Conversation with Mitch Mitchell, Artist (Part 1)
A new solo exhibition, Mitch Mitchell: I Will Meet You in the Sun, has opened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Halifax location. Curated by Sarah Fillmore, Chief Curator at the Gallery, the exhibition will surprise and move viewers through its unique story and masterful use of print media.
Montreal-based Mitch Mitchell's works, which pull the print medium into sculpture, performance and film, are founded on a personal story. Having previously taught at NSCAD and now Assistant Professor at Concordia University, Mitchell has long dealt with issues of labour and production, environment and technology, as well as the history of the print medium. But his work over the past five years has shifted to matters more personal in nature: his own family history. The story, however personal, turns out to be quite universal, creating work about the very basic tenets of our shared humanity. This body of work is based on Mitchell’s grandfather's time in World War II as a radar technician, exploring the aftermath of his service and the war’s ripple effect globally and intimately within his own family.
Mitchell found time to sit and chat with us during his time in Halifax for the installation of the exhibition; what resulted was a fascinating and poignant discussion about an incredible labour-intensive process and works, as well as the artist's connection to Nova Scotia. Read Part 1 below, and check back for Part 2 later this week.
Artist Mitch Mitchell at work in Montreal.
Can you tell us about the genesis of this project?
It’s a body of work that I have been working on in two different levels for a very long durational period of time, both physically and mentally. Physically I have been working on it for nearly 5 years, with some stages of testing always at the point of completion. But mentally I’ve been working on it since I was probably around 15 years old.
I always knew that I was going to be someone who would be a creative-minded person, be it an artist or an architect or whatever. But there was an incident in my life growing up–the genesis– that was the mental hatchling and the mental beast for this show. And that was, when I was 15, being confronted with a family narrative: my grandmother basically informed my whole family – my father, mother, sister and brother, as well as the extended aunts and uncles and cousins, that my grandfather (my father’s father), when he was the radar operator stationed in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in World War II, was the sole radar operator that confirmed and witnessed the Hiroshima bombing during the end of the war.
So, obviously when you’re 15 years old, you’re coming to the idea of growing up, maturity and mortality… At that age you’re also starting to learn about world history and the role of America and the world, and the world has gone through WWI, WWII, and by then, the Vietnam War. I think culturally speaking, there’s a lot of shame that comes in with the wars around Americans, sort of like a quiet shame, I guess. At that age, I started to understand our place in the world. And then when you come to know about the genocides of the Jewish peoples, the Polish peoples and so on that was happening in Germany, you also understand the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs and how they changed the world forever. You have the sudden shock: Oh my God, this global event is actually very personal. And then it made me realize slowly… This long durational experience happens where you become, and as you grow older and become more mature, you realize your mortality to a certain degree. You’re getting older, you have friends and family dying, that there’s a strange sort of place in an event like that within your own trace, within the history. It’s hard to explain that, at some point your whole world is you, you kind of feel like you don’t matter in the greater bigger things because the world’s so big, but then you realize looking back that in events like that, they are so massive that they really did make me realize that the world exists. And it changed the world forever. It's kind of like the birth of the electronic age to a degree, the industrial electronic age.
Mitch Mitchell, History of a First Failed Industry, paper, ink, silkscreen, stainless steel staples, copper hand stapler, performative labour, 2014-today, dimensions variable.
What I’m drawing from more than anything for this whole show is the psychology of figuring all of that out over the years for me personally, then sort of bringing it down to the personal level and the global level. Of how my grandfather dealt with that. And how my grandmother knew the secret because they were married; when you come back from war you have to tell someone.
My grandfather died when I was five, but through narration and storytelling – when you’re a kid you ask about grandma and grandpa- everybody was always telling me that he was a very quiet man. He was a very strong, proud, quiet, Scottish man. He built the house they grew up in, my grandmother died in that house, and… He had a weird, strange and amazing life. So that’s my genesis. Really, the core of the genesis is me trying to figure out who this guy was, but then deal with the very personal yet global psychology that anybody could identify with. And for me, figuring out the psychosis of what one must have to go through to just work the devil out, in a sense. The Scottish-Irish have this term, “Working the devil out”, and it means putting your head down, shutting up and just working until you forget it. But then you can’t do that, because you actually are perpetuating that in a sense. So there’s a bit of these tragedies, and trajectories, but also beauty and the sublime that has generated from this. Because everyone – they all had some kind of tragedy in their lives– and people realize that at their core, they’re really beautiful individuals. But there’s something in them that’s really hollow, there’s something that’s grinding at them, but you never really see what that is. And with this work, I’m not being didactic: this is exactly what it is. You get this sort of percolating feelings and emotions, and the psychology within it, and then it can be anything, anyone. The genesis may be my family history, but the entirety of the exhibition is a more open narrative, global in scope, and poetic.
So for the longest time I was trying to not just think about him, or the event, but about something that is much more psychic to a degree, and can be shared.
What did this project mean to your family? Was this cathartic for them as well?
They’ve been super generous and helpful in regards to the narration, the storytelling, me asking questions, and them giving me as many responses as possible. It’s really been interesting for them because they’ve been kind of exploring, in a new way, the children – they are the children of that generation, who are actually interested in this sort of mythology and the time it was. For the generation before them, I think it was more purposefully forgotten and not spoken of so much. The Vietnam War and Korean War and these kinds of things, and because of the mechanism of war, there is a bit of the “We know what happened and we’re not going to talk about it much” treatment. I think for me, for my generation, it’s resurfacing. We want to know what is occurring in our own traces. I can’t speak to the other generation, but I speak to a lot of people in my own generation, and we are much more interested in our heritage and where we come from.
