The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue
Art In Conversation

MARK DION with Yasi Alipour

“the fact that critical art and science share the same enemies—prejudice, fundamentalism, ignorance, intolerance—means that we are on the same team, even if we use totally different languages.”

Portrait of Mark Dion, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Mark Dion, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
On View
Storm King
May 4 – November 11, 2019
New Windsor, NY

Mark Dion is an artist with a many layered practice. Rooted in deeply personal interests, it begins in the back rooms of museums and collections, grows through historic research and scientific collaboration, and comes to being with mesmerizing drawings and obsessive taxonomy. The result culminates in unique sculptures, installations, and publications that dare the viewers to become both inspectors and co-conspirators. Holding on to irony as his weapon of choice, the 2019 Guggenheim Fellow repeatedly explores two personal themes: pop culture and nature. In their combination, Dion finds a space to unearth the expansive ways in which ideology overshadows our perception of even the history of science. 

Following a series of significant survey exhibitions, it is on the occasion of Storm King‬’s Follies that we meet at the Brooklyn Rail. For me, it was an eagerly awaited reunion with an old mentor. (All that this artist/educator has offered his students over the years is impossible to put in words—and it is perhaps to remain only for those who had the fortune of experiencing it.) The combination of this relationship and the current survey exhibition gave us a chance to have a unique conversation, both casual and urgent, spanning topics from the Leftist New York of the ’80s to the importance of irony. Ultimately, we land on the potentiality of art in an era desperately in need of change and yet completely paralyzed.‬

Yasi Alipour (Brooklyn Rail): Before jumping into the work, I want to take a moment and focus on our current political situation: the thread of global warming and the significant demands for urgent political action. There is a quote by Fredric Jameson that you have been mentioning recently “It is easier to imagine the end to the world than it is the end to Capitalism.” How do you understand the new interest in the discourse of Environmentalism and how it effects the reading of your work? Sometimes it feels like your work is being reduced to elements that can be read as “activism.” Have the reductive readings been a concern for you? How do you understand the relationship of your work with the current crisis?

Mark Dion, Storm King Environmental Field Station, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.
Mark Dion, Storm King Environmental Field Station, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.

Dion: The art world's concern for environmental issues waxes and wanes, which one can only appreciate if you have been around for quite some time. My friends like Blane De St. Croix and Alexis Rockman will no doubt back me up on this. Our work comes in and out of focus, in and out of fashion over decades. How little the main stream art world cares about ecological issues always mystifies me. Honestly, when was the last time a major art museum organize an exhibition on art and nature, art and landscape, art and ecology, even while the ecosystem around us collapses? The things that artists like myself and my peers have been talking about for a long time, are actually coming to pass now. And so, it is kind of a strange moment, but I don't see a tremendous rush from the dominant art community to concern itself with these issues.

There are now a truly significant number of artists, with really diverse methodologies and goals working on issues of the culture of nature. Some are activists, others work on practical solutions in science, technology, and engineering. Still some others try to motivate empathy for other living things through reprinting the natural world. Some artists work more in the realm of the history of ideas. We need all these approaches to produce a progressive culture of nature.

I certainly don't see my work as activism, but I do think it is allied to activism.

Rail: Since you have been working with this subject for so long, do you see a change today when it comes to our relationship with future? I’m curious in how this current urgency is affecting our relationship with politics.

Dion: Well, I think there’s just an understanding that perhaps we’re not going to be able to make the hard choices to change things. Pessimism and melancholy rule the day particularly here in the USA. There is a profound lack of will to make significant change and a vacuum of trusted leadership. Capitalism is not big on allowing the development of a culture of sacrifice. It becomes difficult to imagine that positive change can and has been accomplished in the social arena, but there have been some pretty dramatic victories in civil rights, LGBT rights, women's rights. Needless to say, things are far from where they should be still. Have we made progress in environmental issues? Yeah. We made progress in the ’70s, and ’80s and now it seems like we’re just slipping back pretty dramatically. So, I think that we live with a notion that things are getting better—and in many aspects, they are. But that’s not necessarily the case if we think about environmental issues, just because the degree of catastrophic change is remarkable. It’s really horrific at this point. For some ecological issues things can get better, it’s absolutely proven. For example, the Endangered Species Act made a difference and brought things back from the brink of extinction or when people set up marine reserves, it actually works. Nature has this incredible resilience, and if we give it a break it actually can recover, but that just is not the way things are moving right now. So much damage has been done in regards to climate change, we are at the point where we know we cannot reverse global warming, only mitigate the effects and halt the pace of change.

