Museums

The Ambition and Arrogance of Exploration

Mark Dion, "Provisions & Equipment-Clark Expedition" (2012) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated)

Recalling the age of the gentleman explorer in a place that still guards its worn relics, Mark Dion’s Phantoms of the Clark Expedition is an examination of the ambitions of early 20th century expeditions, as well as their arrogance. Cluttered in the Trophy Room of the Explorers Club, which is already overflowing with taxidermy trophies and cultural artifacts brought back by members of the over 100-year-old institution, Dion’s installation focuses on the Clark Expedition, the story of which is entwined with both the Explorers Club on E. 70th Street in Manhattan and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute based in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Mark Dion, "Campfire-Clark Expedition" (2012) (Image courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute)

If you have never been inside the Explorers Club, a visit to Phantoms of the Clark Expedition is an opportunity to take in the curious collection permanently on display with some contemporary commentary. The 1911 building was first the home of Stephen Clark, the brother of Robert Sterling Clark (usually shortened to just Sterling) who led the Clark Expedition to northern China, and the Trophy Room was then decorated with paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh and Cézanne, instead of the stuffed penguin, mastodon tusk, walrus head and other natural history and adventure items that have since replaced the Old Masters and Impressionists. The Explorers Club, founded in 1904 during the legendary explorer Teddy Roosevelt’s time as US President, was established for gentlemen who set off on Amazon crossings or trips to the North Pole from their townhouses, and promoted both those explorations and good fellowship. After the death of Stephen Clark in 1960, the Explorers Club acquired the building and in 1965 moved in. While the Trophy Room is always open to the public, it is something of a secret and entering up the noisy wooden stairs or in the antique elevator makes it feel like an act of time travel.

Installation view of Phantoms of the Clark Expedition (image courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute)

There is some background information on the first floor, including photographs and a copy of the 1912 book Through Shên-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908–9, written by Sterling Clark and naturalist Arthur deCarle Sowerby on the Clark Expedition. Dion’s installation is presented by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute based in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which was founded by Sterling Clark himself. Mark Dion was commissioned by the Clark Institute to create the installation as part of their centennial commemoration of the 1912 publication, and this summer the Clark is holding additional exhibitions related to the expedition, including:

  • Unearthed: Discoveries from Northern China, with artifacts never before exhibited outside of China,
  • Through Shên-kan: Sterling Clark in China, which will have specimens collected by Clark’s expedition and documents and photographs, and
  • Then & Now: Photographs of Northern China, contrasting images from the Clark expedition with those of contemporary Chinese photographer Li Ju.

The Clark Institute also now has an office in the Explorers Club.

Installation view of Phantoms of the Clark Expedition

Unlike a museum exhibit that would recount the facts of an expedition, Dion is responding to the spirit of it through a display of white papier-mâché objects that are meant to be the phantoms of objects, or, in Dion’s words, “the sun-bleached bones of expeditions past.” The main part of the installation is on the Trophy Room’s long wooden table, which is crowded with everything necessary, and some things unnecessary, to an expedition, including cameras, guns, scientific instruments, boots, hats, containers and cages for specimens, food and water, as well as luxury items like a teapot and coffee grinder. Sterling Clark and other wealthy white explorers of the early 20th century were not setting off into parts unknown without a bit of the comfort they enjoyed at home, even if they might end up suffering stranded on some block of ice or sweltering in a distant desert.

Dion has fabricated a flag he imagined for the expedition, a rider on horseback with a wide-brimmed hat as its logo, representing those flags that so many explorers have planted into soil or tundra or even the surface of the moon to claim their victory in dominating the terrain. The flag also references the Explorers Club flags given to members to take on their journeys, and some that have been retired are exhibited on the second floor in the Clark Room, including one carried on Apollo 13, another transported by Roy Chapman to the Gobi Desert and one that traversed the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki raft.

At center: Elie Nadelman, "Portrait of Robert Sterling Clark" (1933), marble

Sterling Clark and his brother Stephen were both heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and each were bequeathed a city block along Central Park by their grandfather Edward Clark, who also oversaw the development of such landmark residential structures as the Dakota. Before becoming an explorer, Sterling Clark had had a distinguished military career, serving in the US Army in the Philippines and China, and the scientific expedition was aimed at mapping remote areas of northern China and collecting information on its ecology and geography. Both Sterling and Stephen had a great love for art and architecture, the legacy of Sterling is seen in the Clark Institute he founded, and many of the architectural touches Stephen put into his home can still be discovered in the Explorers Club, including an elaborate Italian Renaissance-Style stone fireplace, stained glass windows and wood carvings.

