Colby’s Environmental Humanities Initiative was delighted to welcome award-winning conceptual artist Mark Dion, the 2019 Mellon Distinguished Fellow in the Environmental Humanities, for a residency from February 26 to March 1. Mark Dion is best known for his installations, which combine art with archaeology and natural history and often convey a strong environmental message. His work has been displayed in institutes of contemporary art, museums, and public spaces across the globe, and he has published several books, such as our favorite Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. While at Colby, Mark visited seven classes, interacted with faculty and students over several lunches and dinners, and gave a public lecture.
The first class Mark visited was Associate Professor of Art Daniel Harkett’s “Intimate Things” seminar. Mark began the class with a presentation on the “cabinet of curiosities,” a collection of intriguing specimens and artifacts first developed in the 16th century, and the model upon which he bases many of his pieces. He described how every object in the collection was imbued with symbolic value, and how the collection was organized not by an external logical system, but by the collector’s own subjective associations and desires. Mark’s contemporary cabinets of curiosities, which he sometimes creates with the aid of students, asking them to gather objects from departments all over their universities (which he describes as microcosms for the universe) follow this same idiosyncratic approach. He intentionally challenges and frustrates the viewer, for instance by organizing one shelf by color and one by size. Mark described his process as similar to that of the archaeologist, and recounted the joy he feels at being the first person to touch an object in two centuries, and his bemusement at how an object can transform from trash to treasure just by his selection of it.
After Mark’s presentation, the class visited Miller Library’s Special Collections, where an array of wonders were laid out for us to peruse. There were photographs of Colby students in the 19th century, including a picture of Colby’s first female student (who, incidentally, placed first in her class). There was a “travelling library” containing dozens of tiny books. However, the most popular object by far, both with Mark and with the students, was the scrapbook of a young Colby student from the late 1800s. This well-worn volume contained mementos such as invitation to parties at fraternities, dance cards, candy wrappers, and photos. When examining the scrapbook, the whole class felt like they were part of the same archaeological and yet personal process which Mark had described, exploring the past through sensory examination of the flotsam and jetsam it left in its wake. Mark later said that examining the scrapbook was one of the most significant things he did at Colby, and that through the power of objects he had felt linked across time and space to the book’s creator.
Later that day, Mark attended the class “American Spirituality and the Environment” offered by Ryan Harper (Faculty Fellow in Religious Studies). Mark then joined a group of faculty and Museum curators, for a dinner hosted by the Lunder Institute.
The next day, Mark gave a lecture for the “Environment and Society” course, co-taught by Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Justin Becknell, and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Environmental Humanities Chris Walker. Mark discussed how growing up in the old whaling city of New Bedford, where fishermen and scientists are constantly at war, shaped his identity as an environmental artist. He focused on the importance of process, bemoaning the fact that all the apparatus that goes into creation vanishes once the product is complete. He discussed how some of his more performative pieces allow the audience to see the process by which art is made, and by which naturalists attempt to classify the natural world.
Mark described his work as existing between two bookends. It begins with that initial moment of enthusiasm felt by Europeans when discovering that the world was far more diverse than they had ever imagined, and ends with the current sense of mourning for all that lost biodiversity, eliminated by development, hunting, pollution, and climate change. In between these two bookends are two more big Cs—colonialism and capitalism. Certain works, such as his cabinets of curiosities, focus on the former state of excitement, while other works, such as his “Melancholy Marine Biologist,” focus on the sorrow currently felt by lovers of nature in general, and by scientists in particular.
Mark sees his role as being the emotional mouthpiece of his scientist friends, who are sorrowful over the state of the environment, and yet have no outlet within the hard boundaries of science to express that sense of tragedy. He confessed his own pessimism about the future of the environment, and described scientists as “fiddling while Rome burns.” However, he knows that art focusing only on melancholy isn’t likely to be engaging, and so he leavens that heaviness with humor. As Mark puts it, “humor is the sugar that makes the medicine go down.”
Many of his pieces have a hidden, surprising wit to them which can only be discovered through careful examination or interaction. One of Mark’s funniest pieces is “The Mobile Seagull Appreciation Unit.” Mark was tasked with creating a sculpture for the English seaside town of Folkestone and quickly learned that seagulls there have a deeply contentious relationship with the local populace. The seagulls had become so aggressive that they were stealing food right out of people’s hands. One seagull had even learned to use the electric door at the local Tesco, and visited whenever she pleased to steal bags of potato chips. So, Mark created a giant statue of a seagull, with a space inside in which his “evangelical seagull enthusiasts” could sit and try to convince local passerby how great seagulls were. The seagull was mounted on a trailer, so that it could be towed all over Folkestone. Mark even created an accompanying field guide, which strove to teach the reader how to speak seagull. He told us that he was surprised to learn how many positive stories Folkestonians had about interactions with seagulls as well, such as knowing them as individuals and raising them from chicks. “The Mobile Seagull Appreciation Unit” is only one example of how Mark tries to make urban wildlife visible, and remind people that unpopular creatures such as rats and pigeons are part of nature as well.