Rail: Another key element in conversations around your work is its relationship to the history of Colonialism. I want us to expand on that by looking at one of your early pieces, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Toys R’ Us) (1994). The installation is of a child’s room bombarded with images of dinosaurs, from the bed sheet, toys, and books to the wallpaper, the rug, and even dinosaur-shaped pasta, I think. I was in a lucky position since I have heard you talk about this piece during a walkthrough of your recent retrospective at ICA Boston. I recall a discussion around growing up in the midst of the Cold War and how everything, even dinosaurs, where designed to echo ideology and a certain kind of American-ness. Thinking about this piece and the recent history of the United States, I wanted to hear your thoughts on the relationship of your practice and colonialism.

Dion: Yeah, there’s a way that colonialism creeps into popular culture for children. Essentially constructing a certain vision of masculinity for young people, the pith helmeted explorer from movies from the ’60’s and ’50s and cartoons like Jonny Quest, where every week it’s a new country, and a new problem for white technocrats to solve—that the local people can’t. Dr. Quest and his mysterious bodyguard and Jonny Quest and his best friend Hadji, and their dog Bandit. [Laughter]

I’m interested in how that vision of colonialism also colonized me and my consciousness and my way of seeing the world. And of course, through experience, exposure, knowledge, and wisdom, you eventually come to an understanding of how your imagination has been constructed in a pernicious way. That produces a kind of anger and disappointment. It takes a long time to get to that point. For me reading Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) in high school was the start of the process of understanding the function of ideology in history. So, a lot of my work is rooted in the construction of colonial narratives, and how they pollute science and history. It’s of course very different from the perspective of the colonial subject. Here it’s about recognizing that colonialism colonizes everyone in a way that misogyny hurts misogynists. They may not be the primary victim obviously, but nevertheless, they’re robbed of a whole, complex, rich worldview, being essentially ideologically poisoned.

Mark Dion, Storm King Environmental Field Station, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.
Mark Dion, Storm King Environmental Field Station, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.

Rail: That’s so true. Yet there is some historic and even geographic flattening that often happens when we use the word “colonialism” in the context of art. But in your work, it’s not a universal or a-historic experience. It seems to be very much located in the United States, the ideologies of the cold war, and the country’s Imperialism. This is random but I am always very intrigued by the really vague facts that one suddenly finds while researching on an artist. Someone somewhere mentioned that in the ’80s you started a Marxist reading group. Is it true? What does that even mean? What were you reading?

Dion: Well yeah. The ’80s was a really different time. New York was not the city we’re in right now. The discourse of critical theory was central to art education in the 1980s in a profound way. My fellow art students at SVA—Marina Zurkow, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Gregg Bordowitz, Andrea Fraser, Tom Burr and lots of others—were really serious about trying to get a handle on a theoretical discourse and adding that to our artistic tool box. We had amazing tutors, all these brilliant art historians who did not yet have their Ph.Ds, so they had to slum it teaching at SVA: Hal Foster, Douglas Crimp, Benjamin Buchloh, Jonathan Crary, Rosalyn Deutsche, and Sanford Kwinter. They were joined by artist like Jack Goldstein, Tom Lawson, Barbra Kruger, May Stevens, Joseph Kosuth. We would also attend things like the Marxist school—which would organize panels with Martha Rosler and Tom Lawson, and interesting artists and critics—and the annual Socialists Scholars Conference.

