Portrait in objects at Mass MoCA



Some self portraits aren't made with pictures or words. Mark Dion constructed his with objects -- arranged in a room as clues pointing to an absent personality.

The piece, "Mark Dion: The Octagon Room," is on view at Mass MoCA with an opening this weekend.

It features papers, books, photos, shells, specimen jars, souvenirs -- things anyone might collect and keep for personal reasons. They are displayed in an octagon-shaped room that looks like a bunker outside, but is a cozy jumble on the inside.

This office/study/laboratory format, featuring what appear to be collections of excavated artifacts and gathered specimens, is one Dion often uses for his art installations. It allows him to present ideas about culture, history and science as if they were scientific findings, blurring the boundaries between nature and art.

"The Octagon Room" is the first in which he has made himself the subject.

"It is the most deeply personal work he's done," said curator Denise Markonish, who borrowed it for this exhibition. It was first shown at the Tanya Bonak Gallery in New York galley in 2008.

"Octagon Room" covers eight years in Dion's life, the eight years George W. Bush was president. It was a presidency that opened with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, progressed through wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (accounting for the bunker exterior) and ended with the financial recession in 2008.

It features a photographic "Wall of Fame" on newsmakers of the time, memorials to victims of 9/11, drawers of shells -- both from the sea and from bullets -- and dozens of cocktail swizzle sticks organized in drawers by color.

There are taxidermy animal specimens, jars of fish in formaldehyde, magazines, books and innumerable other objects for the viewer to use in piecing together a portrait of the artist -- and of the nation itself at that time

The octagon shape is based on the 19th-century mania for octagon buildings, popularized by American phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler. He believed that the octagon was a more natural and efficient living space than the tradition square. The Barrington Stage Company's headquarters on Union Street in Pittsfield is a notable Berkshire example of an octagon building.

Dion, 52, teaches in the visual arts department of Columbia University and lives in New York and Pennsylvania. He consults with scientists, excavates artifacts and gathers specimens from many sources to incorporate into his work.

"Mark is the most prolific artist I've worked with," Markonish said. "He has consistency [in the vocabulary he uses], but is always willing to branch out."

For Mass MoCA's 2005-06 exhibition "Becoming Animal," for example, Dion created a "Library for the Birds of Massachusetts" featuring a dozen live Zebra finches in a 17-foot-tall cage, furnished with maple branches to perch on, feeders to eat from and books ornithology to read.

Like "Octagon Room," it revealed itself in pieces, giving the viewer fragments to assemble into a narrative about art, nature and life.

To reach Charles Bonenti:
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