Thursday, December 1st, 2005

Mark Dion

The Curiosity Shop
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
521 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10011
19 Nov 2005 – 14 Jan 2006

Toys’R’U.S. (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth)
Skarstedt Fine Art
1018 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021
November 19 – December 21, 2005

Mark Dion The Curiosity Shop 2005 installation views courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
Mark Dion, The Curiosity Shop 2005 installation views courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

The Curiosity Shop” is a small, well constructed house cum store structure with a front porch and windows in the front door (there is no back door), and on the front and side of it. The artist, who made a brief appearance in the gallery with an attractive couple while I was there, was glowing as he told them that the house was constructed by a friend in a backyard in Rhode Island, that it is rainproof, and that it has been bought and will be kept outdoors by the new owner. After lingering for a few moments on the front porch they disappeared into a private backroom. Their muffled laughter resonated throughout the gallery during my visit.

The sign hanging in the front porch has three words on it in descending order: ANTIQUES, CURIOSITIES and COLLECTIBLES. The lighting in the completely sealed off shop is dim and self-consciously atmospheric. The shop is chock full of objects, many of which we can’t make out. The objects are definitely arranged or ordered in loose categories; ceramic animals, flowers, humanoid statuettes and figurines, various types of birds and stuffed animals, books, hats, models or kitschy sculptures of cars/vehicles, different types of lanterns, piles of cigar boxes, rows of tools, stacked cans of paints and varnishes, bottles, stacked and almost completely obscured paintings against the back wall, a pedestal with an assortment of small busts arranged on it, time keeping devices such as clocks and egg timers, and much more.

What are we to make of this busy assortment of stuff? Dion does not try completely to avoid verisimilitude. Anyone familiar with the experience of visiting a rural antique shop will see connections between the real and this natural wood interior. Keys hang near the shop-owners desk like they would in a real shop. There is a desk and chair for the make believe owner to sit at. There is a magnifying light on the desk for the proprietor to examine goods with. The simple interior and exterior design of the shop is meant to suggest a real place. At least this is a model of the real upon which Dion attempts to superimpose metaphysical dimensions.

We learn about the metaphysical dimensions of The Curiosity Shop, those relating to “a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses,” in the accompanying gallery. In it there are a number of competent but uninspired drawings, leftovers from past installations that are meant to satisfy those seeking to own a Dion, and a few Dadaist sculptures. In one drawing titled The Curiosity Shop there is a book shelf divided into two rows, and the sections in each row are labeled in descending order. The left column reads, Vision, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, and Allegory of Vision, and the right column reads, Air, Earth, Water, Fire, The Underworld, and Realms of the Cosmos.

Dion attempts to connect elements of the real, a highly subjective use of classification “systems” (I use the term loosely because intuition is involved. Intuition plays an important part in the composing process and the selection process that brings these objects together.), and a powerful critique of and haunting display of our complete immersion in the unreal. Dion’s installations are simulating devices, in that they are created in order to examine aspects of human behavior which can never be subject to direct experimentation. Subtle traces of the artist’s conceptual framework are present, but they do not completely dispel the imitative representation on display. We are supposed to look at the groupings of things and wonder if they symbolize some concept or idea and why groupings are juxtaposed.

After looking at the drawing I returned to the shop and got up close to the small windows on the side of the structure and tried to find the shelf in the drawing I looked at. More or less in front of me there was a bookshelf that did not look exactly like the one in the drawing with respect to its size and shape and the number of shelves. On each shelf in one of the two rows of shelves there was a plaster cast of a body part: Mouth/Chin, Ear, Fingers or Hand, Eye, Nose. Surrounding the casts, some of them obscured by a swathe of colored fabric, were objects that relate to a specific sense, magnifying devices, textured bric-a-bracs, and things that produce sounds. We are forced to strain our eyes and imagination when peering into the murky depths of the shop and one wonders what the act of looking for that special something in a real junk shop means. The atmospheric lighting resembles after hours lighting in a real junk shop. Are we searching for a lost life of the senses when we purchase things we don’t really need to improve our quality of life? Is consumer fetishism a poor substitute for bodily satisfactions? When we shop for curios or buy works of art do we really seek out a lost past or a banished metaphysical worldview?

Most shoppers who frequent antique shops think there is some ideal moment in the past when objects were purer because they were handmade not mass produced, and the fact that all tactile sensations are thwarted by the sealed off shop and we must rely on our gaze to examine the objects within the shop, we slowly come to realize that language constitutes reality and we can never have true consummation with things without the mediation of words. This installation proves the Heisenbergian concept that “the very act of observing alters the object being observed.” The antique shop acts as a supplement for a lack of full presence (we can’t touch anything in the shop). We search for something amidst the semi-orderly displays of the antique shop, perhaps for a romanticized past, but we are left with supplements of this past. This installation is an autopsy of nostalgia. Dion re-presents the experience shared by buyer and seller, when they have what Carl Freedman describes as “no relation to…things but that of possession.”