I had a reading group with Craig Owens, Jason Simon, and Gregg Bordowitz reading Das Kapital. It was the summer of 1986, I think. I had gone to the Whitney ISP program, which was very oriented to a Marxist, Feminist, psychoanalytic perspective. And so, we were already engaged in these ideas, but without necessarily having read the primary texts and at a certain point you have to go back. Theory was a really strong driving force amongst artists in the 80’s, but one of the things that is different from art historians or people coming from a sociologist or a philosophical point of view, is that artists are just diving in. We don’t really start reading these materials the way that people who study philosophy start, starting with Socrates and Plato, and then working your way up.

Rail: Like, do your Hegel, and then you can get to Marx.

Dion: Yeah, doing your Kierkegaard and Descartes and Kant in between. [Laughter] That’s just not how we come to it. You just jump in the middle. Artists are looking for something different in their reading of theory as well. They’re looking for tools. We were always— or at least I was—a bit conscious of this. I think Gregg was as well. I think Jason had a better, well-rounded education. And Andrea was very much a sort of auto-didact and dove very deeply on her own and truly mastered the material she was engaged with.

I come from a real blue-collar background. My mother worked the textiles mills in Massachusetts from the day of her 16th birthday. For me encountering Marxism, reading Capital and the Frankfurt school, and attending the Whitney ISP, gave me a framework for understanding who I am and where I come from.

Rail: Is it around this time that you traveled to Latin America?

Dion: Yep.

Rail: I don’t know if this your words or someone else's but I read it somewhere, someone calling you a “tourist of revolutions”

Dion: Oh, that’s probably my words, yeah.

Rail: Where were you, what’ve you done? [Laughter]

Dion: Again, I’m not exactly sure if this was organized through the Marxist School, it might have been, but you know there were a few left-wing tourist organizations. So, after the Whitney program, I did a tour where we spent 10 days in revolutionary Mexico: studying the revolutionary murals—Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, going to the house of Trotsky and Frida Kahlo, meeting with workers who had taken over the means of production—they had literally taken companies back and ran them by workers, and meeting with the different political parties. There were a large number of different communist and socialist parties who all hated each other, even more than they hated the PRI. So, we would go to meet with the Maoist organization one time, the Trotskyist organization another, a Leninist one the next, and sort of compare notes. And of course, mostly they would just diss each other rather than talk about anything else. [Laughter]. And then we went to Nicaragua. It was sort of the Quaker tradition of bearing witness. I wasn’t really in a coffee picking brigade. That’s not really my style. It was just traveling with other intellectuals who had questions. Because essentially a lot of these people were working here for the Anti-Intervention movement, and when you’re working for something like that…

Rail: Wait, what was the Anti-Intervention movement exactly?

Dion: The Anti-Intervention movement was a large movement of people against the United States intervention in Central America, particularly the Contra War. There were different organizations. Gregg and I worked with a sister project based in the Lower East Side. We didn’t have a leadership role in that, but we were volunteers. When you dedicate yourself to something like that, there is a responsibility to make sure you’re doing the right thing, working with the right people. At the time, going there and seeing it for yourself, seemed to be the way to do that.

Rail: I think that’s what I meant about the use of the term colonialism around your work and how it sometimes simplifies its political ground; the United States in the ’80s and the Cold War. Your early works do seem really related to the US intervention.

Mark Dion, Hunting Blind (The Dandy Rococo), 2008/2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.
Mark Dion, Hunting Blind (The Dandy Rococo), 2008/2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.

Dion: Absolutely, yeah and pretty much all thing Ronald Reagan and the New Right.

I do not want to frame myself as some major activist. That was not and is not the case. I did work with different groups, attended demonstrations and was even occasionally arrested. But I was never an activist in a conventional sense. In the 1980's while I was reading Foucault, Roland Barthes, Deleuze, and the Frankfurt School, I was also reading people like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. The artist I was looking at were Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, the Paper Tiger Television Collective, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Jean-Luc Godard, artists engaged in a complex political discourse. That, in a nutshell is my early artist foundation.

Rail: One of your iconic early works On Tropical Nature (1991) happened as you were traveling in Venezuela. In this project you spent three weeks in the rainforest, sending collections of your observations back to the museum, where they had to then decide how to process and represent the findings. Was going to Venezuela in a sense related to the early trips?