That afternoon, Mark attended Faculty Fellow in Art Amanda Lilleston’s “Printmaking IV” course, for which he had been generous enough to loan one of his print designs, “The Hunter’s Remorse.” Students were thrilled to make prints of Mark’s artwork alongside him, and to share their own artwork with him, receiving valuable feedback. Mark pledged that every student working on the project would receive a signed copy of the print, and they were overjoyed. The students had lots of questions about Mark’s career and process as an artist, and he told them how he’d gotten his start, initially going to school to become a dinosaur illustrator, then spending nearly a decade supporting himself with a 9 to 5 job while creating art on his own dime, until he’d finally established his reputation and people began coming to him. One of his superpowers, according to Mark, is eking out a living with nothing until things got better. He described how he’d felt “schizophrenic” as a youth, in that his interests were divided between art and theory on one hand, and outdoor adventuring and natural science on the other. Like so many others here at Colby, it was Mark’s discovery that he could unite his twin passions that led him to the environmental humanities.
Wednesday was a long day for Mark. After hours of printmaking, Mark attended a reception and dinner in his honor, which was attended by 78 faculty, staff, and students. Then came Mark’s big public lecture, which was attended by 220 people, and was a resounding success. The power of Mark’s wry sense of humor was on display as he peppered his thought-provoking presentation with joke after joke, sending the audience into gales of laughter. Many who hadn’t known about Mark’s art before the lecture went away with a very favorable impression of it, and a desire to see more.
Thursday morning dawned with a seminar-style discussion in Associate Professor of Philosophy Keith Peterson’s “Environmental Ethics” class. In response to one student’s question about why Mark’s work often contained trash, and yet depicted the natural world, Mark replied that he tries not to make paragons, but rather mirrors, reflecting the real state of the Anthropocene, in which the line between human and nature has blurred. He pondered the beginnings and possible ends of the modern sense of loss towards the environment, discussed his belief that the artist should resist nostalgia, and the crucial question of how to train environmental empathy—if such a thing is even possible. Mark argued that if we could unhinge the distinction between wilderness and nature we’d have a much healthier relationship with the natural world, returning to his previous point that animals which aren’t part of the “charismatic megafauna” category are just as natural and important. Mark explained how this message underlies not only his seagull sculpture, but also another installation in New York City called the “Madison Square Park Bird Observation Unit.” When asked about the role of animals in his work, Mark replied that each of his installations casts animals in a different light. Some show animals as anthropomorphic projections, some as symbols or totems, some as scientific specimens, and some as individuals with unique personalities.
Next, Mark had lunch with Chris Walker’s “Life in Times of Extinction” class, in which many of the students are members of the EH Student Advisory Board (seen below posing with Mark). The class discussed the difference between the comprehension of extinction on a geological timescale as compared to a human timescale, and Mark pointed out that ethical considerations define the differences between them. He described himself, in his role as an artist who depicts the natural world, as part of a lineage that goes back to paintings of animals on cave walls. Later came more printmaking, and a dinner with the Environmental Humanities Faculty Seminar.
Our final day with Mark was bittersweet. Mark attended Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Daniel Abraham’s “International Environmental Policy” course, and lectured about Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and inventor of binomial nomenclature. He described an installation he did on the Swedish botanist, in which he tried to imagine a classification system outside of Linnaeus. He discussed the complex and often fraught relationship between science and society, explaining that for science to be of use to society, it has to go outside its bubble. But there’s a tendency in translation to simplify, sensationalize, and claim certainty, which of course can never be done in science, and which retroactively devalues the scientific work. Mark explains that he is like a science journalist in this sense, except that he openly admits to being an unreliable narrator, one who takes rational methodologies and creates irrational things with them.
There was one last lunch with Lindsey Cotter-Hayes of the Oak Institute for Human Rights, three members of the EH Student Advisory Board, and two environmental studies students. Mark’s final class was “American Art Since 1900” with Faculty Fellow in Art Juliet Sperling, in which he returned to his initial model of the cabinet of curiosities, and explained the part which surrealism plays in his art, through subconscious associations and decontextualized objects.
We said our goodbyes, and Mark left us with signed copies of his book, as well as a special copy of one of his field guides, which he asked to be donated to Special Collections.
When students discussed Mark’s visit, they came up with some interesting feedback. One student, who hadn’t known about Mark before seeing his lecture and hadn’t initially understood his art, said that as soon as he had begun to speak, and she had gotten his sense of humor, it had all made sense to her, and she became intrigued with exploring it. Another student said that he had never seen art like Mark’s before, and that he liked how unconventional it was. He said that he thought of Mark less as a traditional artist and more as a unique hybrid of archaeologist and museum curator.
Fortunately, this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Mark Dion! While he might not be returning to campus anytime soon, he will continue to have an impact on our community. Some of his artwork will be on display in the Colby College Museum of Art this summer and fall in a show organized by his friend, artist and curator Phong Bui, and focused on environmental issues and climate change. We look forward to seeing Mark’s contributions to this exhibition, and hope that you will join us to admire all this exceptional artist has to offer.
To see what happened during Mark’s visit for yourself, check out this video!