-overload (the heaped printed paper in the library) points to the difficulty of finding coherent stories in a world of infinite information.
We know that we are living in a time of ecological strain and fragility: species are going extinct 1000 times faster than they would without human interference. But Mitchell’s work suggests we have managed to decouple causality between past events and responsibility in the present. ‘Post hoc’ sheds light on our unwillingness to face up to our collective responsibility for the losses our world has sustained, and the simultaneous uneasiness in our underlying knowledge that we are living with the immensity of absence.