Mark Dion is a natural fit to collaborate with Graphicstudio because of the highly interdisciplinary nature of his visual art. His practice investigates museumology, scientific history and methodology, taxonomy, environmental studies, even taxidermy. His exploration of museum practice and installation methodology can often blur the line between artwork and museum exhibit. Dion’s work has touched on such timely and critical issues as environmental politics and public policy, the philosophy and ethics of collecting, diversity within museum collections, and the mediated understanding of nature through the lens of dominant ideologies. Dion has completed two projects with Graphicstudio and USFCAM staged a solo exhibition of recent work called Troubleshooting in 2012. Dion has an ambitious new project with Graphicstudio underway, a suite of prints titled World in a Box.
Dion’s first completed project with Graphicstudio was initiated in 2009. Tree Scheme is a two-color lithograph based on Dion’s signature red and blue colored pencil drawings. These drawings are created using an “accountant’s pencil,” which are blue on one side (for additions) and red on the other (for losses). The pencil has become a staple of Dion’s work, at first just for sketching out sculptures and installations, but over time the drawings have evolved into artworks themselves. The accountant’s pencil allows Dion “to differentiate aspects of the drawing, be that foreground and background, details and generalities, even different responsibilities for myself and my assistants.”
Tree Scheme is based on the “figurative system of human knowledge,” or the tree of Diderot and d’Alembert. This classification system was developed to represent the taxonomy of human knowledge itself and appeared in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, an encyclopedia published in France in the last half of the 1700s.
Dion took Diderot and d’Alembert’s “tree of knowledge” literally, creating an actual tree and entitling it “The Representation of Nature” on the trunk. Its leafless branches are marked with words, terms, names, and disciplines which relate to our knowledge and classification of the natural world. Objects which are symbolic of our relationship with nature are on the ground next to the tree: the watering can of “The Museum of Natural History” can nurture the tree, the saw of “capitalism” and axe of “the art world,” can cut it down, and mushrooms represent our “inertia.”
Dion’s next project with Graphicstudio found its inspiration in the fateful events of August 7, 1840 on Indian Key, a 12 acre island just southwest of Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Dr. Henry E. Perrine arrived on Indian Key with his wife, Ann Townsend Perrine, daughters Hester and Sarah and son Henry Jr. on Christmas morning, 1838. Perrine had identified the “officinal and economic” value of tropical plants while United States Consul in Campeche, Mexico, and had made it his life’s work to establish a township of land in Southern Florida to cultivate tropical species. As stated in a Treasury Circular of September 6, 1827, “Dr. H. Perrine appears to be the only American Consul who has unreservedly devoted his head, heart, and hands to the subject of introducing tropical plants in the United States and his voluminous manuscripts alone exhibit a great amount of labor and research which promises to be highly beneficial to our common country.”
Indian Key was to serve as a way-station, a safe place to wait out the Second Seminole War taking place on mainland Florida near the location of Perrine’s future land grant. Perrine made use of the passing time on Indian Key by cultivating plants on nearby islands, studying tidal and meteorological patterns, and spending time with his family. His daughter Hester reminisces about a special time they shared: “father … brought me to a spot where he parted the branches and there was a ‘fairy grotto.’ In the center was a small, sparkling spring perhaps ten or fifteen feet across; the overarching trees interlacing their boughs, while innumerable air plants in full bloom added brilliancy to the scene, the sun scarcely penetrating.”
In the early hours of August 7, 1840, the Perrine family was awoken by the sound of a shot. James Glass, a fellow inhabitant of the island, had discovered Seminole Chief Chekika and his band of 200 warriors while out for a walk on a sleepless night at 2:00 am. Perrine hid his family beneath the house in a crawlspace accessible through a trap door in the bathroom. He slid a chest of prized seeds and specimens over the trap door, then made his way upstairs to attempt to reason with the Seminoles, who had begun ransacking the town. His first attempt worked, his family heard Perrine hollering Spanish out the second floor window, telling them that we was a physician, and then there was silence.
