"My parents were as blue collar as they come and they did not visit art museums or read books. I went to university to study art, without knowing what art was. A paleontology illustrator was my imagined future profession", says the renowned American interidisciplinary artist Mark Dion in connection to his first solo exhibiton at Saskia Neuman Gallery while noting an early impact on his later artistic outlook came from seeing the farmland, forest and fields of his childhood playgrounds being bulldozed for strip malls and housing developments.
Mark Dion, Systema Naturae, installation view, Saskia Neuman Gallery, Stockholm, 2023
C-P: The title of your first exhibition with Saskia Neuman Gallery references the landmark work of Carl von Linné; Systema Naturae. Your ties and connections to Sweden date back in time as you were mentioning at the exhibition preview. What’s your rapport with Sweden been like over the years?
M.D: Stockholm was one of the first cities I spent time in as a young American artist traveling in Europe. I came to do an exhibition with a young gallery run by Thomas Nordanstad and Per Skarstedt. The exhibition had to do with two regions of the world that in the past were viewed as dangerous and cruel, but were not being rewritten as fragile and endangered; the Amazon and the Arctic. While in Stockholm, I spent time visiting the Swedish Museum of Natural History, which had not yet been renovated, and the Biological Museum; truly a treasure in the history of natural history. Visiting these museums at this moment in my life really helped to shape my artistic and intellectual interest.
Of course, I have had many interactions with Sweden in between then and now. I was one of the representatives for the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1997, I am friends with some amazing Swedish artists like Henrik Håkansson and Lotte Andersen, I have taught at the art academy in Gothenburg, I have had a large survey of my work in Helsingborg and worked several times with the great Swedish curator Magnus af Peterséns, most recently at the Nobel Prize Museum. I like Sweden and Sweden likes me.
Mark Dion, Ice Bear (ursus maritimus), 2023
C-P: Your work takes an interest in the machinations of the production and reproduction of knowledge and information that is held as standards for how to relate to the world. You’ve allegedly said; ”The job of the artist is to go against the grain of dominant culture, to challenge perception and convention.”. Can you backtrack a moment in time when this dawned on you or some early seeds growing up and in life that led to this focal point in your future art-making?
M.D: I am not sure how far back you want to backtrack but I will dredge deep. I grew up in costal Massachusetts, not the idyllic sand dune dotted beach’s of Cape Cod, the in the gritty, polluted, industrial fishing city of New Bedford and Fairhaven. My parents were as blue collar as they come and they did not visit art museums or read books (my mother never read a book in her entire life). Where we lived was a checkerboard of urban space, farm land, industrial wastelands, beaches, patchy forests, garbage dumps and abandoned orchards. I was greatly effected by seeing the farmland, forests and fields where we played bulldozed for strip malls and housing developments.
Because I had dyslexia, I spend a lot of time with public school tutors, who were amazingly kind and supportive and made the extra effort to introduce me to theater, and books. I fell in love with the mobile library. When I visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum I was amazed such a thing as a museum existed. It was not a church, school, mall, and it was not trying to sell me something. It was a place where one could gain knowledge through an encounter with things.
I went to university to study art, without knowing what art was. A paleontology illustrator was my imagined future profession. Within the first semester I had met Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Jack Goldstein and many others. This shaped my future trajectory as I moved to NYC, but I am still very allied with my working class past. I know what side I am on.
Mark Dion, Systema Naturae, installation view, Sasksia Neuman Gallery, Stockholm, 2023
C-P: There’s a lot of humour in the exhibition; the sort that speaks to me. Drawings that chart a certain genre of information per way of an information charting structure to which it evidently doesn’t belong is fun. I’m thinking of anatomical topography layouts used to, as I perceived it, lay out thinkers and intellectuals who are continuously impacting the ecology of contemporary art by constantly serving as referential figures.