I’m emigrating now into Canada, but then I think, how did I get to North America in the first place? It’s all interconnected. So a lot of people – and maybe this happened generously within their generation too—but speaking from my interviews and when I’ve talked to other people out there—there seems to be a lot of people interested in where they came from and their identities. When Scotland was going through the referendum while I was living in Quebec, there was a great amount of interest and conversation around that. I’m Scotch-Irish from descent so people would ask me what that is like. It’s all interconnected in so many different ways, and generationally-speaking, there’s a push to understand who the person you are may come from the people who once were. But it’s like a subconscious thing; you inherit these things whether you know it or not. And I’m trying to explore those demons, explore those relationships of just asking questions and figuring it out in here [points to his head]. And also in not being afraid of what you might hear. I think for my grandfather, his generation—the fact that he knew that he was the first person to witness death on the scale of the Gods—the electronic source was a very frightening thing. Really just in seeing the blip and thinking, “I don’t know what that was,” and two days later finding out that he just saw thousands of people die.
There’s a strong focus on labour and the laborious nature of print production. Can you share a little more about this theme in your work? How conscious were you of the concept of “labour” when first developing these works?
Labour is a big element in my work. It wasn’t until recently (4-5 years ago, when I was living here in Halifax) that I became super conscious of my embedded interest in production, labour, the multiple and the practice, and the psychology behind it. Being a print-based artist, automatically you’re working with labour, because it’s a very craft-based history, and to get an image onto paper you have to get through so many different trajectories. So I’ve always been very much interested in that.
When I was living in Halifax, I was having conversations with fellow artists in the studio, and what I thought was a small amount of work, people would look at and go, “Holy cow, you’re insane.” I always thought, “This is cathartic, this is fun”; the detail, the work, and how many things I’m doing.
Mitch Mitchell, Berth, 35,000 handmade boxes (ink, paper, glue, wood, labour), 2015-16, dimensions variable.
The piece Berth, I started that here in Halifax. And that was the genesis – the very first piece I started for the show physically – and I really wanted to make a piece that, visually, is giving the audience an awe-inspiring moment: “Wow, this is gorgeous, this is beautiful, there’s so much colour,” with complexity and visual range. But then when you really look at it, you can think, “An individual made every single one, one at a time.” Printing, cutting, folding, gluing. So the identity and the ownership changes a bit, now that you’ve reacted to it. So that idea of labour as a source of information became very much why I am using rust, why I am using flour, I’m using all these very democratic materials, and labour becomes a democratic material itself. And so time, performance, production, procedure, as well as death and melancholy, it becomes a very loaded thing. I take it on as very much a beautiful but tragic element in the work that takes center stage sometimes.
What it is like to see people viewing and experiencing your work?
It’s important to a certain degree but it’s also frightening as hell. Because when you introduce a new body of work for the first time, and you’ve been working so diligently, doggedly and secretly – I think every artist is like this. Artists in general are very mental people, we are very much in our heads. When we spend a certain amount of time, whether it be days or years on a piece, there’s something that is very personal. And whenever we present the work for the first time, and I can only speak for myself here, I’m very cognitive of all aspects, like is the sound too high in the video piece, and so on – I’m really paying attention to that. When the curator is walking around and you have studio visits, and out of the box conversations about art in general that you have about your relationship to the work, I’m very much paying attention to those responses with visual, literal, auditory, language. Because I want to make experiential work, I’m taking note of how it impacts the audience, because I’m the audience too. But there are points where I say, “No. This is exactly how this has to be for me”. So how the audience perceives it is a tricky thing.
I’m always scared of the very first presentation, how the audience will react to it, the setting, the space, the location, what’s in it, you know? The relationships all the objects have to each other in the space. I do take note of all that and I want to hear reactions, but at one point, I sort of cower [laughs]. I just have to acknowledge that at some point I am no longer present. I’ve owned it for so long, I’m the maker, I’m the creator literally in my studio. I could continue to work on a piece for the rest of my life, but at one point I just sort of stop and give it an audience. And then from there I do like to hear what people say in response to it, but I’m still frightened by it and scared of what the reaction may or may not be. Everything from personal friends, family, loved ones to complete strangers. When I leave the gallery after an install—after the opening and I have the week away from it—I sort of [exhales slowly]. But eventually I’m still wondering what people are thinking, what’s the audience reaction, especially on a show this big here. I’m being given an amazing opportunity to present a Museum show—my first solo Museum show, maybe my last! [laughs]
How does it feel to be back in Nova Scotia five years later?
I’ve been fortunate to set foot in every province in Canada and the Northern Territories – I’m a very fortunate person to have experienced that, and I can’t wait to be a Canadian citizen. I literally cannot wait. I lived in Nova Scotia for over two years, and the East Coast is one of the most unique places. It’s weird saying this, but my blood pressure goes down when I’m here. Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland – I lived in Newfoundland for a year as well – are about generosity, being present, giving...
A Halifax friend's dog gets to experience Mitchell's work through extra pieces from the Berth work
When I had to leave, I was really heartbroken. I had to move, but I was heartbroken and I wanted to stay so badly. So when I was given the opportunity to have a solo show here, I was just beside myself. I am just so happy to be able to share something and give it back. And hopefully it gives back. I think the publication coming out of this exhibition [to be published by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in summer 2016] is going to be one big quiet thank you, a psychological thank you. In the very first pages, you’ll see the hands of Nova Scotians. People who helped with the exhibition, and who doggedly backed not only me and the work, but also just the opportunity to present the work.
Mitch Mitchell: I Will Meet You in the Sun is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Halifax location until June 5, 2016.
Mitch Mitchell, Trinity Cantos: Segue 1 & 2, still from the video projection, 2015-16.
All photos courtesy of Mitch Mitchell.