Mark Dion: New England Digs

Before there were museums, there were Wunderkammer, or Wonder Cabinets. The collections they contained were eclectic—valued for exoticism and variety rather than continuity—and contained fragments of material culture juxtaposed with preserved flora and travel souvenirs. Each artifact was both a treasure in and of itself, and a kind of talisman evoking the distinctive culture and history from which it came, as well as the epic adventure of acquiring it.

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Conceptual artist Mark Dion’s 2006 New England Digs triptych is precisely the kind of thing one might find in a Wunderkammer. It is a delicate collection of souvenirs created in memory of an epic undertaking four years prior, which unearthed a bevy of wondrous items and complex local histories through extensive cooperation between the David Winton Bell Gallery, the Fuller Museum of Art, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Gallery, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, RISD, and Brown University. Fittingly, this project culminated in a traveling display of these items encased in an assortment of Wonder Cabinets in a show bearing the same name. Dion has conducted similar digs in a Venetian Canal, along the banks of the Thames River, in the ash-pits around the Queens Museum, and in the former sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

In 2001, Dion broke ground on three archeological digs in Providence, RI; New Bedford, MA; and Brockton MA—but these were not ordinary research expeditions. Dion was only interested in sites that were “insignificant and disturbed,” those of no interest or use to archeologists.[1] In Providence, he chose a garbage heap on the edge of the Seekonk River and a site along Narragansett Bay, in New Bedford he chose a burned-down 19th-century waterfront tavern, and in Brockton he chose a dump on the edge of a cemetery. Employing a team of mostly art students, Dion embarked on an elaborate participatory pantomime of the rituals of natural science. In Providence, Brown and RISD students joined Dion in unearthing, cleaning, and categorizing a plethora of items and in the process, flipped the roles of the gallery and larger institution inside out. Instead of showcasing a pristine and illuminated final product, the gallery space was filled with the messier behind-the-scenes process of artists scrubbing and organizing piles of ambiguous artifacts.

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However, despite his pseudo-scientific “play-acting,” Dion is not interested in undermining the professions of the archeologist, taxonomist, biologist, botanist, zoologist, historian, or curator.[2] Rather, it pays homage to the immensity of their work while critiquing their popular simplifications in unrefined institutional narratives. He reminds us of the inherent subjectivity of collection, organization, and interpretation of artifacts, and playfully deconstructs knowledge processes—like archeological excavation—we might otherwise take for granted. Aesthetic and conceptual decisions like this force participants in and viewers of Dion’s artwork to reassess the difference between elements of material culture we are told to value and those we are told to disregard.

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The material culture unearthed in New England Digs yielded three unique yet related assemblages, pointing to regional legacies of economic vitality—New Bedford was once a major whaling hub, Providence was a booming trade center and producer of jewelry, and Brockton was the shoe capital of the world—as well as their decline. But in Dion’s quintessential style, historically significant finds are democratically mingled with refuse and it all looks stunning. “There is a long history of using trash in modern art,” Dion has stated, “but here objects are allowed to exist as what they are or were, without metaphor, noninterpretive, not even archaeological.”[3]

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The New England Digs souvenir prints similarly memorialize these projects without metaphor or interpretation, soberly listing each city below an image of a ceramic shard found there. These prints are what they are but simultaneously refer to the vast history behind them. These simple compositions become the elegant and tender ambassadors to the overall group of unearthed minutia, the communities they belonged to, and Dion’s larger artistic process of uncovering culture and history in “the layer of material culture that separates us from the earth.”[4]

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Check out Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston for a closer look at the New Bedford Cabinet, and the David Winton Bell Gallery collection for more information.

Rica Maestas
Public Human MA ’18

[1] Markonish, Denise, “Insignificant and Disturbed: 3 Digs,” Mark Dion: New England Digs (Brockton, MA: Fuller Museum of Art, 2001), 26.

[2] Markonish, op. cit., 21.

[3] Wilson Lloyd, Ann, “The Drama of Digging in New England’s Trash,” New York Times, Jan 6, 2002.

[4] Markonish, op. cit., 41.

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