Mark Dion, creator of installations around the world, addresses Lesley University’s Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
He undertakes massive projects that have included excavating along the Thames River in London, sifting through sludgy silt dredged from Venice canals, and unpacking the architectural history of Buffalo, New York, to name a few.
The renowned installation artist gave a talk to a large audience in the Rabb Auditorium at the Boston Public Library on Tuesday night, presented by Lesley University’s Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series.
Dion’s work has been on display this fall as part of Lesley’s “Beyond the Wunderkammer” exhibit in the Lesley University College of Art and Design Main Gallery in Kenmore Square, which concludes today. The exhibit is a modern version of the 16th-century wunderkammers, or cabinets of curiosities, which have inspired Dion in his career.
“These cabinets are the world in a box, diminutive gatherings of all the material culture available at the time,” Dion explained during the lecture. “They’re meant to be kind of a microcosm, which I think is an absolutely fascinating idea.”
For endeavors such as his work in Venice or along the Thames, Dion doesn’t create art out of thin air. He spends months of meticulous work culling objects, cleaning them, classifying and organizing them, and ultimately displaying them, whether it’s a Renaissance-era shoe and Roman-era pottery, or a voodoo doll and broken glass bottle necks.
“I want to put things together in an almost childlike way. I want to be that proverbial Martian, and I try to imagine that this is not my culture,” said Dion, who has won numerous awards including the Smithsonian Contemporary Artist Award. “I also want to play with your expectations of what you get out of an exhibition or a museum.”
Dion has exhibited at major museums and created installations around the world.
“How my work happens is that I’m brought to a place and I try to respond to that,” said Dion. “For me, the driving force behind all of my work is place, location, what’s available here, and what are the materials here.
“That response can come from architecture of an institution, it can come from the social history,” Dion mused.
“I’m always looking for eccentric people that typify – or are exceptional – within a place. So that place is my medium, that’s why it tells me what to do.”
‘The museum needs to turn itself inside out’
During a wide-ranging talk, Dion discussed a number of projects and exhibits he has created, including an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London that incorporated a makeshift laboratory to examine a varied collection of insects gathered by driving down the longest road in the city of London with a sticky protrusion on the roof of the car.
“My frustration with natural history museums is that all the cool, sexy stuff goes on in the background, and nowhere is that more true than at the British museum,” Dion reflected. “The museum needs to turn itself inside out, and that’s what I’m trying to do in an exhibit like this. I think people want to be inspired by what scientists actually do.”
That thread runs through Dion’s work, including a large-scale exhibit at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, in which he dug into the museum’s storage rooms and cabinets to create an unusual and eclectic representation of aspects of the vast collection, most of which never make it into the public eye.
This included sea creatures, jewelry made from natural objects, publications from many periods, and explorer Jacques Cousteau’s model for his research vessel Calypso.
“(The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco) recognizes it is no longer a cutting edge science museum and has become an institution of cultural heritage. But like all museums, it shows only 1 percent of what it actually has, and I wanted to bump that up to maybe 5 percent,” said Dion. “This is where I look back at cabinets of curiosity and try to imagine a way forward.”
At the start of his talk, Dion harkened back to Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician and naturalist who collected specimens from around the world and laid the foundation for our modern classification system. Dion has dedicated much of his career to identifying and classifying items and subjects using his own unconventional system and approach for each project.
Dion dedicated the lecture to renowned artist Rosamund Purcell, who attended the talk and whose work is also featured in the “Beyond the Wunderkammer” exhibit at Lesley.
Dion was introduced to the audience by Stacey Cushner, a 2010 MFA graduate of the Lesley University College of Art and Design. Stan Trecker, Dean of the Lesley University College of Art and Design, and Lesley President Joseph B. Moore welcomed the audience and Mark Dion, and acknowledged the generosity of Lesley Trustee Hans Strauch, the benefactor of this distinguished lecture series.
Prior to the lecture, on Tuesday afternoon, Dion visited the Lesley campus and met with students to talk about his work, his career, and his approach, and Trecker noted how inspirational he is to Lesley’s students.
Mark Dion, a native of New Bedford, Mass., lives in Pennsylvania and teaches at Columbia University.
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