Mark Dion, Drawings, Journals, Photographs, Souvenirs and Trophies 1990, 2003
Catalogue edited by The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003
INTERVIEW WITH MARK DION, by Bree Edwards
MOBY-DICK begins with Ishmael boarding the Peguod in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the birthplace of Mark Dion, an adventurer of a later age. As Ishmael's diary unfolds, the reader learns of other concurrent journals: Ahab's log, the picture book of tattoos that Queequeg's skin comprises, and the verbal accounts of Moby-Dick sightings yelled across the bows of passing ships. Accompanying Mark Dion on his trips around the globe have been his sketchbooks, scrapbooks and journals. Like the elusive whale in Herman Melville's epic, these books have rarely been seen. I had the opportunity to examine them at The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art on a rainy Thursday this past October. Sifting through the forty or so volumes that he has loaned to The Aldrich for this exhibition, I encountered a complex mixture of drawings, media clippings, quotes, and writing. Several weeks later I met with the artist in New York for this interview.
Bree Edwards: Working the way you do, creating site-specific installations, requires a great deal of travel. In the absence of a studio, your sketchbooks have effectively become portable studios out of which you work and to which you return on a daily basis. How do you observe the world when you are on the move?
Mark Dion: Travel is a major element of my life; half to two-thirds of any year is spent on the road. Being a nomad has shaped my perspective on nature, on the United States, and on our particular historical moment. The cliché has proven true for me that it is only possible to have insight into and make keen observations about your society from outside of it. It gives you an opportunity to examine your culture with a different kind of acumen.
I travel in two distinct ways: the most frequent is work-related for exhibitions, projects, or to lecture. The other kind of travel is that which I do for myself, which gives me pleasure and allows me to reconnect with the things I care the most about. Only during these trips to remote tropical forests, or arctic zones, do I keep travel journals. Since the places I travel to can be overwhelming, the journals allow me to make observations that can be unpacked later. They allow me to plant a conceptual seed, or phrase, that can be harvested later.
B.E. : Many of your of your drawings in these sketchbook are made using a specific type of pencil: a two-tipped pencil in which a red and a blue lead share the same shaft. What is it about this antiquated draftsman's tool that resonates with your drawing process?
M.D. : It goes back to when I really started drawing, which was when I was working in Paris on Extinction, Dinosaurs and Disney: The Desks of Mickey Cuvier (1991). The exhibition was concerned with the comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier and the hysteria that was created in France over Euro-Disneyland, which was seen as a culturally catastrophic event, perhaps an irreversible attack of consumerist American culture on European values. 1 took an arbitrary figure from history, Georges Cuvier, who was enormously influential in the history of the biological sciences, and treated him in the way Disney would deal with a character from history or fiction. Similar to how they raid a story like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and re-write it according to their own system of values. It was an installation of four works and each involved collecting incredibly diverse and rare things, difficult things to find.
When trying to find an ammonite fossil or an hourglass, for example, not being able to speak the language, I used drawing as a way to let the people I was working with know what I was looking for: "I need a chair that looks something like this, and I need this thing which is called an hourglass in English." The drawings communicated a sense of what the final installation was to look like in a language that is very accessible. That is why the drawings are always so extremely generalized. I am looking for particular elements for the installations, but there is a range to that specificity that is flexible.
Then there is the economy of having two pencils in one while you traveling you can travel with only half the number of pencils. The red and blue also gives you a way to distinguish foreground and middle ground. Also, these particular pencils have a very soft lead so you cannot render detail with them. They are not flexible drawing tools, and that really suits what I need to do with them. I do not want the drawings to be finicky, I do not want them to be very masterful in the sense that there be a level of virtuosity that could, in some ways, take over how they generate meaning and how they function practically. The drawings are tools, something between a list and a sketch. They help me compose an installation or sculpture, as well as assist me in translating how a work will actually look to the people (curators, fabricators, assistants, writers) who need to understand the work before completion. For me the essence of what I do as an artist exists between the sketchbook and the finished red and blue drawings. That is where all the formal and conceptual aspects are resolved. After I have completed the drawings any competent person can assemble the work.
B.E. : Your scrapbooks are much more intimate than the notebooks. They're not as much of a tool to communicate with the outside world.
M.D. : The scrapbooks come from needing a reference book for drawings. I have a large collection of nineteenth-century prints and Dover books, which help in terms of drawing references, but those sources do not have all the things I need to draw. I will never be able to find the various dimensions of Tupperware by looking in a Dover book, but a cutout ad from Wal-Mart will help me do that. Or if I am drawing an Ichthyosaur, a prehistoric beast that looks a bit like a dolphin. I can refer to seven or eight pictures of dolphins washed up on the beach.
I also use them to help me create a sensibility. The scrapbooks function very pragmatically for me : they are not tools for me to communicate with other people; they are tools to help me get to the stage where I can communicate.
B.E. : In one scrapbook there is a clipped photo of dumpsite full of multi-colored plastic bottles. This image reappears in the New England Digs catalogue with you standing a stop a very similar pile of plastic bottles, as if you had restaged the clipping. If I were to select a page or two from your scrapbooks for us to talk about, I would select this one. Looking at this page, it seems as if there is an underlying narrative in which, say, "man interferes with nature."
How conscious is the construction of each page?
M.D. : Before I take my magazines out for recycling I go through them and cut out all the images I am interested in. I put these clippings in a general envelope and then more, or less curate that envelope into these pages. Sometimes I might save up material for six months before I get the chance to put it together. There is a crazy taxonomy to it. The scrapbooks also chart developments in my personal perspective and field of discourse. Their composition relies on what I'm obsessing about at a particular moment.