Mark Dion, "Provisions & Equipment-Clark Expedition" (2012)

The Clark expedition, also known as the Shên-kan Expedition (Shên-kan referring to the provinces of Shanxi and Gansu), included a team of 36 people (scientists, specialists, etc.) who traveled to remote provinces in northern China. The 16 month journey from 1908 to 1909 was aimed at collecting scientific data and animal specimens, as well as mapping the terrain and taking photographs of the landscape and culture. They traveled with a herd of 44 mules, five donkeys and eight ponies, necessary to carry the hundreds of pounds of equipment, and covered about 2,000 miles of mostly uncharted territory. Many of the over 300 specimens of birds, insects and small mammals acquired were given to the Smithsonian and the British Museum, and they are the only physical objects that remain from the Clark Expedition aside from a few scientific instruments. After he proved his manly mettle in the Clark Expedition, it seemed that Sterling Clark was finished with exploring and instead turned to acquiring art by the Old Masters over scientific specimens.

Drawings by Mark Dion for "Phantoms of the Clark Expedition"

Dion relied on photographs and documents to recreate the provisions and equipment for Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, first interpreting them in his signature red and blue pencil drawings, a few of which are on a cabinet in the Trophy Room. These states of removal from the actual exhibition, from photographs to drawings to objects, result in a more whimsical version of reality, with the wild boar hanging from the ceiling appearing to smile and a fantastically large Luna Moth framed on the wall. Yet when expeditions were bringing back strange animals to be displayed in natural history museums, such things as the Okapi or even the stately size of the elephant must have seemed impossible.

Mark Dion, "Revolver of Hazrat Ali-Clark Expedition" (2012)

While most of Dion’s sculptures are displayed on the main table, others are incorporated more discreetly into the Trophy Room’s permanent exhibits. A recreation of the gun left fatally behind at the Clark Expedition camp by Hazrat Ali, a surveyor with the party who was killed after an entanglment with local bandits, is in a case with real guns and weapons from other expeditions, a reminder of the serious nature of trekking into a foreign wilderness.

A marble bust of Sterling Clark brought down from the Clark Institute also rests among those of explorers on a windowsill. These white objects are not dissimilar from the taxidermy predators that stalk around the Explorers Club, such as a polar bear on the second floor posed in a ferocious facsimile of its life, or the rickety wooden sledge lashed with sinew from the Robert Peary expedition to the North Pole hanging in another room that can only hint at the brutal trials of that expedition. They, like Dion’s installation, are phantoms of history,

Mark Dion, "Jerboa-Clark Expedition" (2012)

Mark Dion’s installations often examine the contrasts between the heroism of exploration and the alien influences of these expeditions on the territory they encounter, and he has previously retraced the steps of other explorers, naturalists and scientists. Dion’s art includes using scientific approaches of collecting and displaying, although with a clearly subjective influence. In 2010, Dion exhibited Travels of William Bartram — Reconsidered at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, where he recreated the Southeast travels of naturalist William Bartram into curiosity cabinets of specimens he collected himself. While that had the old wooden shelves and animal specimens suspended in alcohol contrasting with the Chelsea gallery’s white walls, here at the Explorers Club his aesthetic is perfectly at home. In a gallery the white “phantom” objects would have practically disappeared, a visual that could have been striking in its own way, but here they stand out as voids.

Docents with the Clark Institute are on hand to walk visitors through Dion’s installation and you might be lucky enough to follow that with a tour of the club, which has an impressive ongoing exhibit of art, including paintings by William R. Leigh, Albert Operti and Charles R. Knight. All of the objects and art in the Explorers Club, like Mark Dion’s Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, are much more about representing the explorers themselves than the places they went, their personality and drive to catalogue or capture these exotic locales as fascinating as the African arrows or taxidermy cheetah preserved as trophies of this age of gentlemanly adventure.

Phantoms of the Clark Expedition shows through August 3 at the Explorers Club (46 East 70th Street, Upper East Side Manhattan).

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