Dion: It was an exhibition organized by Miwon Kwon and through colleagues who were from Venezuela and had been in the Whitney program. So Miwon put a group of us together and we all made proposals. For me, this was so amazing. I had already been to tropical forests and had a strong affinity to rainforests as an ardent fan of biodiversity. As a birder, you can’t help but be drawn to the greatest terrestrial expression of biodiversity in the world, the tropical rainforest.

Rail: Is that difference that visceral?

Dion: Oh, absolutely. When you experience the tropical forest: it’s the humidity, the constant sound of insects, the sun filtering through, such a wide variety of trees capturing different color spectrums of light, it’s a very palatable place. So, this was a great opportunity to go in an extremely remote and challenging place. It would be very easy to go to Caracas and make a work wagging my finger at the colonial Naturalists from the 19th century. If I did something about Alexander von Humboldt—who interestingly is of course a huge hero in Venezuela, not really perceived as a colonial villain—there’s no risk, no indictment of myself, our times, or of the institution. I wanted something where I was also on the line and was able to also interrogate the colonial narratives which have constructed my own identity.

For me, it was a seminal project. I’m interested in making work that is problematic, that is difficult to untangle, that while taking a position and being about real things in the world, remain more complex than simple didacticism. I think it is harder make work this way today than it was then, because the attitude towards irony is very different today. It’s sort of unimaginable to me that someone would read works like mine in a very straight way. I think there are a couple of reasons why the times are so different: we’re not part of the Punk aesthetic of the later ’70s and ’80s. The bread and butter of that aesthetic approach was irony. It was about saying something and meaning the opposite and knowing your audience would get it. I also think it is perhaps partially a generational shift as well. My generation came up with a rigorous critique of representation. So, it wasn’t about making the world better, it’s about describing why the world is fucked up. I think that for the new generation. that’s not enough. You have to participate. It’s going back more to the ’60s idea “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Rail: True. It is so interesting to think about irony and then your physical presence in Central America in that moment. Despite your individual political view and activism, you would symbolically represent exactly what you were critical of, the American intervening in Central America. This kind of contradiction is also something you play with in your early work in Europe. In The Taxonomy of Non-Endangered Species (1990–1991), the protagonist of the installation fluctuates between Georges Cuvier and Micky Mouse. And this show came to being nearly right after the official end of the Cold war.

Dion: Well, yes and it was on the verge of the opening of Paris Disneyland, right. French people take culture very seriously, and this was being seen as a cultural apocalypse, that this was going to be a disaster that maybe France wouldn’t recover from. There was a lot of hysteria around this.

Rail: I guess Paris Disneyland could be seen as the ultimate gesture of the Americanization of Europe and the takeover of Consumerist Capitalism.

Dion: Yes. I wanted to do a project that in some way introduced some of the mechanisms of Disney, which is that you raid the past. You take a character from the past—fictional or real—and you reinvest it with today’s values and concerns. So, I picked George Cuvier, this absolutely fascinating Enlightenment anatomist and natural historian, who has an extremely complicated life, and makes great contribution to the science of biology, but also does some rather horrible things.

You can boil down his very long and prestigious career to four different contributions. One was based on his establishment of the fact of extinction. (So, he’s one of the first people who just says “look there are animals that lived in the past that don’t live anymore.” For us it’s part of our everyday thinking but at the time it was not necessarily possible, because the idea that something would go extinct points to a kind of theological flaw. Why would God let something go? In working with the history of the European tradition of natural history—just like when you’re studying philosophy—you just have to put central to your thinking, whatever the argument is, “is it made by monotheists who believe, without question, in the primacy of the Bible and the existence of God?”) Another one is the fixity of species, so he believed that organisms did not evolve. By that time, with the work of people like Lamarck, it was pretty clear that things changed, the question was what’s the mechanism. But Cuvier did not believe that things changed, partially because again he’s bound by his theological perspective first and foremost. And another one was the taxonomy of species. Cuvier was a brilliant taxonomist; he really perfected the methodology of comparative anatomy. He takes Linnaeus’s system, which is somewhat sloppy and disciplines it through the tool of comparative anatomy. And the last one is his contribution to lengthening the time of Earth, believing that 5,000 years (or whatever it is the bible gives us) is not enough time to explain all this phenomenon.

