24 January 2019

What does a polar bear on the heater and a crocodile on the ceiling? For a cup of tea in artist Mark Dion’s cabinet of wonders in New York.

By Natalie Wichmann

On a cold October morning, with the first smell of fireplaces in the air, I exit the subway all the way up in Washington Heights to talk to visual artist Mark Dion about his piece shown at SCHIRN’s WILDERNESS exhibition and his work in general. I pass by street vendors selling cheap clothing and fast food, and a small farmers market right next to United Palace, one of those golden era theaters turned spiritual center from the 1930s.

Mark Dion lives in a gorgeous pre-war building, typical for the neighborhood. I ring the bell and he buzzes me in, when I arrive at the apartment he is waiting at the door, smiling friendly. He is wearing a white and blue checkered Oxford shirt and beige Khakis. His gray hair is short, but still curls at the ends.

It is the décor that makes these rooms a special, almost dreamy space

Dion is known for using methods of natural history museum displays, science, and archaeology to examine and question our relationship with nature by building his own versions of cabinets of curiosities. Cabinets of curiosities, also called “Wunderkammer”, emerged in the 16th century and are encyclopedic collections of objects of various categories, such as natural history, geology, archaeology, religion, or art. The first illustration of a cabinet of curiosities was in Ferrante Imperato’s “Dell’Historia Naturale” (Naples, 1599), which was filled from top to bottom with preserved fishes, stuffed mammals, shells, books, mineral specimens, and even a stuffed crocodile in the middle of the vaulted ceiling.

Mark Dion, Portrait, Photo: Natalie Wichmann

The second I set foot into Mark Dion’s apartment I’m mesmerized: it is every New Yorker’s pre-war dream apartment. High ceilings, generous rooms, hardwood floors, and those one of a kind plaster trimmings. But it is the decor that makes it a special, almost dreamy space: I feel like I stepped into Dion’s personal “Wunderkammer”, his very own cabinet of curiosities. There are figurines, antlers, trinkets and keepsakes, small stuffed animals, mirrors, picture frames everywhere, and books, so many books. Otis Redding’s smooth voice sings about wasting time in the background, something you could do here day and night and you would still find something you haven’t seen before.

Ferrante Imperato, Dell'Historia Naturale, 1599

Out of the blue there is a slim gray dog wiggling around me. “That’s Hera,” comes Dion’s voice out of the kitchen, he has moved deeper into the apartment while I was gazing at the multitude of objects around me. After fishing my notebook out of my purse, I follow him through a charming little entrance way into the pale pink kitchen. “Would you like some coffee? I don’t have milk, though. Or maybe a tea?” “Tea would be great, English breakfast if you have it.” The experience of stumbling into one “Wunderkammer” after another continues from room to room, the only thing that changes is the theme. In the kitchen it is antique kitchen supplies, like metal baking pans, cupcake forms, and cookie cutters.

The experience of stumbling into one “Wunderkammer” after another continues 

Dion puts the tea kettle on the stove and leads me over into the dining room, painted in crimson red. In the middle stands a massive, wooden table, used as an office space, a display area, and the place to eat and chat. The windows and doorways are framed with rich patterned chintz fabrics, giving the room a theatrical atmosphere, matching the owners sentiment for the dramatic perfectly.

Photo: Natalie Wichmann
Photo: Natalie Wichmann

Mark Dion was born in 1961 in New Bedford, a small town on the waterfront of Massachusetts. He grew up in a so called blue collar family: “My parents were working class, they were really hardcore. My mother certainly never read a book in her life.” As a kid he was very interested in nature and spent most of his free time roaming the sea shores of New England. His interest in art sparked through art classes in high school.

“I had an art professor who was incredibly relaxed. He would turn on the radio and leave us alone in class. It gave me this indication that art had some degree of personal freedom, accountability, self-motivation, all of those things that I really valued, that I was excited about.” So he applied to art colleges and got into Hartford Art School at University of Hartford. There he fell fast and hard for contemporary art, after being exposed to artists like Dan Graham, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Anger, Ana Mendieta, and others.

It gave me this indication that art had some degree of personal freedom, accountability, self-motivation.

Mark Dion
Seahshore, New England, Photo: Natalie Wichmann

Although he finally found his calling, something didn’t sit quite right with him. “I had this kind of schizophrenic life, where on the weekend I would go camping and fishing with my friends and during the week I’d be with another set of friends talking about Foucault’s concept of power or Derrida.”

It is the culture of nature what Dion is most interested in

He speaks softly, his hands folded comfortably on the table. His phone rings, once or twice, but he ignores it, for now. “It took me a long time to get back to thinking about nature. And it wasn't until I discovered writers like the evolutionary biologist Stephen Gould who kind of combined these contemporary, critical perspectives with a look at the history of the representation of nature. That really brought it together for me and I realized I don't have to apply my energies to things I don't care about. I can actually apply them to the things I love the most. It's very obvious now, but it took me a long time to arrive at that point where I could realize the culture of nature is what I was most interested in.”

Photo: Natalie Wichmann

After bringing nature and art together in his unique approach of using the same kind of methodology natural history museums have been using since the 16th century, Dion started working mainly on-site. That means, he doesn’t produce art in a studio to be exhibited some time, some place, but rather producing art that is connected to a specific space. “I always go on location to the site and try to kind of listen, try to be open, and try to find the thread: what is it about this place that is specifically THIS place. It’s of course the context of the place, its social history, its architectural history, it’s the sort of important figures who have come through that space, and it’s also a little bit the Zeitgeist of the moment, as well.”

The teapot whistles and Dion hurries out to the kitchen to brew my tea. I take the time to examine some of the curious objects around the room. There is a porcelain ice bear sitting on top of the AC that has been looking at me over Dion’s shoulder for a while now. Two artificial corals are displayed under a glass cloche, a candle is burning on a small side table next to a bird sculpture.

I always go on location to the site and try to kind of listen, try to be open, and try to find the thread: what is it about this place that is specifically THIS place.

Mark Dion
Photo: Natalie Wichmann

Postcards are attached to the wood railing around the room, and a tailor’s mannequin is wearing a Russian fur head. The abundance of things somehow don’t make the apartment seem cluttered, but rather give the visitor this special feeling that only a home that was collected, almost curated over a long period of time can offer. Dion comes back with a steaming cup of tea in a thin, vintage china pot with an intricate burnt orange flower pattern on it. When I complement him on his assemblage and want to know, what makes an item interesting for him, he smiles almost coy.

Photo: Natalie Wichmann