Mark Dion When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Toys R U.S.) 1995 mixed media installation Courtesy Skarstedt Fine Art
Mark Dion, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Toys R U.S.) 1995 mixed media installation Courtesy Skarstedt Fine Art

Mark Dion’s second installment in his “Toys ‘R’ U.S.” series, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, on display at Skarstedt Fine Art until December 21, is a blunt and horrifying exploration of our deep attachment to simulations and the way simulations do not replace real things or concepts but are the sole substance of our knowledge of the past and often the present. The collection and display of simulations of dinosaurs or perverted and completely transformed dinosaur-ness in this tableau of a child’s bedroom exudes obsessive energy. There is a desk and chair, a dresser with its drawers open and a television on top of it playing trailers for movies that feature dinosaur special effects (“The Lost World,” “One Million Years, B.C.,” ”The Land Unknown,” “Dinosaurus,” and some installment of the Godzilla saga), a bed, and a night table with a lamp covered with dinosaur decals. Socks, pajamas, underwear, shirts, ties, and shoelaces emblazoned with things we call dinosaurs hang out of the drawers. There are so many dinosaur related products in this installation that I can’t mention all of them, but they can be divided into categories: books, food, dishware and utensils, bathroom items including an antibiotic ointment with a dinosaur on the packaging, clothing, toys, action figures, games, bedding, graphic material such as wallpaper, posters, stamps, decals and stickers, illustrations, and pages from a coloring book. Dion includes a partially filled in page from a child’s coloring book in this installation so that gallerygoers intermittently feel or think they are in an actual bedroom. Of course Dion doesn’t attempt to make the verisimilitude of the installation seamless. The white cube is always present but this obscene amassing of consumer crap would leave less of an impression if everything was behind a glass display. These “dinosaurs” have little to do with real dinosaurs, and Dion emphasizes the fact that our understanding of the world is a product of capitalism. Recognizability trumps knowledge. Therefore, the solace we received throughout our childhood from imaginary forms that signify dinosaurs was preparation for a life of impossible longings and willful ignorance. Signifiers are not what they signify and the signified is always absent.

Dion tells us that a museum’s mission to popularize the sciences is just as insidious as any other deformation of the real perpetrated by Hollywood or Chef Boyardee. Dion once complained about the inaccuracy of many of the brilliant dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. This wasn’t just nitpicking. Science related products such as “Eyewitness Books: Dinosaurs.” or a poster for a new dinosaur exhibit at the Nat. Hist. Museum blend in with the dinosaur fruit snacks, dinosaur keychains, dinosaur calendar, dinosaur underwear and socks, dinosaur pins (“Party ‘til You’re Extinct”), dinosaur gummi candy, dinosaur straws, dinosaur gumball dispenser, dinosaur trading cards, dinosaur baseball caps, dinosaur pillows, dinosaur shaped pasta, et alia.

It is hard not to take Jean Baudrillard’s ideas seriously when standing amidst all of these signifiers. This installation makes us think about the concept of dinosaur. The sparse knowledge most people have about them and the distorted images the word dinosaur conjures up, do not relate to the real but owe their entire existence to consumer processes, the making of useless goods, the generating of desire for these goods, and the marketing of them. The overload accompanying this installation is an integral part of its message. It is easy to imagine installations similar to this one focusing on dogs, or people, or heart shapes, or anything we have completely transformed into banal and ubiquitous symbols. This installation examines cultural processes that distort, repackage and recontextualize the real. The installation shows us a world of consumer friendly signifiers that the individual is immersed in before she/he has a chance to experience the real or at least a coherent pictorial and textual account of the real. How many people really take the time to learn about real dinosaurs and is it even possible to do so?

On a more optimistic note, Dion also points out the malleability of our signifiers or symbols. The general concept of dinosaur is associated with comfort and nourishment (cookies, fudge, bubblegum and bedsheets), playfulness and camaraderie (Barney the purple dinosaur makes a few appearances and plastic and stuffed dinosaurs abound), hygiene and health (adhesive bandages and toothbrushes), fearful amoral monsters (Godzilla and Jurassic Park). Dion shows us how comfortable we have become with this commodity filled hyperreality. These dinosaur signifiers change through time and become more sophisticated formally and on a psychic level. Advances in filmmaking and manufacturing processes allow companies and directors to add detail of form and sophisticated movements to their dinosaurs. They can make them scarier and ickier for adult audiences. For toddlers and preschoolers the dinosaur signifier is scrubbed of all things messy and biological and made soft edged and cute. The unreal, whether it contains viscous and fanged monsters or cuddly and bright colored squeeze toys, has pervaded our lives, our habits and routines, our leisure time and hobbies, our imaginations. We are so accustomed to these distortions that the real has gone missing, and we like it that way.