Rail: All these contradictions within this one man, so bound by science and theology. Religion becomes another invisible way that ideology weighs on our understanding, not at all different from the global imposition of American values. And then there you are making work in France surrounded by all these debates around culture and preservation. Your relationship with Europe becomes really interesting. Because that is what makes you an outsider—being an American and representing this culture that is being feared and resented—and the history that you share with them—that of colonialism and European ideology and power.

Dion: I still have investment in that notion of science but at the same time science has to be policed for ideology. We have to look at science with a critical perspective that comes from critical studies to be able to tease these out where social values, economy, and pseudosciences are taking over. Talking about science is such a difficult thing because like nature, like art, it means so many disparate things.

I think also that there’s the importance of being able to implicate yourself. In terms of my approach coming to some of these issues of science, the history of ideas, the history of things, when I enter Europe, I’m always dragging my ridiculous popular culture references. When I make a work about Frankenstein in Germany, I’m not thinking of Mary Shelley, I’m thinking of Hammer horror films that are made in Britain in the ’50s and ’60s, that I was subject to as a kid—or that I relished. So, I’m bringing a framework of reference that is pop culture. It’s being filtered through my constructed fantasies of dramatic culture through movies and television. So, there is always the core of the ridiculous that erodes the authority of the critique. It becomes less preachy and it embeds it in a kind of humor which also helps negotiate some of the difficult topics for viewers. In this work, there’s also the practical struggle of bringing people up to speed on what the topics are. You can’t do an exhibition of Cuvier if no one knows who Cuvier is. So, I often have to come up with solutions. In that case there are four monologues that are conducted in English and French.

Rail: Those monologues are quite amazing.

Dion: So the burden of having to inform the Viewer becomes an opportunity in those works. Later in my life, I would develop the convention of the Field Guides to have this function to inform the viewer; to better contextualize the work, but also provide a stand-alone textual work.

Rail: It is so interesting to think about your work’s relationship to narrative and we will return to that. But before that, I have been very interested in how you work with collaboration, education, and community building. I mean obviously because I myself have been your student under Columbia MFA’s Mentorship structure. [Laughs] But also, because it seems to take a central space to your practice, at least since The Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group (1993). I read something in one of your interviews that blew my mind. You were discussing how a lot of educational institutions have changed and they no longer encourage spaces for people to hang out, drink, and simply chat—which had been a significant part of your education. And as a teacher, you often focus on group projects and field trips. Basically, getting everyone into a van and hitting the road. But you then specifically said that there are “life-time friendships that are made in the back of the van.” I was floored! I sincerely had a moment, “Mark knows?”

Dion: Well it is the whole point.

Rail: Because I have sat in the back of those vans. And recently in multiple occasions, I have found myself chatting with people who now simply form my community of artists and suddenly we are laughing at how we all met in the back of your van. I never thought you knew though.

Mark Dion, The Dark Museum, 2011/2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo by Jeffrey Jenkins.
Mark Dion, The Dark Museum, 2011/2019. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo by Jeffrey Jenkins.

Dion: My mission in my teaching position at Columbia has two aspects: first, I want to put interesting people and institutions in front of my students to show them how accessible the world can be and what an asset that is to their creative practice. Secondly, I want to introduce them to the culture of being an artist; to create this positive situation of hanging out where one can’t really do anything else. The van ride is way more important than the destination in the end. After four or five hours in the van, there has to be a good pay off to cover my tracks, so people don’t figure out that what I’m actually doing is creating very clever ways to make them hang out.

Rail: But beyond my personal amazement, I think what is significant there is the communities that are then built around these opportunities for really intricate conversations. This makes me think of your collaborations and ongoing dialogues with scientists. You often mention that as an artist you are equipped with tools like humor and irony that are not that of science.

Dion: Not to say that scientists are humorless because nothing can be further from the case.

Rail: I’m sure. But with the care and complexity that your work examines science, I wonder if you are providing us with the kind of humor that the scientists can have with each other, but that they can’t publish.

