Oakland: Mark Dion's "Marvelous Museum"

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Taxidermied two-year-old Indian elephant from the Snow Museum of Natural History (one of the founding museums of the Oakland Museum of California)
1936
58″ x 78″ x 20″
Photo: David Maisel, courtesy Oakland Museum of California

A quote from the American author Ambrose Bierce is stenciled high on a wall in the art galleries of the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). It is a harbinger of the museum’s institutional premise. Art. This word has no definition. Art, Bierce tells us, is expansive and open for interpretation. “The Marvelous Museum,” an exhibition of some twenty interventions throughout these galleries by New York-based artist Mark Dion on view through March 6, reflects on this imponderability. Dion’s larger body of work frequently utilizes the strategies of pedagogy and display. Rather than produce physical objects in the studio, his work employs a categorical reconsideration of pre-existing items. “Museums of history are one of the most essential sites for any investigation into how a dominant cultural group constructs and demonstrates its truth about nature,” Dion has said. “My work is not really about nature, but rather it is a consideration of ideas of nature.” Dion’s work has been featured in a wide range of institutions around the world, from the Natural History Museum in London (“Systema Metropolis,” 2007) to this fall’s Emscherkunst exhibition in Ruhr, Germany (“The Amateur Orinthologist Clubhouse,” 2010).

For “The Marvelous Museum,” Dion mined the Oakland Museum’s vast collection in order to stage a series of situations through the calculated installation of various objects. In particular, he has focused on “orphans,” or rather unclaimed or disowned objects in the museum’s holdings that fall outside of the institution’s collecting purview, such as a sled from the Peary Expedition to the North Pole that was borrowed for an exhibition decades ago from the American Museum of Natural History and for which return shipping arrangements were never made by the lender. Each of the selected objects are displayed in the trappings of their storage materials–crates and boxes are the most prominent visual signifier of Dion’s interventions within the visually dense display of the art galleries. Their placement sparks observations about the formal and conceptual qualities that they share with the objects in their vicinity. In addition, the artist has recreated two key institutional environments–the curator’s office and a storeroom–to allow visitors a self-navigable experience of the institution’s inner workings. The office of Rene de Guzman, Senior Curator of Art, has been installed in the galleries to facilitate direct engagement with visitors. With each of these interventions, museum visitors are granted access to objects and spaces that would otherwise be kept out of sight–an unusual gesture that is perfectly in keeping with the objectives of this unusual museum.

The Oakland Museum of California was established in 1969 through the merging of three smaller civic museums: the Snow Museum of Natural History, the Oakland Public Museum, and the Oakland Art Gallery. Its objective was and continues to be a focused consideration of California through its natural environment, cultural landscape and artistic heritage. The resulting collections date back more than one hundred years and number nearly two million items. In August 2009, the museum closed its doors to enact a $62.2M renovation and expansion project to improve visitor amenities and exhibition spaces. The Art and History galleries are completed, while the Natural Sciences gallery is slated for completion in 2012. Following this recent transformation, OMCA reopened in May 2010 with a renewed commitment to its mission to be “a museum for the people.” “What is powerful about Mark’s work,” remarked de Guzman, “is that it lines up with the museum’s outgoing approach to its public. What we really want is for people to have a sense of ownership around their experience and a sense that things are still in motion, so that they have a feeling of agency in the museum. This view into situations that the public would not normally see–like the curator’s office or the museum storage or the packing materials–is our way of saying ‘Come into our house and learn more about us.'”

A far cry from the typical white cubes or architecturally severe spaces of many institutions, OMCA does feel accessible. The museum’s art galleries are wildly eclectic cabinets of curiosities and feature just about every method of creative production imaginable: painting, photography, sculpture, installation, new media, textiles, and ceramics, as well as graphic arts and craftwork such as furniture and jewelry. A green hand icon in didactic wall text indicates interactive exhibits and encourages visitors to physically engage with displays. Quotes from famous artists and writers, like that of Bierce, are stenciled throughout the spaces. Couches and chairs dot the rooms with stacks of relevant reading materials available to browse. Comment books are left open throughout the galleries for visitors to opine about whatever they wish. When de Guzman isn’t working at his desk installed in the galleries–and he does work in situ regularly–he leaves a clipboard out for visitors to leave him notes. “What can museums do better?” asked his recent missive to museum guests. In return, the page was crowded with replies that ranged from playful (“Have cool music playing”) to pointed (“Show African aesthetics”).

In “The Marvelous Museum,” Dion has reversed the conventional roles of the artist and the curator. Here the artist has co-opted the tactics of the curator through the research and selection of items for display, while the curator has been engaged in a performative role as a component of the installation. Dion embraces the fact that art has no definition by blurring the boundaries of these otherwise distinctly separate roles. His choice of objects further builds on the indefinable nature of art through the selection of items which look right at home with contemporary art, but which were largely conceived as purpose-driven objects. An architectural fragment, a large finial made from seafaring rope, from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition has been placed adjacent to the Outsider Art Gallery and in the proximity of woven artworks by Ruth Osawa and Ed Rossbach. The visually compelling form of a six-foot tall, glazed ceramic electrical insulator, dated 1900 – 1975, holds its own amidst the sculptures of Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, Stephen De Staebler and Viola Frey.

Other orphans in the exhibition implicate the ideology or the atmosphere of the milieu. A hard rock mining detonator, circa 1949, from California Cap Company and a busted shovel from the defunct US Mint in San Francisco are presented side by side, in the same line of sight as Sonia Getchoff’s visually explosive abstract expressionist painting Etya (1958). The detonator and the shovel are rather unremarkable taken out of context and there is very limited information about them on the labels. How they ended up in the museum is unclear. Yet the mystery of their provenance in combination with their conceptual implications in the AbEx gallery, a movement that blew up, so to speak, preconceptions around painting and how we define it, are enough to incite wonder in the viewer. These moments of wonder, orchestrated by Dion, are the artwork: when art is unlimited by definition, everything–a long forgotten object, a note on a clipboard–has its place in this marvelous museum.