eco eco interview with artist Mark Dion(MD)
Key words: Sustainability, environmentalism, consumerism, installations.
Article reading time: approx. 10-15min
"We need another metric for progress beyond GDP, economy can not be the only determinate for success."
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Philip: Looking at your projects it seems you make architects, especially interior designers look like they are doing a bad job - is there something to this? You often mention that you don't see your work as archeology nor as science but as art. Is there something problematic with these definitions? What is it that differentiates you from naturalists or interior designers?
MD: There are a number of things which make my work distinct from the disciplines of archaeology, biology, interior design and architecture. Each of those fields have very distinct parameters and functions. In the case of scientific fields the rules are rather strict with regards to what is acceptable. If a scientific process departs from the rules, it is simply not science. In the cases of architecture and interior design there is always the demands of the client, and the functional mandate. Both architecture and interior design can transcend the boundaries of function and the client's demands and become something more akin to art. Art making parameters are a bit more fuzzy, a bit more on the undisciplined side, which is something that I am attracted to.
I make meaning, but that does not necessitate that I speak with clarity or without contradiction. My work also has a very diverse range of expression from drawing and printmaking, to large scale public projects, architectural follies, sculpture and museum interventions. To be honest, although for me my work sits entirely with the realm of art and no other, I don't really care what others might like to call my practice. As with viewing most artworks, the label is the least interesting aspect of the encounter.
Philip: You had an interview with “The Art Newspaper” published February 2018. There was a part we really liked so I’ll just read that out:
“Unlike a number of artists who work with nature, I never make work directly about nature. I’m more interested in ideas about nature, and trying to understand how we got on this crazy path that seems to be taking us over a cliff-edge in our relationship to the natural world. If we want to understand how we’ve evolved this suicidal relationship, we have to follow our tracks back through history and understand where things started to derail.”
We would like to expand on this point, and ask what you have found, given your investigations and analysis of the past. In your eyes, what are the main problems that cause tension between us and the world.
MD: The history of our disastrous relationship to the natural world is bound entirely to the the history of ideas. Not all the ideas are of equal weight, some are particularly pernicious. I would include capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy and the inability to see the interconnectedness of things, as particularly catastrophic notions that have landed us in a precarious place where we seem to be engineering the extinction so many of the earth's life forms, including ourselves.
Further: Why are we so complicit, is this due to how we have structured our interaction with nature or a flaw within our governmental systems not taking enough top-down actions?
MD: I think we have fostered cultures of extraction, domination and destruction. Perhaps Freud was correct when he spoke about Thanatos, the drive for self destruction, which he viewed as the greatest impediment to civilization. Societies seems to be overwhelmingly organized around models of aggression, competition and inequality. Values like compassion, nurturing, cooperation are often regard as weakness rather then positive virtues. At the economic base of this death drive culture is the generation of wealth through the exaction and transformation of natural resources, conducted in an entirely unsustainable way.
Philip: In your keynote speech 2015 at the Spencer Museum of Art you mentioned:
“My perspective evolved, but not in a very positive way, my early work was very activist orientated, and much more optimistic in a way, and I really thought that this was the artistic wing of the wild life conservation branch, because I thought the Biodiversity crisis was an information crisis, and I don’t think that was true, I was just wrong, it’s really a crisis of will. I went from thinking that the work would be part of building a culture that could do something, and now I just dont think there is a culture that can do something, and I don't actually don’t think we are going to work it out. I now see my work more as an exercise in mourning. In regard to my work that's around wildlife and nature issues.”
Going forward to the 2018 interview in the Art Newspaper you mention:
“We are now in such a dramatically hostile relationship to the environment that I feel there has to be a return to a more directly environmentally oriented project, which I have been trying to do. But at the same time, I am extremely dismayed by the lack of organized alternatives. To promote progressive culture, you need input from all sorts of different types; so you need activists, but you also need artists who help to foster this affection for the natural world by painting pretty pictures. I’m like an artist version of a historian of science. I’m trying to understand the underpinnings of how we got here, but my tools are materials. I’m a sculptor and installation artist, but I share some of the same goals.”