Dion: The rules of what gets to be science are strict. If you transgress the border, it is not science.

Rail: Or maybe it feels like the conversation they can have about the absurdity of of their structures while getting a drink after work. It’s really moving to think about the similarity of these two spaces, the young artists huddled together and the scientists chatting after work. We have grown used to thinking about these spaces as inherently different. Your work makes me wonder, what happens if allow them to overlap?

Dion: I mean it’s a question. Can we even be on the same team? We are on the same team I think, scientists and artists. I’m speaking extremely generally now again because I went to school with many scientists who were just engineers who worked for the defense industry in Connecticut and they’re definitely not on the same team. For me the fact that critical art and science share the same enemies—prejudice, fundamentalism, ignorance, intolerance—means that we are on the same team, even if we use totally different languages.

Rail: Right. I guess, there are artists that are also “definitely not on the same team.” But thinking about these deeper conversations—where there can be irony and where the institution’s true absurdity can unearth—do you think they require your sincere interest, commitment to do the labor, and your physical presence?

Dion: From the outside institutions seem unified and powerful, but behind the wall, one finds a battleground of ideas. They are not at all unified, but they are a patchwork of positions and conflicting goals. I think if you’re actually working with an institution, if you’re doing what I’m doing, which is producing an intervention, you have to get to know the team at the museum and you have to gain trust. You have to just be sincerely interested which you can’t fake because it’s hours, it’s days of spending time with people and learning about what they do and seeing their spaces and seeing their objects. If you’re not into it, it’s probably pretty obvious. But through that you begin to share the same concerns, there is some degree of identification. You can’t just be cavalier, you have to be invested and eventually you gain trust, hopefully. And yeah, I think that is incredibly important and you do understand it pretty quickly that you are on the same team, you share a lot more of the same values even if your methodologies and interests are very different. Scientists, a lot of them, are extremely guarded and careful about not expressing a political agenda within their work, their fact finding, even though deep inside they’re perhaps motivated by concerns.

Rail: They’re human beings.

Dion: They have hopes.

Rail: This makes me think about your interest in the bureaucratic and even the administrative. In a lot of your work, there is one part where you become the heroic explorer and another where you commit yourself to these impossibly bureaucratic and almost obsessive tasks. There’s almost a tension there.

Dion: The explorer of the wilderness is far less brave then those who confront the logjam of bureaucracy. For me one of the most influential books was Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881). It’s about these two men who are copyists. They’re essentially living Xerox machines, they work for a law firm and they copy contracts. And then one of them comes into a fortune through a death in the family and they decide to go to the country and become country gentlemen together and they buy an estate. And then they attempt to master all of the obsessions of the 19th century: they do it in a dilettante, uninformed way which is remarkably comic. That was a really big influence, in terms of how some of these early projects like NY Bureau of Tropical Conservation (1992) evolved where I am essentially shadowing the methodology of a number of different practices, of conservation restoration or fish taxonomy or fruit and vegetable pickling, and doing all these things inadequately. So, it’s not about taking on the mantel of expertise but instead giving it your best shot and maybe failing, maybe not succeeding. Sometimes that’s really hard to untangle when you view the work. Because if you know very little about these fields, it does feel like science. I mean people continually ask me, “Why didn’t you just become a scientist?” “Is this work science?” No scientists would ever ask me if my work was science because it’s very clearly not. But people from the humanities might be scientifically ignorant enough that they might mistake the sign of science for science itself. You can get away doing very little to have work read as science. Science is the authority in our society and it’s very easy to claim that position without actually ever having it. I am always wary of artists who claim the mantel of science. I’m never claiming the authority of science, I hope. In my work, there is a built-in spectacle failure in a way that is very clear.

Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood, Conservatory for Confectionery Curiosities, 2008/2019. Courtesy the artists and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.
Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood, Conservatory for Confectionery Curiosities, 2008/2019. Courtesy the artists and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.

Rail: There’s some deep absurdity that I love about how much of an expert you’ve become just by performing it. We assume you have this knowledge as you change between your different uniforms and coats.

