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MARK DION: Mourning is A Legitimate Mode of Thinking

Mark Dion is the elder statesman of critical nature studies­—of art that thinks, specifically about nature as a projection and extension of man’s self-interest. A postmodern trickster Cassandra, he has spent the past three decades creating a body of work that weaves together Stephen Jay Gould, Donna Haraway, Surrealism, and the antics of the amateur scientist/explorer with wit, rigor, and ultimately deep pathos. “He is a genealogist of sorts, tracing the bloodlines of Western intellectual history to ask, among other things, how European colonial expansion, environmental plundering and the creation of the museum all relate to the ecological disasters we face today.” On a Saturday afternoon in April, he and I met to discuss his recent exhibition The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, February 25 – 16 April 2016) in order to contemplate the dark matter that is our current state of nature. 

Installation view: Mark Dion: The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels,Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

We enter the aviary, The Library for the Birds of New York, joining a small group of visitors. As we stand still, our eyes raised, mouths in crescent smiles, a sonorous cascade of chirp-happy giggles—both avian and human—fills the room. We are surrounded by what can only be surmised to be a collection of happy birds flying about an installation of hanging bookshelves filled with books, bird feeders, a lone hanging microphone, research paraphernalia, a dead but vibrant tree piled with more books upon which the birds have added their subtle abstract poop-paintings, along with numerous images of progressive nature pioneers, writers, and activists.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail):  Has anyone ever bought one of your aviaries for their private home?

Mark Dion: Yes, the Grässlin collection from the Black Forest. Thomas Grässlin has one of the aviaries in his house. His daughter was in charge of feeding the birds every day. It was her job and I think she enjoyed it.  

Rail: What type of birds are these? Do they have any relationship to New York City in particular?

Dion: There are eighteen zebra finches and two paired canaries. They are all males because when they compete for mates they tend to get very aggressive, and we thought that wasn’t the best environment for an artwork.

Rail: Canaries certainly make sense, but why zebra finches?

Dion: Because they are one of the most popular caged birds and are super robust. They are also the avian workhorses in the laboratory—the feathered equivalent of white rats and mice. They are not easily stressed-out by captivity or prone to disease or shock. These specific birds have been through countless generations of captivity. One would have to trace the blood line back extremely far to find a truly wild bird. All of these come from this company in New Jersey that deals with theatrical animals, and they come into the gallery and oversee the birds and make sure they are well. Frankly, it is a kind of luxury spa for these birds. They will leave much more healthy and fit than when they arrived.

Rail: Indeed—it is hard not to project that they will miss this incredible home. So how is Library for the Birds of New York different from the 1993 Library for the Birds of Antwerp?

Dion: I have made such libraries for various cities but they are never the same; each has a different emphasis. The first one I did in Antwerp in 1993 had references to art history of the 17th  century, to birds in Flemish painting, and to aspects of new world colonialism in relation to the symbolism of keeping birds in Holland. In other words, owning birds—particularly parrots and exotic birds—was a symbol of domestic tranquility and bliss after the horrific period of the Thirty Years’ War. If you can keep a parrot safe, sound, and fed in your home, that says something about your stability. Antwerp has a very strong culture of bird breeding and collecting. In The Library for the Birds of New York, my themes are the persecution of birds through references to hunting, agriculture, habitat loss, and the chemical industries.There is also an emphasis on bird heroes—the central trunk of the tree is dotted with images of people who have done a lot for a progressive study of nature and wildlife conservation—people such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Rachel Carson, Roger Tory Peterson and other wildlife conservationists.

Rail: My favorite book of yours is Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism And Its Legacy (2005). Would you talk about your methodology for a moment? I’m interested in the critical unconscious you evoke through selection and juxtaposition of objects, as in the materials collected in A Library for the Birds of New York, Cabinet of Marine Debris, Memory Box and An Archeology of Disorder.

