un Projects is based on the unceded sovereign land and waters of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation; we pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
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People who are afforded glass houses shouldn’t fell trees: A response to An Unbroken Surface, Gertrude Glasshouse, Yálla-birr-ang


Dane Mitchell
An Unbroken Surface
17 May - 8 June 2024
Gertrude Glasshouse

When experiencing art or participating in spectacle some say everything has the right to exist. It's ‘subjective’ one might add. Petrochemicals and synthetic olfactories, stinging nostrils, itchy throats and blinking red eyes. More than a few thousand scientifically scented little paper pine trees. A deeply perverted and malignant sadomasochism, of sorts. I'm not sure how important it is to tell you that I ride a bike to work. Others who can afford to drive a gas guzzling pick-up from the Ponds, or their diesel defender from the Dandenongs to a light-touch sitting/standing office in the city. They've earned their right to do what they want. Fact is, they are encouraged. Everything has the right to exist, yeah? 

One of the brutal bases of accelerated psychic programming involves you. A body, human behaviors, living being, a memory that acts.1 Individuation, neoliberalism, economic freedom, material desire. You meeting your own needs in full. Thoughts and feelings unfashionably delayed by this uncompassionate affair. Too late capitalism, a lonely slow death machine that is burying us all in the shallows. Nobody carpools anymore. The trams smell like sweat and farts. The scent of other people. I had a whole carriage to myself on the Belgrave line back from Ferntree Gully. Carry-all full of tools but the train was empty except for a few bums, junkies and stragglers, and kids who aren't allowed to drive yet. At this point I've gotta ask — what's the cost? If everything has the right to exist, what is the cost?

I'd guess a few thousand scented little trees might be worth a bit more than a shy buck. But money isn't real so let's find another way to measure what’s at stake. If we look closely and breathe deeply we’ll sense the substance of matter. Try not to choke. You need pulp to make paper, cardboard etc. I wonder how many birch trees got the chop and mill for this project. I wonder if the pulp factories run an eco-farm to hedge their bets on carbon credits for social license. I wonder about the reindeer herders and the First Nations Sámi People who are fighting for their forests. Fighting for the reindeer and caribou who depend on both terrestrial and arboreal lichens. It’s a matter of fact — when forests are felled, complex ecologies collapse. 

When the worker bees in a colony disappear, they leave the queen behind.

Without protection, fragile environments are at great risk. We can apply this logic from a seed in the dirt to the D-ring on the back of a painting. From a diamond in the rough to a Joseph Kosuth neon, (Satisfaction). See, it might be my day job to work on the tools as a smarter man’s lackey. But I also recognise the ultimate necessity and vitality of traditional cultural ways of knowing and being. Cultural exchange, gifting. Indigenous land management practices. Gotta be aware of what we do, the material we use, how we think through sustainability. A consideration of others. Other people, plants and animals and those we share the world with. We can extend this as a consideration of kinship, community. A bioethic and sociopolitical knowledge produced as such.

It’s no great leap of faith to apply these understandings to matters of biospherical concern. Think carefully about the homelands for both reindeer and Sámi. The silver birch, downy birch and Lapland dwarf birches. With care these trees can live for hundreds of years. Without, they become devastated. Hard to imagine the logging crew wandering the forest gathering chaga for tea while they’re ripping trees to the ground. The reindeer struggle for lichen. The woodpecker finds itself lost. But the mills churn and burn great big plumes of smoke. Native northern forests logged, chained and slashed to make pulp for paper profits. Do those forests have a right to exist? Do those beautiful animals have any rights at all? And what about human rights? What about the Sámi Peoples? It can't really be that Moon Dog was on the money, can it? Enough about human rights! ...what about, what about!?

Dane Mitchell, An Unbroken Surface, 2024. Photo by Christian Capurro. Image courtesy of Gertrude.

What about this all-encompassing sculptural structure earns the right to permeate and infiltrate the nasal passages of so-called australian art? ..and what is the cost? I’m not really raising concerns about a fiscal discrepancy. I wanna know who else, and how many other people were overpowered by the chemically imbalanced stench. What’s important here is how we sense the emotional, social and common toll associated with this callously framed ‘rewilding’ weaponisation of scent. At which key moment did this proliferation of sensorial pollution establish itself as a worthwhile project? Aren’t the arts already toxic and wasteful enough?