With regards to comments about mourning, all the way to more direct environmentally related projects what is your thought process, with a more recent work like “life of a dead tree” is this a work that embodies your new approach?
MD: I am not sure my approach is that new in a sense. "Life of a Dead Tree", is related very much to an older work, "The Great Munich Bug Hunt" from 1994 in which I took a dead tree from the forest outside of the city and brought it to the Kunstraum gallery space, where I worked with an entomologist to dissect the tree and uncover all the life the dead tree was harboring. The project was a critical look at the overly hygienic forestry policies which remove dead wood from the forest floor rather then understanding it as vital habitat for a large range of organisms, particularly invertebrates. It is the way forest extraction policy fosters tree farms over actual forests.
The twist with the new project in Toronto was that the tree itself was killed by an insect- the highly invasive introduced Emerald Ash Borer. This insect is devastating Ash Trees across North American since its accidental introduction. In places like Toronto tens of thousands of trees are being taken down and chipped, but not with much public discussion. So this project which turned the gallery into a laboratory where the tree was examined by an entomologist who collected all the organisms found on, in and around the tree. Some of these we also photographed and presented in the gallery.
In some ways this work was a throw back to projects which had an environmental educational component but also embodied aspects of the sense of mourning and loss more at the foreground of recent works.
Philip: In an interview with “The Art Newspaper” published February 2019 you mentioned:
“My practice is quite an ecological practice. I almost never buy something new. I buy things that have been around, in some cases, for centuries, and re-contextualise them,” “I’m very interested in that accumulated patina of use that an object has. I would never buy a new hammer when I know I can go to any of my four-dozen thrift stores and buy a $3 used hammer that has been in someone’s hands for decades and decades.”
How did you form this mentality? How do you think we can crack these negative aspects of consumerism?
MD: The consumption of useless, cheep, plastic goods is entirely essential for the continuation of the mega-capitalist society we thrive in today. The indoctrination into the culture of throw away desire begins remarkably early as any parent knows. Children are particularly targets establishing early consumption habits, desires and expectations. Rarely is there a public conversation about the long term consequences of unbridled consumption, like the cost to the environment or long term psychological impact the captains of consciousness have on young consumers.
How do we break the hold of consumer mania? I have not a clue. Certainly we must foster a culture which values more then accumulation and endless material growth. We need another metric for progress beyond GDP, economy can not be the only determinate for success.
Philip: Lastly I would like to finish drawing on Mildred’s lane, could you briefly explain your involvement and the purpose behind this project. Does it overlap with sustainability.
MD: Mildred's Lane is an artist think tank and residency program. It is located on a 100 acre property in rural Pennsylvania, which I purchased more then 20 years ago with other artists. It is an interesting model of a residency very unlike those where artists get deluxe studios and are pampered to develop their own practice. The model at Mildred's Lane is one of collaboration, so the fellows leave their own work at the entrance and experiment in working together on a focused topic under the guidance of master artists. The residency does not merely focus on visual artist but also caters to landscape architects, naturalists, art historians, sociologists, and those involved in critical studies.
The setting is beautiful since the place is quite isolated and set in deep forest. There is also a strong bond to the small town of Narrowsburg NY where Mildred's Lane maintains a gallery for special projects.
I am one of the founding directors but the project is largely run by J. Morgan Puett, who also lives on site. Morgan is the main director and not only conceptualizes the programming but also deals with the day to day realities of running the Institution. It is hard work. The residency is her vision and it functions remarkably well despite being economically challenged.
The project largely arose from our dissatisfaction with the conventionality manifest in art school education. Art schools seemed increasing less willing to be challenging spaces for experimentation and no longer introduced students to the culture of being an artist. We thought there was a need for a less conventional educational approach something a bit more open and discursive which also emphasized materializing research. So the sessions are not merely talk, they often result in the making of something- an exhibition, publication, small building, pond, meal, etc.