Becky Hunter interviews Mark Dion during A Duck for Mr. Darwin at BALTIC
Gateshead Quays South Shore Road
Gateshead, Newcastle, NE8 3BA
April 10 through September 20, 2009
Since completing the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1985, Mark Dion has exhibited consistently and internationally, receiving the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s Lucelia Award in 2008. Emerging as part of the institutional critique generation, his practice covers drawing, installation, research, travel and collecting, often working with numerous collaborators. A recent project, ‘Neukom Vivarium’, created an architectural ‘life support’ system for the eco-system of a fallen Hemlock Tree in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Dion’s installation based on the work of some lesser-known Victorian naturalists, ‘Tropical Collectors (Bates, Spruce and Wallace)’, is part of BALTIC’s current exhibition ‘A Duck for Mr Darwin’.
BH: You’ve said that it’s part of an artist’s role to ‘go against the grain of the dominant culture’. Do you think artists have an ethical responsibility in that regard?
MD: I think artists are generally critical people who often don’t come from places that are well represented in the centre, and who have ideas that aren’t well represented in the mainstream. The role of the artist has been to challenge that mainstream and to push things over, to challenge those values. The kind of work that I like is not decorative and affirmative; it’s critical and takes a position. For me, that’s the most vital art. When I look back over the history of art I’m not really interested in someone like Matisse who thought that art should be like a comfortable armchair. I’m more interested in someone like Goya who was able to have a very ambivalent position in relation to power – both being critical and at the same time having a close relationship to it. I think that’s how art functions in a very productive way.
BH: You’re exhibiting in Italy at the moment. Did you have a particular ethical stance in creating this exhibition, ‘Concerning Hunting’, which is about quite a controversial relationship between humans and nature?
MD: For me, what’s important about that exhibition is to try to inhabit that ambivalent position. What is successful is that hunters come to that show and they see it as an affirmation of their culture, and people who are against hunting come to that show and see it as an exhibition that is critical of hunting. To be able to do that is very tricky, it takes a certain kind of finesse to be able to pull that off and I think I do that pretty well… Even though my position is somewhat ambivalent, my discomfort with an activity that’s based on killing is somehow in the foreground. But at the same time, the animal rights people protested against that exhibition even thought it is, to me, very clearly much more against hunting than for hunting, but they’re not very visually sophisticated... The show started in Austria, then went to Denmark, Italy and then to Germany; in each of these places what hunting means is quite different. That show would be very different if it came here [to the UK] for instance. It’s maybe not an accident that the tour misses the UK, because that issue is much hotter here than in other places.
BH: Exposing each different society’s relationship to hunting is almost another part of the work?
MD: I think that’s really what I’m trying to tease out. How this thing that seems so fundamental is not universal, its really culturally specific, and the attitudes are very culturally specific.
BH: I’d like to ask about the idea of the amateur. When we met, I said I’m not very professional and you [kindly] replied that you weren’t very professional either… The idea of an amateur versus a professional - an amateur does something because they love it. What interests you about this?
MD: I’m very drawn to this position of the dilettante. Now we only use that word in the negative, but originally the Society of Dilettantes was a group of people who were self-proclaimed as interested in everything and I think that’s a really exciting model. The way knowledge has evolved is very much segmented and fragmented into societies of experts, so it’s incredibly difficult for an engineer to speak to a physicist, to speak to a chef to speak to an artist. At one time those things were very close together, so there is a kind of nostalgia in me for that moment when these fields of expertise were not so exclusive; there was a more general search for knowledge that could be shared across disciplinary borders. I think amateurs really led a lot of that. I’m always interested in people that have an anti-capitalist model, like hobbyists and amateurs, they’re not doing it to make money, and anything that is done in our society for reasons other than to make money is really interesting. So hobbyists and amateurs, I’m really drawn to them as characters who are doing it because of their passions, because of their interests, because of their engagement, because of another kind of curiosity.
BH: Do you think if you’d been around at the time of the Society of Dilettantes you would have chosen to make that kind of study rather than be an artist?
MD: I think I would have been both, that’s almost part of the point of the Society of Dilettantes... When people ask me ‘are you a scientist or an artist’, my answer is ‘why choose?’ Is it too much to ask to do both? And even though I know I’m not a scientist, I don’t work with scientific method, there are a lot of things I have in my work that scientists don’t. You can’t really speak about ambivalence, you can’t use irony or humour or any of those things that are essential to art, the strength of the personal, those are the things that scientists try to avoid. They’re looking for something objective and art is never going to be that.
BH: Yesterday you said that scientists probably have a much greater interest and understanding of the arts, whereas artists might not be so aware of science. Could you see ways to encourage more collaboration between artists and scientists?
MD: I’ve been Artist in Residence at the Natural History Museum in London and I’ve had opportunities to work with scientists. I understand what we, as artists, get out of it, but I’m never really sure what they get out of it outside of being interested… I think what we can lend to that discussion is, no matter what we do as artists, the intent there is always to be public, is always to be seen, there is no art without the viewer, the viewer completes the artwork. That’s not necessarily a part of science. That information remains in the hands of very few people. That projection of very complicated ideas… to allow them to exist with all that complexity is something that we can add… we can present things that are somewhat unfinished and uncertain and that’s something that I think that they’re keen on.
BH: What was the first work of art or visual thing you can remember taking your interest as a child or as a teenager?
MD: The first thing I was drawn to...? Museums were always really special places for me. I didn’t really go to museums so much, so when I went with school it really was an awesome experience. I think I still have that kind of awe of museums. The museum where I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was a whaling museum and it was a really interesting museum because it was about the industry of whaling that was no longer going on, and was no longer something that we had such a great feeling about. It was also a collection of paintings including beautiful Hudson River School paintings and it was also a collection of vernacular crafts, the kinds of carving and schrimshaw that the whalers did. It was a natural history museum about whales as biological entities and it was cultural… it was all these kinds of museums in one. And I think that my attitude toward museums must have been formed somehow by that experience, and I remember always being in awe of that as a site.
BH: I was surprised by how excited and enthusiastic you seem to be about the museums that you work with. I had Andrea Fraser teach one of my classes at college - she said that when she first moved to New York she was intimidated by the museums and that was perhaps what sparked her critique of them. I think I always carried this idea of ‘am I allowed to feel excited about museums and yet still be critical of some of the things that they do?’
MD: The artists that work critically about museums are almost divided into two groups. There are people like Andrea, Renée Green, maybe Christian Philip Müller, who really see museums as the site of ideology, that they are so corrupted by power that there is no real way of saving them, there’s no real way of enjoying them, the overwhelming history of inequality and destructive political ideology is too overwhelming. Then there are people like Greg Wilson, David Wilson and myself that do identify with the enlightenment project of the museum and feel like the potential of the museum as a place where one gains knowledge through encountering things is not worth throwing away, there’s still something there, and rather than dynamite the museum, our idea is to make the museum a better place, or more representative, more responsive, more enlightened, more interesting, you know? And so I think that they are very different models… I would say we agree on more than we disagree, but I think there is a kind of fundamental sensibility that is different… Our relationship to museums is not just based on critique, but based on replacing an irresponsible model with a responsible model.
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Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.