Dion: I do have some knowledge but it’s certainly not a knowledge comparable to the professionals. One can't be an ornithologist one day, ichthyologists the next and then a curator, botanist, archaeologist, and architect. I have a lot of respect for archaeology but I’m not an archaeologist. What I do is more like an Indiana Jones vision of archaeology than what actual archaeologists do today. But nevertheless, since there are so few archaeologists in the public view, a lot of people think that archaeology is what Indiana Jones does. So, I always have a very playful and cautious relationship to the actual field I am shadowing.

Rail: And then here too we find your deep interest in the weight of pop culture.

Dion: Well I think that’s a big part of the construction of identity if you were looking at ideology. That’s one of the reasons I work a lot with toys and kids’ stuff. That’s where the influence of social agendas is the easiest to perceive.

Rail: To shift our focus a bit, in your work at Storm King, the exhibition surveys your “Follies,” which you have been working on since the mid ’90s. I must say as a foreigner, I’m so fascinated by the word. Folly as both the “foolishness” and folly as the ornamental building without purpose.

Dion: It’s not really a common term in the States. In Britain people would know more what a folly was. It’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their head around it because they’ve never heard the word used that way or seen an example of a building like that.

Rail: But to go back to our earlier discussion, I think in the Follies your relationship with narrative becomes much more complicated. Here the viewer has much more agency and responsibility. And looking at these structures, I couldn’t help but think of Mildred’s Lane, a space for alternative education that started around that time and which you co-direct to this date with Morgan Puett. As someone who has been a resident of that space, the “Follies” reminded me of the very particular sheds at Mildred’s Lane and the experience of living in them.

Dion: My interest in follies doubtlessly evolved for my discussions with Morgan who always had a deep fascination and love for vernacular structures. She was devoted to shacks, sheds and shanties. The dialogues that I had with Morgan for the Mildred’s Lane’s architecture were really about lived spaces that are practical, useful, and inspired by actual functional buildings. Whereas with the folly, the function is to generate meaning. The reference is not to practical function. It’s to a sort of discursive function. That’s what makes them interesting to me. However, the folly tradition is the exact opposite of vernacular structures, in that it is firmly an aristocratic phenomenon. That these are built as, [whispers] some people call them pleasure palaces. [Laughter] Undoubtedly a lot of them are probably erotic zones. But they’re also meant to entertain, they’re caves where they would have people who would act as the god Pan. A lot of them have Constable references and its part of England and France’s neoclassical fantasy to recreate these spaces. This all seemed to me to be too good to waste on the rich. I wanted to wrestle the notion of the folly from the aristocracy and put it to creative use, while also freeing the vernacular structure from the burden of exclusively practical labor.

Rail: That’s amazing. People have discussed the relationship of your work with theatricality and your installations with mise-en-scéne—and of course their opposition to the Minimalists—

Dion: I see this work as a kind of all-out war on the hatred of theatricality articulated in Minimalism.

Rail: The theatrical really becomes central here and yet this seems to be where you begin to completely leave the narrative to the viewers. It’s almost like a stage where I as the viewer, am in charge of coming up with the whole story.

Dion: I always say the viewer is the detective at the crime scene. You have to piece together what’s going on. Many of these works are in the public realm. I care about a degree of accessibility in the work. I am not interested in alienating viewers who are not fluent in art. The theatricality and narrative aspects of these works make them approachable for a broad public audience.

Rail: Do you think that’s gradually changed in your work?

Dion: Well you know I think that theatricality exists in the early installations too. Those pieces were always theatrical, but you could see the curtain. These pieces are more self-contained in a way and almost reach a level of believability where I’m not showing my hand as much. In a sense, I am only present because they’re still framed as my work and they have labels and things like that. These are conventions I would rather do without but it’s very difficult to convince an institution you don’t really need labels and titles.

Rail: In Storm King you can go through a lot of it and not see the labels.

Dion: Storm King is already circumscribed as an art experience. In other places, I love the idea that you come across these works and you mistake them for things they are pretending to be, or at least you lose the foregrounding notion that “I’m looking at art”.