There’s a deep amnesia beneath An Unbroken Surface. Dane Mitchell’s sensory structure at Gertrude Glasshouse doesn’t ‘conjure the unseen’ like it purports. But there is a slick veneer of unsightly distaste. Something numb. Dripping down the back of the sinuses slowly. An overwhelming blindness so obvious it'll make you grow hair on your eyeballs. Hell, even the nose of a hardcore addict with insufflation problems would steer clear of this conceited conundrum. Ahh the creative industries. I wonder what Rob Pruitt would make of this half-baked snorting buffet? 

Conceptual rigor or conspiracy theory? I’ll remain a skeptic for now. This exhibition reeks of epistemic violence. Haunting. Hollow. Intended to cause you pain. Not just participatory discomfort, but a deep hemorrhaging wound and trauma that continues unabated in the settler colony. A slippery kind of too-late-capitalism and a special sort of removed-woke contextual address. A crowd of cooing voices claiming complexity. But like a friend said as we were walking in ‘I can't breathe!’ And you should know by now, we weren’t there with David Dungay Jr. nor was there any acknowledgement of deaths in custody, not those on this continent at least.

Somehow, someone in a glass house in inner-city melbourne, managed to reach out by throwing stones across continental divides. Skimming entire oceans, tethering to the great lakes of police brutality in the midwest united state of Minnesota. Daunte Wright and George Floyd got a short breath of mention in a strangely perfumed text composed by Hsuan L. Hsu.2 While yes, we understand ‘Little Trees’ are manufactured in the states, and that they’re produced under license from Julius Sämann Ltd, in Europe. But there was something really important that was missing. It didn’t feel like an intentional absence either. Something purposefully forgotten.

Dane Mitchell, An Unbroken Surface, 2024. Photo by Christian Capurro. Image courtesy of Gertrude.

Now, I’ve lived and worked on Turtle Island, Tkaronto, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Once performed Baba Waian with kin from Mer (Murray Island) at the General Assembly of the United Nations. I’ve stayed in the land of a thousand lakes and the forests of Finland. There aren’t many fences in Finland. Jokaisenoikeudet— everyones equal before nature.3 Snot turns to ice and your tongue freezes to your teeth on the shores of the leading sea Niigaani-gichigami/chi'nibiish (Lake Ontario). Colonisation is a real clusterfuck. And creole/kriol, a complex thing. It’s not a far cry of linguistic bastardry to conflate or confuse Sámi with the german translation of sower, or Sämann; a masculine noun for a person who plants seed. 

‘The Sámi people had a profound understanding of the complexity of the plant life-cycle. They dispersed seeds to favored areas and used harvest techniques intended not to deplete plant populations.’4

Sure it’s a stretched parallel, but the point I’m making is not savage. And while it might sound brutal, I didn’t leave the Glasshouse in a cloud of tar and burnt rubber with the nomads. This is about repulsion. The toxicities of settler colonial occupation. Hostile practice. A problem of supremacy. Triggers and reactions. The Frontier wars. The genocide(s). There is a very public history about police brutality and the ongoing incarceration and decimation of our Aboriginal population right here! Johnny cakes laced with arsenic.5 Poisoned waterways. They fucking put it in the milk mate! Maybe it’s not so safe to say, but I don’t think Dane Mitchell did his homework. At very least they could’ve done a quick google search about the poisoning of Aboriginal australians to learn how - 

‘chemicals such as arsenic, strychnine, corrosive sublimate, aconitum and prussic acid were allegedly involved. There are no cases of convictions being reported against anyone for deliberate poisoning.’6

Makes me wonder, what is in the bread and water where you come from?.. Dhaganhu Ngurambang / where is your country? And please, tell me, what does home smell like for you?

Maybe if the artist and writer had done this crucial local contextual work, the exhibition would never have created such a traumatic toxic stench. Sensorial overload. I get it. It’s easy to aim too high sometimes and forget about the ground you're walking on, and people you've trodden over to arrive at your destination. And the massacres. And the murderous regime and the prison industrial complex and the discursive taylorism in straya’s dogshit education system. Fuck! Has this waitbala ever been maced by the law? 

Dane Mitchell, An Unbroken Surface, 2024. Photo by Christian Capurro. Image courtesy of Gertrude.