The scrapbooks are very grim; they reflect what I am attracted to. The morbidness of them and the pessimism that is reflected in them is an aspect of my thinking about the things that I make my work about. If you were to arrange the scrapbooks in chronological order they would show this. Sometimes I find them a little bit scary. If my child made scrapbooks like this he would earn himself a trip to the psychologist's office. Perhaps scrapbooks are inherently disturbing; I find Joseph Cornell's scrapbooks very unsettling.
B.E. : Once you mentioned that in high school you worked on the yearbook, which is a type of scrapbook. So, were you scrapbooking before you started keeping an artist's notebook?
M.D. : I made scrapbooks when I was very young by cutting up my mother's National Enquirer, Weekly World News and TV Guide, which were basically the only publications in the house. I would also buy Famous Monsters of Filmland and make humorous, fantastical scrapbooks. Godzilla was my boyhood idol.
B.K. : This sensibility also comes across in your installations.
M.D. : Keeping a scrapbook was an activity that no one really taught me, but it was something I always seemed to do. More than, say, traditional skills like drawing or sculpting.
B.E. : Your notebooks are evidence of the process by which you have taught yourself. It is almost as though you have created your own rulebooks.
M.D. : Yes, I think that's true. They even literally started at school : on the first day of class at the University of Hartford, my professor, Chris Horton, said, «It is important that artists keep a sketchbook.» And, being a dutiful student, from that day on I can honestly say I have kept one. It has been the single most useful thing I learned from art school. These books have become critical to the way I work out ideas. They help me keep alive many of the core ideas that I began working with, ideas that I keep spinning back to even though I take detours. I am always going back to the main root of my interests, which is the problem of the representation of nature and what that could mean today, seen through what that has meant in the past.
B.E. : Your work unfolds over time and one piece often responds to a prior piece. Have there been ideas that you have rescued from the notebooks that at one time seemed unsuccessful?
M.D. That happens constantly. Through the notebooks I establish vocabulary, but there is also a process of forgetting, and through the notebook I am able to go back and refresh that vocabulary and change those definitions and see how the ideas have progressed. You cannot think the same thoughts for fifteen years, you move on. The notebooks help chart how much or little the ideas have moved on, or what directions they have gone in.
B.E. : How does it feel for these books to be made public?
M.D. : I did not plan on ever showing them. I am very shy about many aspects of them; they are personal in many ways. I'm a horrendous speller, for instance. There are a lot of pieces articulated in the notebooks that do not get made and there are good reasons for why they do not get made: they're not very interesting or successful.
At the same time, today I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Drawing and Print Collection and half of the drawings we were looking at came out of sketchbooks. These are drawings that were never intended for exhibition and yet they generate knowledge in a very compelling way. Sometimes it is much more interesting to see unfinished works or unsuccessful works : they give you a window into an artist's methodology in a way that a polished piece does not necessarily do.
B.E. : You have also kept small books fined with lists of birds you have seen. Why did you keep such records?
M.D. : When you first become a bird watcher it's like when you first become a runner; there is a period of excessive enthusiasm. I think the lists reflect this period in some way; however, I am very interested in creating records of time. It is fascinating to me that someone would be making lists of birds that within one generation it won't be possible to make again. You can still see a wood thrush in New York City. Will we be able to say that in twenty-five, fifty, or one hundred years? Perhaps bird watching is the perfect obsession in a crisis period for bio-diversity, for the end of nature.
B.E. : Many artists have used a sketchbook to describe their surroundings. You do not seem to draw from nature in this way.
M.D. : Only in the series of watercolor postcards I make while traveling. I will take common insects and plants, maybe even minerals, and do fie1d sketches and then send them off as postcards. If they arrive, they arrive, and if they don't, that is also an element of it. They develop a patina and take quite a beating in transit. If you are sending a postcard from Borneo it is likely it will be rained on, or the corners will be bent, or it may never arrive, or any of a series of things can happen to it. It might get dropped in the New York City post office and get a footprint on it; it can get stuck in a machine; it can get a postage labe1 added to it. These are similar to the bird lists in that I am quite literally describing what is around me in a very common way.
B.E. : You often use groups or piles of books in your installations. Are you bibliographies in the form of sculptures?
M.D. : It is a bibliography, but the books are always more than just objects. Essentially the books are iconic elements for a body of ideas. With a certain kind of economy you can introduce a notion like Romanticism into a work by including a handful of books, or you can use them to indicate the process of argument and counter-argument. In many pieces, the books that are selected represent a spectrum on an issue.
B.E. : Have you ever made a list of all the books you have used? .
M.D. : Yes I made a list for Simon Morris's project Bibliomania. There are certain books that I use very often. Books like Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (1949), Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, Paul and Anne Erlich's book on extinction, Letters of John James Audubon, 1826 - 1840 (1930). I am a bibliophile : I have calculated that, easily, I buy a book a day. And that is just counting the books that I keep, not those that I use in the installations. I love books for the way they are supposed to function, but I love books as objects as well. I think that there are a handful of books that are like my vocabulary and they are always going to be in these pieces. It is hard to imagine making works that wouldn't include them because they are the baseline from which I work.
B.E. : The computer and the video camera have, for many artists, replaced the pencil and the sketchbook. Is it essential to you that your books and your working process remain low-tech?
M.D. : It is important in terms of the way I can make use of these books. They are tools to help me develop ideas and techniques. One of the things that drive me crazy about digital technology is that so many things can go wrong. The immediate retrievability of a book, that I can have access to it anywhere, is also important to me. A few weeks ago, on the street corner, I unexpectedly ran into the architects I am working on a project with. In less than thirty seconds, right there, I opened my sketchbook and updated them on our project. It is also true that I can work on the books anywhere; I do not need access to anything more than a pencil sharpener and an eraser. I think you cannot improve on something that is that simple.
Bree Edwards is a student at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and lives in New York.