M.D: I am thrilled you found the exhibition humours and pleasurable. It is also quite dark. Humour has been my way of coping with some of the pessimistic and melancholic aspects of being an artist who makes work about nature in the twenty first century. The charts and info graphics function quite the opposite of how this type of information is supposed to. Instead of being clear and easy to decode, these works are train wrecks of different types of information overlaid on each other. These are not fake news, but rather a kind inoculation against fake news.
Mark Dion. Photo: Jorge Colombo
C-P: Some of the thinkers and intellectuals whose names are spotted in the exhibition are Hannah Arrendt, Foucault, Deleuze and Butler. They would to me all appear constant fixtures in ”artspeak”; in exhibition statements written sometimes to, from my own POV, the primary gain of the text authors of such statements. Interestingly what also came to mind at the gallery is how when ArtReview charts its annual power list; some of these names are on it. I mean, when someone is as omnipresent and influential to art and artists as Donna Haraway clearly is; how could they could not be on such a list?
M.D: Honestly, I have actually not heard of the list. What is interesting to me is that those names, are the same ones, my peers and I were reading when I was in school in the 1980s. They have tremendous staying power which can only speak to their on going relevance.
C-P: What can be said about the series of drawings in the exhibition?
M.D: For such a long time the only drawings I made were drawing that would be tools in the preparation of sculptures or installations. A few years ago, just before Covid, I starting making drawing that could be more autonomous, and drawings which are just drawing not plans. I was thinking a lot about the role of comedy and humour. In the US we have several highly successful comedy news programs, which are where an increasing huge number of young people actually get their news from. I love to watch these too, since they are brilliant at exposing the stupidity, hypocrisy and sadistic nature of American politics. I was imagining what is the art equivalent, and I thought about the great satirical comics of Ad Rhienhardt. While his paintings do not really speak to me, his comics are simply amazing take-downs of the art world hypocrisy. Not wanting to copy his strategy, I developed my own.
C-P: Interestingly a fragrance finds its way inside the scope of this exhibition. The fragrance makers were saying how they did approached you right on site at Liljevalchs and introduced themselves when you recently participated in the Nobel Prize Museum exhibition you mentioned (Evigt Liv). How does the story continue from there?
M.D: When Amelie Saltin Thor from No Ordinary Scent approached me at the opening of Evigt Liv, and said they had been inspired by my work to develop a scent, I thought it was the kindest more generous thing anyone had ever done for me. Everyone I told about this was so impressed. I thought how can I do something nice back? Saskia Neuman loved the story of my encounter with Amelie, who just approached me cold with her charming way, and we both agreed it would be lovely to collaborate with such gracious people.
Mark Dion, Paradoxa, 2023
C-P: You’ll be showing with the gallery at CHART. In Copenhagen later this year. What might be expected?
M.D: Well it seems obvious that people respond to these current works on paper. I know that making works like this has only a short life to it. Right now I love the process and it feels fresh and interesting but it will not be that way for too long. I don’t like doing the same thing too many times. So while I still have some chart and graph drawings in me, I think we might exhibit one of two lager ones.
C-P: Lastly, as avid readers in Team C-print, we’re asking for each other; what reads might you currently have resting on your night stand?
M.D: While on this trip I did finish a novel called Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett. I happed to see the author speak at a literary conference at the University of Massachusetes Art School in New Bedford and was impressed. Although I had never heard of her, I bought two of her books. This one is from the perspective of a young eleven year-old precocious girl, who is struggling with the unusual death of her mother. It takes place in the south of the United States. I enjoyed being transported so far from my own experience and place and gaining insight into the consciousness of a young southern girl. This is not at all what I typically read, but I loved it. The book I read just days before that one was John Steinbeck’s, Log of the Sea of Cortez, which was truly remarkable. I don’t know why I did not read it sooner. It is a perfect account of the life of a collecting field biologist, something I often channel in my work.
Mark Dion's exhibition Systema Naturae is showing at Saskia Neuman Gallery through April 29