Last spring, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center premiered artist-in-resident Mark Dion’s installation “Universal Collection.” The exhibit, a peculiar floor-to-ceiling “cabinet of curiosity,” shows off everything from taxidermy to antique paintings to historical Vassar artifacts.
Dion combines nature, history and art, displaying his exhibits in a way akin to showcases found in natural history museums. The focus of the art is to analyze how the world displays and thinks about historical relics.
“I make work that is an investigation into the culture of nature,” Dion said in an interview with Elizabeth Bennett ’17 for the exhibition catalogue. “Rather than focus on nature itself, my work deals with ideas about nature that form our attitudes and in the end, shape real landscapes.”
While the exhibit is an attention-grabbing showcase, the project’s relationship with the audience goes even further than simply catching the viewer’s eye—it aims to inspire critical thought.
“I want to manifest a situation in which the viewer encounters objects and their relations in a manner that rubs against the grain of their expectations of display and their understanding of the role of the institution,” Dion explained. “I want to push or frustrate their assumptions in order to understand the politics of display.”
In addition to the exhibit, Vassar recently received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation called the Creative Arts Across Disciplines Initiative that allows artists like Dion to integrate themselves into academics as well. The grant is intended to push students to discover connections between art and other disciplines.
With this program, Dion was able to co-teach a class with Professor of Anthropology Anne Pike-Tay last semester. The class, entitled “From the Natural History Museum to Ecotourism,” aimed to challenge students’ views on how we categorize historical artifacts in museums and the ways in which we represent nature. As Dion remarked on the class, “We want to speak about what these institutions promote and conceal, what fantasies they encourage and how they define, for a particular group of people at a particular time, what gets to stand for nature.”
The course was also very interactive—students got to accompany Dion to the Natural History Museum and the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York City. And to top it off, students even helped Dion gather artifacts for his exhibit in the Loeb.
Alongside the Vassar College Artifact Project spearheaded by Rick Jones, Dion and the students explored places all over campus to search for relics, from the Vassar Archives & Special Collections Library to the Geology Museum archives and even the basement of Main Building. In fact, according to Curator of Academic Programs Elizabeth Nogrady, the hunt for Vassar artifacts was by far one of the most enriching aspects of the course: “My favorite part of the process was exploring campus and seeing the dialogue between Mark and the students.”
Since 1997, Dion has worked with many institutions to build historical collections that pertain specifically to each university’s heritage. Some places he has built exhibits for are Brown University, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Tokyo, the Art Academy of Dresden, Johns Hopkins University, Ohio University and many more. “Each project is quite different, as each collection is distinct and reflects the radically disparate educational philosophy of each institution,” Dion said in his interview with Bennett.
“As a women’s college, the makeup of its material cultural history is quite distinct from any of the other schools I have worked with,” Dion remarked about Vassar’s collection. “The bonding of social groups in the early days of the school was steeped in ritual, and with that came richness in artifacts, which we can find today preserved in special collections.”
Due to the specificity of the exhibit, the project took most of the 2016 spring semester to put together and opened in the Loeb in late May. While Jones and students helped recover on-campus artifacts, Dion designed the cabinet and arranged the placement of each item. Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections Ron Patkus stated, “I appreciated the way Mark Dion creatively arranges the artifacts in ways that are thoughtful, elegant and intriguing.”
The exhibit will be open for the public to see until Dec. 11, and on Sept. 29, Dion is scheduled to do an artist gallery talk and book launching on campus. But in the meantime, the art remains on display in the Loeb, allowing the Vassar community to confront its own history head-on.
“It challenges us to think more deeply about the things around us and what they say about us,” Patkus said. The Vassar artifacts, full of tradition, speak volumes about the school’s cultural heritage. Dion remarked, “The objects are so precious and well-designed and made, they feel bound in pride and, of course, also privilege.”
Moreover, this evaluation of heritage has united the Vassar community in small ways. “It was great seeing alumni open the drawers and encounter the art,” says Nogrady, “It is always interesting to see people’s first reactions to or memories about the art.”