Mark Dion, Travels of William Bartram Reconsidered, 2008
The artist talks art, science, nature, cosmology and the sublime in advance of his exhibition Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 20th-Century Naturalist.
ICA: You grew up in New Bedford, and you’ve created work there that’s featured in the exhibition and now included in the ICA’s collection. How has your Massachusetts upbringing figured into your work and methodology overall?
Mark Dion: I was born in New Bedford and lived there in my early years but I really grew up in Fairhaven, which is on the other side of the Acushnet river. Fairhaven is where I went to school, though I spent huge amounts of time with my cousins rampaging in New Bedford. There was a microcosmic aspect of the area when I grew up. We could play in farms, fields, and forests and then on beaches and salt marshes, moving to gritty industrial wastelands and abandoned mills, garbage dumps and barges. It was like a world in miniature, and entirely accessible by bicycle. Sadly the farms, forests, orchards, and fields have largely been turned into strip malls and housing developments. Many of the abandoned mills and shipwrecks are gone as well.
I think that experience of watching places we loved go under the bulldozer was quite profound and shaped aspects of my environmental sensibility. You cannot watch an ancient beech grove be plowed down to make a cookie-cutter housing development without feeling some rage, even as a child.
The important presence of history in the area profoundly shaped my consciousness and aesthetic. Fairhaven and New Bedford are not museum towns, although rich in architecture and history. They are places where people work side by side with the past. Living there, it was easy to absorb and develop a sensitivity for the fabric of history that is inclusive, that has continuity. This past was also very class-conscious in my family, who were mill workers, soldiers, and laborers.
What draws you to nature and the natural world in your work?
To be clear, my work is not so much about nature as it is ideas about nature. In the same way, my artistic endeavor is not so much an “art and science approach,” as it is an “art and history of science approach.” I am an environmentalist and believer in the importance of the conservation and protection of wild things and wild places. My art is an attempt to try to understand how our society has evolved a suicidal relationship to the planet. The key to understanding this is in the history of ideas. So my work references, mocks, highlights, shadows, and critiques these ideas. For example, works like Scala Naturae, and The Classical Mind (which is a new work for the ICA exhibition), examine the pernicious aspects of hierarchical, human-centered taxonomies that prevailed for so long in the Western tradition and became the intellectual justification for the domination of nature, racism, and other expressions of repressive power. In some ways I want to map how it is that we have arrived in such a jeopardous place in relation to the natural world.
In your practice, you often borrow or appropriate scientific methods. For you, what’s the relationship (or line) between art and science? Are you trying on the role of scientist in your various studies and excavations, or is there a different relationship?
I am definitely an artist and not a scientist. Still, my worldview comes from science rather than from a religious place. Science is my cosmology, and it is very good at explaining what the world is. It does not tell us much about what our obligations, attitudes, and feelings about the world are. Art is pretty useful to interrogate some of those aspects of human experience in a complex way. Art and science have different tools; for science it is a rigorous set of rules for testing ideas which are repeatable and verifiable. For art we can use a rich vocabulary of humor, irony, metaphor, and beauty to express hard-to-pin-down states like ambivalence, melancholy, rapture, mourning, a sense of the sublime.
So I see art and science as natural allies. Certainly we share many of the same enemies—prejudice, ignorance, intolerance, doctrine, fanaticism. Art and science work extremely well toward common causes.
I see art and science as natural allies.
Do you consider yourself an activist? Do you hope to shift viewers’ relationship to the natural world?
I do not consider myself an activist, however I am entirely allied with environmental activism. I think to build a progressive culture of nature, participation from a wide variety of disciplines is needed. Science certainly is critical, but it does not have a monopoly on the culture of nature. To build a culture of nature that features regeneration over destruction, sustainability over depletion, nurturing over domination requires input from a diverse collation of thinkers, makers, and doers. Art is one of many areas which can be important to this constellation.
However, the world in which contemporary art mostly dwells is a cosmopolitan one. Issues of the culture of nature and environmentalism are rarely primary concerns for the sophisticated urban denizens of the art world. There has not been a significant exhibition of contemporary art concerning landscape and ecology in the major art museums across the country in decades. Yet increasingly there are a number of compelling visual artists committed to exploring the vital global environmental changes of our time. Some of these are artist-activists and others approach the issues from the traditional space of the studio. I would argue that there is room for both strategies and numerous others.
What is the role of humor in your work?
As an artist who works on topics like the ocean and tropical forests, there is not a lot of positive news on the horizon. My perspective is an increasingly pessimistic and dark one. Humor is one of tactics I employ to be able to discuss some seriously demoralizing topics. I am not afraid to discuss concrete issues in my work, but like my artistic mentors like Hans Haacke and Martha Rosler, I know the power of humor to undercut the authority of my own didacticism. Humor is a tool, but it is also a pleasure.
I think I am a pretty funny guy. Like many people from blue-collar Massachusetts, I have a dark humor, heavily slathered with irony, sarcasm, and skepticism. I think this is a defense we have evolved against disappointment. We have an uncanny built-in bullshit detector and radar for hypocrisy and corruption. However, it easy for this to turn to cynicism, which can be debilitating to a maker of things. At the same time, as an artist who contemplates environmental histories, it is easy for me find myself perched on a rather high horse. My Commonwealth of Massachusetts skepticism assures that I don’t take myself too seriously. I keep my mother’s anti-authoritarian wise voice in the back of my mind. She was a great ego deflater when it was necessary.