Mark Dion, Lemonade Stand, 1996. Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.
Mark Dion, Lemonade Stand, 1996. Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne. Photo: Jeffrey Jenkins.

Rail: To shift gears a bit, before we talked extensively about how you dig into context, history, and pop-culture and how you have always played with your relationship with the history of the space that houses your work, be it Venezuela, France, or simply MoMA. But in the past decade, our relationship with context has really changed. How do you think your practice and teaching has changed now that the viewers and the rooms are not just simply more diverse but far more complicated when it comes to the people’s relationship to identity, history, culture, and context?

Dion: That question is absolutely fascinating. I think one of the great benefits of having a classroom where people are from all over the world because we can’t make assumptions about the canon of art. Marcel Duchamp may be important, but well, maybe not in Iranian perspective. Maybe he is irrelevant. Maybe this narrative of the European avant-garde, which has been the only narrative that has been taught here for so long, is less central than everyone imagined. Those perspectives are incredibly important and interesting. They do make teaching in a conventional sense harder because not everyone is on the same page but maybe everyone shouldn’t be on the same page. And so, there is much more opportunity to co-learn. I find that to be a sort of refreshing addition and to be really productive thing. It’s true that the discussion is fragmented but that’s not necessarily a problem, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Rail: As we get closer to the end, I wanted to look at one of your most recent works. It is one of the “Follies” you have at Storm King, The Field Station of the Melancholy Marine Biologists (2017–2018). We talked extensively about irony in your work and there is often a push and pull when it comes to hope and despair. But this one, It’s just …

Dion: It’s pretty grim.

Rail: It’s pretty grim.

Dion: But it’s kind of funny to imagine this poor person.

Rail: Definitely.

Dion: Well it’s not so funny, they’re…

Rail: No, there’s humor, just very dark humor. But it’s also very melancholic.

Dion: There’s humor in the detail.

Rail: But to kind of finish where we started— thinking about the “end of the world” versus the “end of capitalism”—I think I noticed that in some of the new interviews you tend to mention that our relationship with “the natural world has become nothing less than suicidal.” Do you feel like our relationship with the future is changing?

Dion: I do think that there is something to Freud’s death drive and Thanatos, this kind of mechanism of the organism working towards its own end. Freud sees it as the greatest impediment to civilization. It is remarkably present in culture. We don't read books or watch films about utopias, we devour dystopian stories. No one is interested in Dante’s Paradiso.

Rail: No one even thinks about it.

Dion: But Inferno continues to capture the imagination. I think it is really more attractive and easier to think of our desolation than to think of our progression and the hard work it requires. The things that science fiction seems to build its foundation on is the worst aspects of capitalism: the aggression, competition, and the giving up of individual perspectives through corporations. All these sorts of aspects seem to be the building blocks of science fiction but I can’t really think, what are the building blocks of science fiction in a sort of positive way? I also think, in some sense, the dystopia created by the Soviet style socialism—and its total disappointment, disaster, and devolution into a sort of a murderous system—is maybe part of it. That’s an echo that still haunts us. And still in many ways, colonizes any project of future based on equality and civil society.

Rail: I tend to think of our time as the second generation of failed revolutions. (I guess that it becomes very literal when you think of my context, Iran, but also it holds some truth in general.)

Dion: It is hard not to be pessimistic. At the same time, I think you do have to step back and look at the bigger picture. I do think that at least in terms of human relationships, the trend is undeniably more power for the people. I think that this kind of Trumpian moment—not just here but in Brazil and Australia and other places—is the last gasp of a ruling class that’s clutching onto power. This is their counter-revolution. And people don’t give up power easily. Power isn’t given up, it’s taken. And progressive forces will take power. I think that’s inevitable. There’s just more of us than them.

Rail: I don’t know if they can transcribe knocking on wood but I’m going to knock on wood.


Yasi Alipour

YASI ALIPOUR (Columbia University, MFA 2018) is an Iranian artist/writer/folder who currently lives in Brooklyn and wonders about paper, politics, and performance. She is a teacher at Columbia University and SVA and is currently a resident at the Sharpe Walentas Studio program. For further information, please visit


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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