Installation view: Mark Dion: The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels,Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Dion: I have produced a good number of books and have my hand in their design and production, and that one is certainly my favorite as well. It accompanied an installation at the Manchester Museum: a Victorian-era universal collection that has now been modernized. I was quite curious about what gets left behind in the back room when museums like this reorganize their collection, and what the once treasured specimens that fail to continue to represent the museum’s mission as the site of science are. Of course, the Surrealists were also quite excited by the fragmentary, the obsolete, hybrids, and labels that have become untethered from their objects. They saw the subversive potential of odd and monstrous objects that upset the natural order. Once these objects are freed from the burden of rational significance, the unconscious rushes in.

Rail: In all of your work you walk the line between critique as judgment and critique as a kind of thinking. This is especially true of the book Concerning Hunting, edited by Dieter Buchhart and Verena Camper (Hatje Cantz, 2008) based on your exhibition at Kunstraum Dornbirn. In an era where everything is categorized in an instant by Left and Right alike as immediately a good or bad object, have you found people reacting with any less nuance to your work?

Dion: The only pushback I’ve had was with that show about hunting. It was precisely because the exhibition was about walking the tightrope between those who would attend the exhibition and were hunters, and those who were opposed to it. In Italy, one of the animal-rights organizations threatened to disrupt the opening and throw blood on me, which is kind of ridiculous because they hadn’t seen the show, and if anything, it was an exhibition skewed towards anti-hunting.

Rail: And, of course, where would the blood have come from? Certainly not a human.

Dion: Clearly. So that’s the most extreme reaction from an animal-rights perspective that I have had. But hunting organizations were also wary of the project and insisted on seeing the exhibition before it opened so they could decide whether to organize a demonstration against it. If it was merely an anti-hunting project, they wanted time to prepare a response. But they never did protest. The point was, hunting is not one simple thing to be for or against. I wanted to present a complex range of perspectives. The fact that the exhibition evoked such remarkably powerful responses has to do with the emotional charge the notion of hunting has in society. But the exhibition was also a masquerade for speaking about class, land use, animals, and ritual. For example, some hunters are the most knowledgeable and passionate people in defense of wildlife, but of course, it is hard not to have reservations about an activity where affection and knowledge result in death. You can’t help but feel there is a deep contradiction when the final expression of their passion is murder. Hunting is a lightning rod for some of our most problematic assumptions and projections onto wild things and places.

Rail: Death is an essential theme for you from the beginning, for example in pieces like Game Bird Group (Tar and Feathers) from 2006. Obviously museums and cabinets of curiosity only collect dead items and culture. But with works like “Cabinet of Marine Debris” the topic of death is at once more literal and more existential. Are you following the debates about the Anthropocene?

Installation view: Mark Dion: The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels,Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Dion: Yes, I find it a very productive discourse. It allows us to attempt to quantify our impact on the globe during the geologically-minuscule modern era. I think it can be a useful tool, as naming all the geological periods are useful tools. However, it is yet another conceptual framework which highlights our artificial separation from the environment.
Cabinet of Marine Debris is a piece I made in conjunction with an expedition called the Pacific Gyre Project that included the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic, the Anchorage Museum, and the Alaska Sealife Center, which was set up with the settlement money from the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. These organizations assembled a group of oceanographers, marine biologists, research scientists, conservation advocates, and artists to go and see the tip of the North Pacific Garbage Gyre. Although there are many gyres of plastic marine trash at this point, the Pacific Garbage Gyre is crashing all of its garbage across the islands of Alaska. We went to the areas with no history of settlement, where there are no people; very remote and inhospitable. When we got off the boat we had to wade through knee deep garbage to get onto this “pristine” island. The gyre picks up garbage from Russia, China, Japan, Korea, India and then moves around picking up garbage from Mexico, the U.S. west coast, Canada, and then just throws it on the island. The Styrofoam and lightweight material is then blown into the forests and plains by sea winds.

Rail: What are those oval shapes?

Dion: Buoys. Japanese squid fishing net floats. There were tons of them, along with flip-flops and plastic fly swatters from a container ship that dumped a shipment in a storm. The Smithsonian research scientist had this tool that looked like a price gun. They used it to scan objects such as these and it told them the make of the plastic. This meant we could tell where something came from because different countries have different kinds of laws about the contents of their plastics. For instance, in China you can have more lead than you can in the United States. So with this hand held device you could literally figure out whether this was a buoy from Japan or China, Mexico or San Diego.