Mitchell’s crime scene at the Gertrude Glasshouse house is a deathly and sinister misuse of matter. A perverted and sadistic violent attack on the senses. The remnants and residue of a sickening encounter seem to poison my sweet desire and taint my taste. My thirst is for the real real; a hunger for consuming art, truth telling and living culture. Sustainable creative being and form. But this is an exhibition that actually makes me gag, I need to vomit. I'm going home to wash my clothes and scrub this foul odor from my body, before it makes me sick again.

Seriously though, how’d you even dream up this stink? Claiming all species of pine are endemic to the northern hemisphere? Y’know, mob here got our own pine trees. We got the Norfolk pine, Bunya nuts, and the Wollemi, they're one of the rarest in the world too! They grow up the great divide and span across a number of different nations. Darkinjung, Dharug, Wiradjuri, Wonnarua. Wollemi pine has been cared for since time immemorial. Youse settlers fancied ‘em. Cut em down, cleared em out and burned and scorched their sacred roots. My sacred roots. You did this so you could put up your fucking fences. Build your bungalows and own your properties. You wanted privacy. Forgive my lack of apologetic tone, but no amount of toxic little trees is gonna do much more than fall flat, for me. Force-fed fumes into the nostrils of those that came to smell the roses — just feels like fascism. 

The walls were stark white. The lights, buzzing. The bugs and moths and nocturnal social butterflies patting each other's backs before getting fried and electrified by the zapper that is — Gertrude Glasshouse. It's fairly shocking that an artist of such esteem can somehow manage to obfuscate such a truth with this thoroughly brutal banality. But then again, the exhibition is quite aptly and literally titled An Unbroken Surface. And we do live in what's sometimes called the commonwealth of australia. I know nothing about wealth. But I do have some common knowledge. And I don't mind a healthy little chunk of cynical criticism. Science says - Wollemia nobilis.

These dinosaur trees can live some 400 to 1000 years! Wollemi, for us, means -

‘look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out.’7

I know, I know. It's hard to do this when you've been radicalised and blinded by western institutions. 

Mitchell might’ve earned the right to make this art exist. But I'm not sure it connects. Feels like more of a continuation of damage done. Denial. The local truth’s that are obscured by this operative contagion linger in silence, eerily like dispossession and disease. Virus, poison, the ongoing impacts of the colony. Settler mindset. But for me, this rotten low hanging imposition and sculptural apparition is an assault on the senses. It's offensive. It's unresolved. It's ignorant and shows a contemptuous neglect for Country. The stolen Land, he attempts to occupy. The deep earthly presence of Yállabirrang, the Wurundjeri People, the Witchetty grub. Negated yet again. By Whiteness. 

Sickly synthetic pine and the strangling institutional vines of colonisation. Knowledge capitalism. This work from Mitchell is no sweet scented honey, but a sour and psychotic stinging spray of anti alchemical alteration. A malignant transmutation of matter. Deep fake, post truth art, and what appears to be more and more—a symptom of a collective cognitive dissonance. A widespread sickness that continues to infect so many artists and academics in this godforsaken nation state.

Dane Mitchell, An Unbroken Surface, 2024. Photo by Christian Capurro. Image courtesy of Gertrude.

This Gertrude Glasshouse exhibition truly is An Unbroken Surface. It makes barely a sneezing effort to gesture towards temporal disruption with any great effect. It fails to even scratch the surface and leans on depravity by creating a trigger for traumatic experience. It perpetuates unpleasant memories. Ultimately, this work smells like chemically concocted shit, while at the same time doubling down on histories of erasure, black death and capital punishment. Mitchell’s misuse of the substance of matter is an accelerationist refraction from the industrial olfactory of systemic neglect. The surface, the symptom, the senses of an individualistic, anthropocentric colony collapse disorder.

If you’re going to the Glasshouse, best not throw stones. But if you don’t want the experience to cost you your health, your living breathing life and physical well being — you might wanna take a full face mask respirator from the spray booth before you head out to get gassed by a suffocation experiment such as this.

X Daisy

Daisy (Dale Collier) writes in response to epistemic violence by interrogating the complacency of contemporary art and the depravity of discipline. Their expanded practice operates within a schismatic deep-fake post-truth context and offers staunch critique, while also embracing humour, humility, belonging and the perpetual emergence/submergence of unapologetic personal and political unravel.