Brad Bertelli, curator and historian at The Florida Keys History and Discovery Foundation, has a theory that the Seminoles got into the island’s supply of liquor. Whatever the explanation, when the Seminoles returned to Perrine’s home after a couple of hours Perrine was unable to persuade them not to enter. His family could hear the sounds of window blinds being broken and windows smashed. The noise continued upwards, until a loud chorus of yells told the sad news of the death of Dr. Perrine up in the cupola. The chest containing all the work he had done on the island for the past two years had protected his family from discovery. But now that the Seminoles had taken everything they wanted from the house, they proceeded to set it on fire.
The surviving Perrines were able to move toward the front of the house, underneath the kitchen in a tropical food storage area known as a turtle crawl. The tide would keep turtles hydrated in the space beneath the house, accessible as needed for meals. The fire above them prevented their escape, and with the memorable quote “I would rather be killed by the Indians than be burned to death!” young Henry was able to squeeze through a gap in the foundation. His mother and sisters listened for the sounds of guns or yelling, to which Henry’s escape was sure to lead. Silence emboldened them to make their own escape, and they were able to part the palmetto posts of the foundation enough to get out of the turtle crawl. They met up with Henry and waded through the water around the blacksmith shop until they found a boat, half loaded with cargo the Seminoles intended to take. The Perrines were able to float out into the channel and were intercepted by a whaleboat from the nearby schooner Medium. They were brought to the Medium where they were reunited with other families from Indian Key. Among them was Jacob Housman, owner of all that had been built on Indian Key. He stood on the deck of the Medium with his arms folded, smoking a cigar, watching Indian Key burn He calmly said “there goes $200,000 dollars.”
Young Henry returned to the island the next day with Perrine’s friend and business partner, Charles Howe. Howe gathered Dr. Perrine’s charred bones, placed them in a box and buried them on Lower Matecumbe Key at the side of a sisal hemp plant which Dr. Perrine had particularly prized.
Perhaps a few algae specimens were able to be salvaged as well.
The story of Dr. Henry Perrine inspired Dion to create Herbarium Perrine (Marine Algae) in 2006 for an exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. An herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens, usually dried. Dion’s Herbarium Perrine contains prepared Florida seaweed samples which were collected and pressed in blotter paper and dried for three weeks. The idea of an herbarium tribute to Perrine evolved into the concept of imagined artifacts from Perrine’s chest of specimens. This notion was the genesis for Herbarium, Dion’s second project with Graphicstudio.
Herbarium was initiated in 2007 and completed in 2010. It is a suite of etchings printed in two runs. To give the paper an aged look, an acrylic wash was hand painted on each sheet of paper, then run with a spitbite aquatint similar to the wash. Algae specimens from Dion’s Herbarium Perrine were scanned to produce transparencies for a photogravure etching to be produced. The algae was printed à la poupée, where each section of the plate was inked by hand and printed in one run. The prints were then hand stamped by Dion and letterpress labels were attached with wheat paste. The suite of seven images is presented in a bleach stained folio, with labels hand stained by Dion using coffee. Each image is 16 ½ x 11 ½ inches and the suite was produced in an edition of 20.
WORLD IN A BOX
A staple of Mark Dion’s work has been his use of Renaissance collections known as wunderkammen, curiosity cabinets containing encyclopedic collections of exotic items. In Tate Thames Dig, his 1999 exhibition for Tate Modern, he staged an archaeological “dig” along the banks of the Thames River in front of the Tate Modern. A group of volunteers were instructed to collect anything and everything that caught their attention. The collected objects were then cleaned, analyzed, sorted by material and displayed in a wunderkammer cabinet.
Dion created a wunderkammer of alligator-related postcards, souvenirs, toys and trinkets for his 2012 Troubleshooting exhibition at USFCAM.
World in a Box is a new project with Graphicstudio, initiated in 2014. This exhaustive suite of 27 charts, graphs, diagrams and lists will be a wunderkammer in a box. It will make use of many different printmaking techniques, including lithography, etching, digital printing, cyanotype, woodcut, letterpress, screenprint and direct gravure.
A few bon a tirer proofs are pictured. Bon a tirer proofs are final proofs which the artist has approved to begin production.
Stay tuned for more information about World in a Box as production continues.