Rail: Are the objects ordered in terms of country of origin?

Dion: The only rational order is the bottle caps which are ordered according to color. I am referencing 16th- and 17th-century traditions of the wonder cabinets, but in this case it makes no sense to make the connection that explicit.

Rail: Could you elaborate on the wonder cabinet anyway? What connections are you trying to make by putting all of this marine debris in such an order?

Dion: From the late ’80s, I’ve been interested in looking at that Wunderkammer tradition as the beginning of the modern, starting with the European obsession with the new world and material coming in from ancient Africa and Asia into Europe, expanding their idea of what the world is.  So you have this notion of wonder, a sense of the marvelous and curiosity at one end of the modern era, and on the opposite side you have this melancholy and guilt about everything disappearing that we experience today. So now our curiosity is not about the wonder of how strange these things are—instead we’re now seeing the flip side of that process, which is the disappearance and destruction of the planet because of globalization, the legacy of colonialism, resource depletion, the triumph of extreme capitalism, all of these things—the culture of Thanatos.

Rail: Who were the other artists on the expedition?

Dion: Pamela Longobardi was really the main artist. I was just along for the ride. She is based in Atlanta and has been working with marine debris issues for ages. Her knowledge of the subject and commitment is extraordinary. But there were other great people like the author Carl Safina, who just wrote an excellent book on animal consciousness called Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. He is a beautiful writer and powerful activist who normally writes on ocean conservation.

Rail: In terms of all the debris you found in Alaska, what was the most surprising?

Dion: That most of this stuff is from the marine industry, not from households, which is what one would expect. I thought we were just going to find thousands of water bottles and stuff like that. Instead we found miles of fishing nets and rope line, and thousands of net floats and castoffs from container ships. But I do have a favorite object—the light bulb, used in attracting squid to the surface to capture them, covered with barnacles.

Rail: It reminds me of the “fantastical archaeology,” you and Dana [Sherwood] did called Encrustations, 2012—sculptures of everyday objects made to look as though they had spent a century underwater.   

Dion: Yes, but that was work we made—hybrids of the natural and the man-made, and our intent was to create marvelous artifacts of the historical imagination. The work related to the process whereby artifice would be used in the Wunderkammer to enhance a natural object, as in a silver base for a Nautilus shell. However, in this case, these artificial objects have somehow been altered by the living organisms in the sea.

Rail: Let’s talk about your shack—Memory Box. There is nothing you actually made in it for sure. 

Dion: As you know, I’ve been collecting this stuff for years. I’m always looking, always going out foraging and hunting in junk stores and flea markets. I call this piece Memory Box. It reminds me of when I was a kid and I had all these strange uncles and family friends who had sheds full of tool boxes, cigar boxes, and odd collections. Since I was not really allowed to root through these collections, I thrilled in breaking the rules and riffling through the stuff.

Rail: I wrote down this quote from you from 2005, “I like most things that have wandered through others’ hands. I am simply a moment in their lives, they don’t end with me, I’m a temporary owner.” At the opening I found a large centipede curled into a circle in one of the boxes, but by the end of the exhibition it was broken into pieces.

Dion: Undoubtedly with a piece like this there is some wear and tear. There are a lot of things that were glued down that are no longer attached. People steal things. This box here was filled with shark’s teeth and now there are only two left. Also, someone broke the legs off of this tiny silver plated box. But there is nothing in here that is super precious. It’s not about that. And this exhibition has been seen by a lot of people. One of my favorites is the silverware box filled with wishbones. To give people the experience of the piece, I am willing to put up with a certain amount of deterioration.

Rail: Does it make you sad to think that when this is bought by a museum the whole concept of the shack will be lost? The museum will be concerned with conservation and not touching the objects, exactly the opposite of what it is about.

