Mark Dion, Alexander Wilson-Studio, 1999, wooden structure, mixed media, 8 x 12 x 9ft. (installation view detail)
|Ask the Artists: Mark Dion|
|Question 1: Did you paint the owls on the papers that are scattered on the desk and floor of the cabin?|
I painted all of the owl watercolors, which are stacked and scattered
around the cabin/work shed. This started out being quite pleasurable but
after making the fourth painting of the exact same screech owl, I felt
like an automaton. The painting is an exacting copy of one of Alexander
Wilsonís first drawings of birds.
Wilson had very little skill as a draftsman when he started to think about his idea for producing the first work on American birds. In 1803, while working as a school teacher, he started to learn how to draw. Like most artists, the key to good draftsmanship, he found to be practice. He would repeatedly draw the stuffed bird skins from his classroom. It was difficult, but that is of course how most people, who can draw, learn. He wrote of that moment, "I declare the face of an owl, the back of a lark, have put me to a nonplus." This moment of reflection of the hard work ahead and discipline it will require, is the exact moment I am trying to capture in my tableau. All artists can relate, I think.
|Question 2: Do you consider yourself an artist and scientist, like Alexander Wilson?|
|I consider myself a visual artist with a keen interest in the science of life. My work is mostly about exploring questions around the representation of nature, which means, that rather than being about nature, it is concerned with ideas about nature. By this I mean that my work tries to investigate what nature means for a particular group of people, in a particular place at a distinct point in history. Our ideas about the natural world shift over time; for example the notion that we should protect nature is quite a recent development in the history of human thought. I am trying to construct a conceptual chart of what are some of the critical points in the development of our idea of nature today. Wilson is an important mark on that map.|
|Question 3: Why do you select decorative arts for inclusion in your installation? Many people donít realize that they are part of the installation and they go unnoticedÖ.|
Carnegie Museum of Art has a remarkable collection of European decorative
arts, curated by a dynamic and very gifted staff. Most people visiting the
museum see only a small selection of the collection. I am very excited by
the decorative arts. To study the history of the decorative arts, one must
follow developments in science and technology, political economy and
aesthetics and iconography.
I worked with the decorative artist curators to put together the display cases in the exhibition space. This was one of the most pleasurable aspects of the exhibition for me. With each project I do, I try to be a little selfish and do something which teaches me, informs me, and something I donít have deep knowledge of.
At the same time, I desired to try to refocus the eye of viewers onto birds. All the objects I displayed used birds as a decorative motif. Once the viewer becomes sensitive to the use of birds as a recurrent thematic element in visual art, they will begin to see birds everywhere in the museumóthere are birds in the architecture, in paintings and sculpture, throughout the library, and in the natural history department. Often these birds are invisible until you become sensitive to them.
It is true that not everyone realizes the installation includes the display cases as well. That is quite okay because there are many levels of viewerís interest. Iím keen on giving something complex to the most serious visitors who will take the time and energy to engage the artwork on a number of different levels. It takes a lot of work to really see an installation in all of its complexity.
|Question 4: Was your interest in Alexander Wilson influenced in any way by the fact that you have both lived in the state of Pennsylvania?|
it is true that both Wilson and I are people who selected Pennsylvania as
our homes, it is not the major reason I became interested in him. It is
clear however that we both have been attracted to Pennsylvania because it
is so rich in nature and in birds in particular. I love the fields and
forests of this adopted state.
What first interested me in Wilson was that he has a figure standing with one foot on the pillar of science and the other on the pillar of art. AT least that is how it seems in our time. However, not very far back into history, the walls that separate the disciplines like art and science were not as fortified. Often the enlightenment public practiced many tasks we now separate professions: farmer, architect, statesman, draftsman, brewer, author, doctor, lawyer, cleric, showman, biologist.
Obviously, the focus of Wilsonís passion is birds. This we share and is how I discovered his rich life history. There are quite a few American birds named after him! I was also drawn to the fact that Wilson is a bit obscure having been over shadowed by John James Audubon, another remarkable ornithologist and painter.
In both Audubon and Wilson, I find many of the ingredients which eventually make American art so exciting and extraordinary.
|Mark Dion's CI:99/00 Page|