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Porn-on-Porn Photos and a Scuba Diver Shock Viewers at New Berlin Exhibit

The scandal of the show's opening in Berlin was augmented by a visitor clad in a scuba diving suit...just enjoying the art.

by Alyssa Buffenstein
Jul 22 2016, 5:00pm

Scuba diver at the opening, viewing Mitchell’s prints. All images courtesy of Dan Mitchell and Oracle Berlin.

At the opening of Berlin’s Oracle gallery’s current show, New Dead City by maximalist Dan Mitchell, a person in a scuba diving suit mingled with guests, acting casual. Just in case Mitchell’s works, a selection of porn-on-porn text collages lining one wall of the small space, weren’t shocking and disorienting enough, the artist wanted to ensure that viewers felt really out of their element.

“The scuba diver’s role is to turn the gallery into an alien underwater environment," Mitchell tells curator Saim Demircan, in an interview printed in New Dead City’s catalog. "So you are either submerged or you have become another species like some sort of fish or aquatic being. The scuba diver is really there to emphasize the prints, which are designed to upset the viewer. I’m trying to capture the sense of being caught in this triumvirate of lifestyle, neoliberalism and spectacle, and get a similar kind of revulsion going on.”

The exterior of Oracle.

Oracle is a tiny gallery space in a non-traditional location: inside a fluorescent-lit, open-air hallway in West Berlin near Kurfurstendamm. Oracle might be hard to find down this alleyway arcade, but once you make it inside, Mitchell’s artwork makes it impossible to miss. Stuck on the gallery’s glass walls are bubbles, both of the air-in-water variety, and larger ones that contain zoomed-in stills of porn actors’ faces, strained and screaming. Stickers of these actors’ contorted hands also pepper the gallery’s windows.

Inside, the scuba diver suit is worn by a mannequin, looking out the window. To the mannequin’s left, eight of Mitchell’s prints are hung on the wall, in two rows of four. The artist, who also publishes the sensationalist, “specialist anti-fear magazine” Hard Mag, has a recognizable formula: one graphic image, sourced from sexual, violent, or gross-out sources, overlaid with a vague, punchy slogan in bold, italicized text. Sometimes these are printed in Microsoft Word Art-style lettering, but in other cases, like in the works in New Dead City, they are comprised of another, just as graphic, image, creating a sensory assault that makes it difficult to either parse what you’re looking at, or what you’re reading. Vague clips of text, like “mass limp shrink,” “stuck in the now,” or “hyper bleak doom” are barely legible in the fleshy collages.

Mitchell’s interest in porn, he explains in the interview with Demircan, is inspired partly by Susan Sontag’s idea outlined in The Pornographic Imagination — that, decontextualized, it’s difficult to distinguish whether someone is "gettin’ it," or having an epileptic seizure. The artist views this engagement in “willing madness” as the purest expression and exploration of humanity. Pornographic images, however, turn this willing madness into a capitalistic spectacle. As porn became more accessible online in the 80s, Mitchell explains, magazines pushed the spectacle to its limits, fighting the futile fight to keep people reading print.

As for the overlaying text, Mitchell says he sources his words from “ultra left philosophy,” which he decontextualizes to blur their meaning, aiming to simultaneously disturb and attract the viewer.

Mitchell's ideas are concisely outlined in the exhibition catalog but aren't really be gleaned just by looking at the works—criticisms of neoliberal “sharing” economies driven by brands like Uber and Airbnb, the monetization of lifestyles inspired by the Google-ian idea of 20% of your workday devoted to relaxing, and the internet-driven “spectacularization” of mundane, everyday life.

In the end, his artistic spectacle is impossible not to pay attention to, and his ideas, especially for a certain class of freelancing millennials, are worth reading, but the ultimate success would be if he could find a way to express the latter purely through the former.

New Dead City is on view by appointment only at Oracle until August 31, 2016. Find out more information on the gallery’s website.

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