In the past you’ve spoken about the importance of the amateur or dilettante, of nerd culture. Can you speak to that?
I guess I am an enthusiast for enthusiasts. I have a great deal of respect for those who take an active roll in the construction of their desire motivated by curiosity. The marriage of Reason and Eros opens up constructive possibilities. Birders, rock hounds, volunteer archaeologists, activists, citizen scientists, amateur painters, hobby builders, people motivated by love rather then money are pretty exciting to me. All the more so because there seems to be a narrowing of systems of value, to validating only capital on one hand and increased specialization and professionalization on the other. So the space for the intellectually curious generalist seems to be not merely noble but also a place of great pleasure, passion, and potential camaraderie. Amateurs also seem capable of making contributions precisely because they defy conventions and institutionalization. They can think outside the traditional boundaries of a discipline.
There’s a timelessness to many of your works. What makes them contemporary?
We live in a time quite obsessed with history. There are reenactment cultures, popular enthusiasm for archaeology and genealogy; historic dramas on screens or on the page are numerous. So to me the examination of history is quite contemporary. Yet there is always the discourse of power lurking in the expression of history, whether that is the pernicious discourse of blood or the kind of fake claims of a time that it was once more idyllic. Thus in dealing with history, nostalgia must be avoided at all cost. To me, nostalgia is tied to an unexamined expression of a golden age when things were better, more simple, and everyone knew their place. The so-called “good old days” were not good for many, obviously; they were a time of exclusion and oppression for most of us. While my work is often historical, it is never nostalgic.
So when I make works which reference historical moments, I want them to be pretty specific: to frame a particular character, moment, and set of ideas. I use linchpin figures in the history of natural history as a way of tracing the evolution of values, attitudes, and assumptions about nature.
Your practice is both research-oriented and process-based. Do your works more often start with an image or an idea? A sense of the process, or of the final product?
Images are critical, and so is conventional research, but the most important starting point is always place. The work is mostly contextual in nature, and listening to place, to the original site of project or sculpture, is the first step for me. I search the history for paradigmatic characters, events, anomalies, moments which encapsulate an essential aspect of what makes this context or place different, curious, or important. I think I have developed a pretty good sensibility of understanding place through much exercise and practice. Of course when I arrive someplace, I am not empty-handed. My own suitcase of concerns and the history of my work come with me and are a kind of lens that I see a place through. Therefore the white walls of galleries are challenging for me. The ICA exhibition will be particularly interesting because it does focus on works of a more sculptural nature but weaves them between works which have site-specific origins.
Most of my ideas about what to do in a particular context come pretty quickly. It does not take more then a day or two for me to get a sense of what to want to make. From there the ideas go into my sketchbook and get worked out in draft form. The next step is to make finished drawings using my trusty red-and-blue pencil. These help me communicate my ideas to the production team, curators, and community stakeholders, but are also for me where the ideas really take form. Much of the creative aspect of my process is concentrated in these simple drawings. They are also often where the pleasure in making is focused.
The most important starting point is always place.
How important is considering the background in the understanding of the piece? Can the work standing before the visitor be complete without knowledge of the process behind it?
Many works do not require the back story and can be viewed as sculpture, installation, printmaking, or drawing in a pretty uncomplicated way. However, most of my work is quite narrative, and much of it takes the lead from history. Therefore there is a burden on many works to bring the viewer up to speed. If I do a work about William Bartram, Alfred Russel Wallace, Rachel Carson, or Aristotle, the viewer has to have some idea who those people were in a basic way to engage the piece. So it may be less about understanding the process and more about having some basic foundation about the historic events and persons. It is not so different from Robert Rauschenberg’s work on Dante or Frank Stella’s work on Moby Dick—if one knows the novel, they can get more out the art. However, the viewer still can have a challenging and thoughtful experience without having encountered the reference text.
Some of your works recall the traditional Wunderkammer. How do they differ or depart from that tradition?
For me, Wunderkammer are a very specific historical phenomenon—the 16th- and 17th-century collections that flourish across Europe. They predate the fields of science, art, and other organizational disciplines that flourish in the Enlightenment. They are idiosyncratic, with no two being precisely the same in order or contents. These collections reflect the early confusion and chaotic violence of the colonial period, rather than ideological museums. While it may be possible to think about them as the incubator of science, it is just as true to imagine them as the sanctuary of magic and the hermetic tradition.
What draws me to these collections is the challenge that they present to our systems of order, hierarchy, and material categorization. They privilege hybridization; the interplay of the natural and artificial, the totem and the specimen, and macrocosm and the microcosm. They were also quite discursive spaces which encouraged participation, trading, and handling of objects. A visit to the cabinet of curiosity was not a passive experience, like visiting a late 20th-century museum, but an immersive one which doubtlessly involved all the senses and was full of speculation and wonder. Those are precisely the aspects of this tradition that I think can be productive to revisit today.