In Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novel In Watermelon Sugar, a girl named Margaret often wanders off to the Forgotten Works, a forbidden area piled with the detritus of past civilizations. Like Margaret, the artist Mark Dion is drawn to old things. They’re the bread and butter of his artistic practice, which weaves together science, history, archeology, and ethnography in iconic works like “Tate Thames Dig” (1999) and “The Octagon Room” (2008) to investigate human foibles. Most recently, Dion collaborated with the Jenks Society on The Lost Museum, a resurrection of a vanished natural history museum at Brown University (which we wrote about earlier this month). Last week, I spoke with Dion about his penchant for the past.
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Laura C. Mallonee: Like the Lost Museum, much of your work deals with the theme of forgotten-ness. What draws you to old things?
Mark Dion: It’s something I’ve lived with my whole life. Even growing up in Massachusetts, a small place that’s very identified with a past that gets ever further and further away, the idea of living amongst artifacts was very important. Also, because I have such a deep affection for museums, I’ve seen a lot of great ones become renovated and then become less great places. And I’ve seen a lot of amazing cultural sites just disappear through lack of funds and interests. There’s only one example I can think of where a museum went through a radical renovation and came out a better place than it started, which is the [Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature] in Paris. I’m very tied to this melancholy sense of loss, because once you lose these places, you can never really get them back. And what museums really are, are windows into another time and another way of thinking. For me it’s the closest thing you can ever do to time travel. You visit these museums and you understand how a particular group of people understood nature in a distinct period of time.
LCM: They also have a way of reminding us that we don’t know everything, challenging our chronological snobbery.
Yes, and also challenging this idea of neutrality. You see that in the gallery space. The gallery is supposed to be a very neutral space, but all the galleries in Chelsea come up with the same solution. You have a beautiful concrete polished floor and white walls. That’s entirely historically contingent; there’s nothing neutral about that. In 40 years, galleries might not look like that at all. When I first came to New York galleries had creaky wooden floors with holes in them from where sewing machines had been once attached. And even galleries like Castelli still had pins in between the cracks in the floorboards from when they were textile factories. That’s always the mistake of now; we think we’ve reached the pinnacle. We don’t see ourselves as part of a continuity. It’s very hard to think in that way. That’s what a lot of archeological projects are about — trying to present archeology as a continuum that we’re part of and that will continue after us.
LCM: That’s also what antique stores and flea markets — where you find many of the objects in your works — are about. Speaking of which, how do you unearth such amazing finds?
MD: If I do one thing really well, it’s shopping. I never miss an opportunity to go to a flea market. I go to so many that I know what things cost. And I’m usually working on about a dozen projects at once, so I’m anticipating things I’ll need and I’m also finding things that I don’t have a specific use for yet but I know I’ll need in the near future. Sometimes a single object can really lead to a whole project, if it’s the right thing. I spend a lot of time in Pennsylvania going to the Scranton Flea Market, and also flea markets in Massachusetts and junk stores. When I travel to Europe, I’ll bring two suitcases packed lightly and come back with two suitcases at maximum weight, just bursting with stuff. These things are stored all over my apartment and at Mildred Lane and I’ll kind of pull them together for works. Some of these works are enormous.
MD: I just did a permanent public artwork called “The Ship Chandler,” which is out in San Pedro. It looks like something that’s been around since the 19th century, since the beginning of the port in Los Angeles. And you look through the window and you see a maritime shop overflowing with things. That’s something that took like two years to fill properly.
LCM: How do you know when you’re done?
MD: I run out of time and resources. I do feel like I have the right to go in and add things as long as the work isn’t sold. I have a piece up at Apex Art (“Travels of William Bartram Reconsidered,” 2008) and I visited yesterday with my friends from Art 21 and brought some extra things to put in the piece. It’s still mine.
LCM: Have you ever taken anything out?
MD: I don’t think so. I’m very tempted when I go to “The Octagon Room,” a very extensive piece at Mass MoCA. Whenever I go there I think, ‘My god, I put such amazing stuff in that piece!’ There are probably 20 original drawings and all kinds of incredible things. I feel very jealous.
LCM: What’s the most fascinating object you’ve ever found?
MD: A lot of the fascinating things come from these archeological projects. They’re usually small fragments of things. What’s so uncanny and powerful about them is that you find something — a bracelet charm or a marble or broken ceramic doll or even a coin — and you realize, ‘Wow, I am the first person to touch this since it was lost by this person 200 years ago.’ That feels like an electric bolt going straight from that person to you. That’s a powerful and interesting sensation and really makes those things resonate.
LCM: What do you hope to achieve by bringing these things back to the surface?
MD: I do want to emphasize continuity. I think this idea of thinking about ourselves as the pinnacle really does cause a lot of cultural damage. I’m always interested in figuring out how it is that we crafted a society that has such a suicidal relationship to the natural world. That the decisions we make are actually so irrational that they endanger us all. For me, I’m a person with sculptural sensibility. I learn through things. I see knowledge embodied in things. I’m using those things to try to figure out how we got here, and also to tie people to this idea that we’re part of a continuity. Things came before us. Things will come after us. But when we act as if nothing’s coming after us, we create problems with people down the road. We’re a society that has created the most material culture ever, and with that comes garbage and residue, and that’s a legacy that we’re leaving.
LCM: Does nostalgia play a role in your work?
MD: I try to be historic rather than nostalgic. For me, nostalgia is always tied to the notion of the “Golden Age” of things — this idea that the past was much better. I don’t think that’s true for many things I care about. For women, people of color, gay people, working people, it’s absolutely better now. So I really try to steer clear of golden age thinking and use things to provoke a sense of time and perhaps a sense of loss, but never a sense that somehow our values are worse than the values in the past. I don’t think that’s true. If there’s any reason for optimism, it is that there has slowly been more access to power for more people.
The Lost Museum will be on display in Rhode Island Hall (Brown University, 60 George Street, Providence, Rhode Island), which was the Jenks Museum’s original home, through May 2015.