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SIENA, Italy — Artists like Mark Dion and Amy Yoes have long understood the importance of science, not as an antithesis of art, but as a partner in figuring out what it is we know and how we know it. “Take the museum,” explained Dion at the November 9 Expedition Symposium in Siena, Italy, “our ‘temple of truth,’ and how much or how little we can believe what we see.” Dion knows firsthand the blind trust we place in the idea of a museum and all that it shows — he’s examined those issues in his own work, including at the Villa Medici, where he exhibited LaVille, Le Jardin, La Memorie in 1999. For the show, Dion explored the depths of the historic villa and discovered caves and catacombs underneath. Yet, he didn’t stick to a traditional notion of “truth” and mixed in photographs of another exploration in Mexico, which included caves with bats and other unexpected adventures. “People saw me come out of the tunnels, so no one questioned it,” he said of his conscious deception.
Organized by the Siena Art Institute, “Expedition” was, according to the promotional materials, a daylong discussion about the “notion of the expedition as a framework for discussing the human impulse to explore the unknown, and the role of creativity in knowledge-seeking.” It comes at a time when the art world continues to expand its scope to incorporate novel approaches to art making, a shift that’s increasingly included the language of science.
The symposium welcomed scientists like Luigi Folco, who’s the principal investigator of the Italian Antarctic Meteorite Search project. Folco presented the scope of his work on recording meteorite fragments on the frozen continent, which, he explained, is one of the best places on earth to track the dark rocks against the blue and white ice sheets all around. Other participants included artists like Michael Höpfner, who wandered across Tibet for over a month in an act that he described as “very much about leaving my life behind and pushing myself into nature … finding a different pace and speed.”
Dion was careful to point out the difference between scientific expeditions and adventurism, two ideas that are often conflated in the media and popular culture. The former, he said, have objectives that are noble, while the latter promotes a false idea of expeditions. Adventurism, Dion, was clear to say, is not science.
During his own presentation, Dion explained that those participating in the symposium were not seeking to be “apologists for expedition.” Expeditions, he acknowledged, are largely colonial endeavors filled with pernicious ideology, but he sees potential in the form. “What we’re trying to imagine is to hijack that for a more progressive strategy,” he said. He went on to use words like “disrupt” and “derail” to explain his approach to the field, and even suggested he wanted to “short-circuit the logic of capitalism” through his artistic expeditions. He explained that the expedition in an art context often seeks to “deflate the idea of the expedition,” which in turn often reveals the patriarchal structures that prop it up. Dion’s work, with its fascination with the natural world around us, is an ally to this new idea emerging idea of the expedition and its booby traps of ideology.
What was less clear during the symposium was how all the presenters related to one another. It seemed like one of Lawrence Weschler’s “Wonder Cabinet” events, with each voice adding another fascinating element but not necessarily connecting the dots. As an audience member, it felt like wandering through a forest of ideas.
Some presentations, like that of Nina Burleigh, author of Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, revealed the fault lines in the topic, discussing the way science, art, and colonialism blended together in one of the greatest expeditions of the 19th century. Burleigh spoke about the folly of Napoleon, who gathered 50,000 soldiers and 150 of France’s top scientists and intellectuals to conquer Egypt. The group was shocked to encountered a country unlike anything they imagined being ruled by a warrior caste under the authority of the Ottomans. Thirty percent of the Napoleonic forces died of the plague during the expedition, but the French leader, always conscious of his image, returned to France and declared it a victory. Burleigh’s talk touched on one of the most provocative topics raised during the symposium: the notion of failure.
“Failure is a motivating force, it’s an obstacle to overcome,” explained classicist Robert Shorrock. “It is the public that turns individual failure into a success,” he later added.
The symposium was part of the larger program of the Siena Art Institute, which is hosting 12 international art students from half a dozen countries for the season. Under the guidance of Dion and Yoes, the students have been visiting the Tuscan city’s museums and exploring the role of art in civic life and what the idea of expedition really means. “Science doesn’t have a monopoly on the expedition,” Dion said during the symposium.
The students themselves shared their enthusiasm for the whole experience with me, and they explained that the program has pushed them outside of their comfort zone as sculptors, photographers, painters, etc. to concentrate on drawing, which is a foundational element of the program. For their final projects, students were challenged to make one panel charts using the language of science that are or will be exhibited along with collaborative work by Dion and Yoes at Siena’s Accademia dei Fisiocritici, a strange jewel box of a museum that features an extensive taxonomy collection, an astronomy room, Etruscan tombs, and life-size human anatomical drawings.
Like Castello di Ama, which I wrote about earlier this week, the Siena Art Institute is an experiment to return the practice of art making to a city that is itself an important part of art history. It’s mind-boggling that the institute, which was founded in 2011, is the city’s only contemporary art school. How could a city with art around every corner and under every stone turn its back for so long on the art of today?
For her contribution to the presentations at the symposium, Amy Yoes briefly discussed the works of Owen Jones, one of the most important design theorists of the 19th century, who traveled to the Moorish palace of Alhambra in present-day Spain to draw and document the ornament. In the process of his research and study, Jones pioneered new standards in the chromolithography printing process. What the story of Jones teaches us is that artists on expeditions in pursuit of knowledge are often forced to push themselves and innovate to accomplish their goals.
Overall, the discussion of expeditions raised more questions than it answered, but it also revealed the contemporary fascination with what many may think of as an old-fashioned concept. And if people also tend to see the expedition as a Western or colonial concept, Dion thinks that understanding is incomplete. Vision quests and walkabouts are two examples of non-Western forms of expedition that produce something science-like in its hunger for knowledge and goals.
But what about the role of art in expeditions and the knowledge the projects generate? “The thought that beauty diminishes as knowledge grows is a romantic notion that I don’t believe in,” Dion says. “It adds to it.”
Editor’s note: This trip was funded in part by the Siena Art Institute.