Mark Dion

Mark Dion speaks about his latest installation

Mark Dion, Curator’s Office, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

New York–based artist Mark Dion has moonlighted as an amateur geologist, ichthyologist, and archaeologist, while working with a wide range of research material. His recent work, Curator’s Office, 2013, is currently set among the many period rooms at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—a departure from the confines of the artist's now famous Wunderkammern. Here books, furniture, and personal effects do not reveal their collector’s taste or knowledge (as traditional curiosity cabinets would have it) but rather spin a fictive tale about a curator gone missing in the 1950s in a period of American anticommunist paranoia. Curator’s Office is on view in the touring exhibition “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness,” which originated at SITE Santa Fe and is now on view at MIA until June 9, 2013. Dion’s current solo show at Tanya Bonakdar in New York is on view until April 13.

BARTON KESTLE, THE “FIRST” MODERN ART CURATOR at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is an East Coast–educated intellectual. He once lived in New York and had lots of artist friends. He’s quite erudite but also egalitarian. He’s known to be retiring and shy but perhaps only is to hide another life he leads where a collection of matchbooks from exotic bars and other strange places in the Minneapolis area begin to tell a different story. He is Walter Benjamin by day and Dean Martin by night.

I became interested in curiosity cabinets in the early 1990s. During the pre-Enlightenment, they were like microcosms of a diminutive projection of the world, which at that time seemed tangible. There were no established rules in the culture of display back then, just competing models for reality since there yet wasn’t a consensus of how to represent it. Prevalent was the Judeo-Christian model of willful ignorance embodied by blind faith. But there were also these quirky hermetic and mystical traditions; their histories show a lot of roads not taken. They had the idea that objects were more than they are—that an object could have metaphysical properties.

Actual curators’ offices from Kestle’s time in the 1950s were a real hodgepodge. A curator may have had a high-end designer lamp on his desk, while the desk itself was from the ’40s and behind him stood a cobbled-together DIY bookshelf made of bricks and boards. Encoded in these details was a period of rampant suspicion and red-baiting, of anti-intellectualizing, and the maltreatment of gays, women, and people of color. The intense romanticizing of that era today comes from popular culture, through television shows such as Mad Men, which is set in 1958, where everything in Don Draper’s office is from 1958. It supports this false notion that one would never have had anything the slightest bit older than what was current in the immediate present.

The Curator’s Office, with its cigarette butts and coffee stains, is like a crime scene, motivating the viewer to uncover the identity left behind by this illusive figure. It is a lived-in space: Among stacks of paintings, one might find a sock on the floor or a crumpled-up newspaper, or the half-finished glass of orange juice from a hasty morning. You can see the watermarks from where Kestle would leave his galoshes. I wanted to create someone who was an intellectual, a liberal, who was perhaps gay, perhaps a communist, or just merely worldly—residing slightly outside of this prepackaged society. In the literal sense, because plastic and cardboard weren’t much in use for packaging at the time, if Kestle were to have bought a typewriter, the ribbon would have come in a tin container. A roll of cellophane would have come in a circular canister made of fortified metal. Everything was built of a much more robust material, which for me has meant that everything had the potential of being a better hiding place, even for truth.