With Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist, the Institute of Contemporary Art debuts the first major U.S. retrospective of the New Bedford-born artist. Mannion Family curator Ruth Erickson delves into Dion’s three-decade career in this three-years-in-the-making survey, which brings together hundreds of objects from plant specimens and ocean flotsam to books, seeds and even live birds. Ahead of the installation’s Oct. 4 opening, Erickson gave us a sneak peek.
What are the details behind the ICA’s new commission? The Time Chamber is sort of like a retrospective within a retrospective. It gathers together Mark’s journals, sketchbooks, many of his preliminary drawings for projects, some of which you see on view in other galleries and some of which are in Norway or Seattle or Hong Kong. It really is a space that explores what is Mark Dion’s process, and at the same time looks at the production of small sculptures and prints and drawings that are really the material and the ephemera through which he works out his ideas. Recently he described the space to me like opening up his skull and peering in it at his process.
How do you think growing up in Fairhaven and New Bedford informs Mark’s work? The first thing he always talks about from his youth is his exploring of the marshes and the really rich natural life that is part of Buzzards Bay, just spending hours and hours as a child tromping through and discovering things. And he still does that to this day; I was out there with him in August doing the exact same thing he did as a little boy. The other side of that has been the history of the whaling and marine industries, and really thinking about how people historically used the natural world and its resources for profit, for beauty, for inspiration for making artwork. The New Bedford Whaling Museum was the first museum that Mark ever visited as a child, and it’s a place he knows really well—a museum that is about cultural history basically.
How important was the inclusion of his Library for the Birds series, which will bring live animals into the museum? I think it was actually the first piece I ever saw personally of Mark Dion’s work. It was included in an exhibition called Becoming Animal at Mass MoCA and it was totally mesmerizing and it just transported me to a different space. I remember entering the cage with the birds, just sitting there looking up as they were communing among binoculars and rifles and books about ornithology and just being totally transfixed with the ingenuity and the humor and the kind of moment of pause that it gave me in a really hectic world. And so when I first started working on this show three years ago, it was the very first piece that I knew we had to bring here because I can’t imagine a Mark Dion survey without one.
What has it been like working with him? I would say working with Mark, you’re on a constant adventure with him and he’s always opening your eyes to parts of the world that you maybe hadn’t paid attention to before. For me, he’s really opened up my eyes in thinking about what constitutes the realm of nature and the environment. Before working on this project, I felt like I could very clearly kind of bracket off, “OK, this is part of nature and this is part of human culture.” Mark has shown me just how complicated and intertwined those two realms are. This weekend I was hiking out at Blue Hills with my son, and I pointed to an animal and I used a certain gender pronoun. There, you’re thinking about, well, how are animals personified and anthropomorphized? And what are the kinds of ideas inherent in our talking about the natural world that really reflect as much on human culture as they do on what exists in nature? It has really been eye opening to have such a more nuanced sense of nature and thinking about what’s facing us with environmental changes that are going on and to really think about these things from so many different angles, like the language we use, the images we use to represent the natural world, the relationships of hierarchy that we set up between humans and animals and nature. And I think that those hierarchies run really deep; they’re throughout science, throughout biology, throughout religion. To start unpacking and questioning some of those assumed hierarchies has been really revelatory for me as a person, in addition to as a curator. I should also say that I think the show’s going to be really fun. There are lots of interactive pieces; there’s a lot of humor in it as you’re also addressing questions about the environment, which can be really heavy. What I love about his work is that it sort of does both things—it’s fun and it’s serious at the same time.
What’s one piece visitors should look out for? The Wildlife Rescue Unit, which is a giant yellow truck. It’s this imagined outfit of botanists that will be going into areas that are about to be developed and saving plants that are endangered or threatened and rescuing them by relocating them to natural and protected habitats. It’s a piece that Mark actually made based upon a group of botanists he met in South Florida who were doing just that, and then he thought, “OK, well I’m going to make you all the very best truck you could imagine.
3,000 estimated rusted hinges make up Peabody Essex Museum’s recent acquisition, Immanence, on display through Oct. 22. Havana-based artist Yoan Capote sourced hinges during his frequent travels abroad, later convincing his Cuban neighbors to swap the new hinges for their old hinges, which he then used to weld this 10-foot Fidel Castro sculpture that addresses the impact of the U.S. trade embargo.
THE IMPROPER’S 2017 FALL ARTS PREVIEW: DANCE | BOOKS | COMEDY | MUSIC | PERFORMING ARTS | VISUAL ART