Dion: But remember, these ideas of exhibition today are not natural or inevitable. Museum standards and practices change all the time. That is the point. To me, the point is you don’t succumb to the conventions; you push them. MASS MoCA allowed The Octagon Room (2008) to be exhibited for years in a situation where people could open cupboards and boxes, and remove books from the shelves. Very little was lost over those years.

Rail: So among other things, Memory Box is about pushing conventions of display?

Dion: Yes it is a continuation of pushing display conventions that began with works like The Octagon Rooms and Schoharie Creek Field Station (1995). The viewer must engage to discover the work. The deeper they dig, the more they discover. There is obvious risk to this approach.

Installation view: Mark Dion: The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels,Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Rail: You have been making art about the culture of nature for a long time. Now, climate change is a topic in mainstream media and is on everyone’s mind; I’m curious if (or how) you have changed since you began this work in the late ‘80s. How would you characterize your learning curve?

Dion: It was hard in the beginning, because there was very little contemporary art in New York about the topic of the culture of nature. When I was in the Whitney Independent Study Program I was studying with Craig Owens, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, Martha Rosler, Barbara Kruger, and Yvonne Rainer. I have a ton of respect for all of those people, but the problem was the things they were interested in: critique of the art world, of representation, of gender and psychoanalysis—none of those were my issues.

Rail: So what happened?

Dion: It was when I discovered Stephen Jay Gould and Donna Haraway more or less at the same time, and realized there were people who have the same intellectual rigor but apply the critique to things that I actually care about, which is the culture of nature. So that was the big breakthrough. I was able to apply the rigorous conceptual tools from the ISP to what I cared about—the role of institutions like natural history museums, the history of science, and the museum itself, and look backward to systems of classification, links with colonialism, and so forth. Basically, looking at the things that forge a perspective on the natural world that leads us to the current moment when our relationship to the natural world is nothing less than suicidal.

Rail: Each piece in the exhibition has an elegiac quality—the marine debris, birds in captivity for generations, the memory box.

Dion: We are in a very sad place and time; there is little leadership, no white knights on the horizon, no collective action of significance to challenge the dominant ruinous paradigm. I am interested in being around people who are forging a progressive relation to nature but I actually don’t think we are going to work anything out. There’s a famous Frederic Jameson quote, “It’s much easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.” and I think that is true.

Rail: Have you read McKenzie Wark’s book Molecular Red: A Theory for the Anthropocene? He and I did a conversation in The Brooklyn Rail (September 2015). The book is remarkably unique. He weaves together utopic Soviet modernist thinkers and activists such as Alexander Bogdanov who was Lenin’s rival and wrote science fiction, the great Proletkult writer and engineer Andrei Platonov with Kim Stanley Robinson’s martian utopia. There is a whole chapter on Donna Haraway’s work but why I bring it up is when he gives talks he emphasizes the necessity to resist the language of apocalypse and dystopia. In fact the book is described as proposing an alternative realism, where hope is found in what remains and endures.”

Dion: I understand the impulse towards positivity and hopefulness, I just don’t really feel it with sincerity. The left has been traditionally down on pessimism. It worries me that people want to shut down pessimistic perspective. The pessimistic point of view is legitimate. If there was an ecological group or movement that coalesced I would of course join the battle, but they tend to run themselves like corporations and don’t seem like a significant challenge to the industries and interests that are destroying the planet.

Rail: So if someone were to say you were a pessimist you would respond: “No, I am a realist.”

Dion: Yes. Extinction is the norm. Sapiens are probably not here for much longer (in the sense of geological time). Certainly for the things I care about—oceans, forests, wild places, and wild things, there is very little good news. This is a serious role for the arts—bearing witness and mourning. After all, mourning is a legitimate mode of thinking.

  1. Mimi Vu, “Artful and Stunning Cabinets of Curiosities, Decoded,” T Magazine, February 25, 2016.
  2. The piece consists of diverse objects in glass cases, texts, documentary images and video.


Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a writer, editor, artist, interviewer, and former ArtSeen editor for the Rail. She currently teaches several graduate programs at SVA.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

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