O T c h Ro tag e o o m n
M D ar io k n
From coded designs placed in masonic temples and scared geometry in cathedrals, to the very existence of ritualistic sites such as Stonehenge, architecture is not always what it first seems. This is also true in the installations of Mark Dion, who uses symbolic architecture to tell stories, or fables. Dion taps into our sense of wonder, exploring the boundaries between art, history, and science, often borrowing methods of museum display and applying a new form of archival order to the past in order to reveal new ways of looking at the present. In many of his installations, Dion takes on the guise of archeologist, etymologist, botanist, explorer, or collector in order to point out how the organizing structures and ideas surrounding such fields enter into the art world.
In 2008 Mark Dion created The Octagon Room, an architectural folly cum art installation, which also serves as a detailed and personal survey of nearly a decade of the artist’s life and career. Dion was first drawn to the octagon because the shape is one of the fundamental building blocks in nature, found in things like snowflakes and crystalline structures. The octagon also factored into architectural ideas of the late 19th century, at the hands of phrenologist and octagon house proponent Orson Squire Fowler. Fowler, like Dion, was interested in the relationship of the octagon to nature and in his 1853 book The Octagon House: A Home For All wrote: “Nature’s forms are mostly SPHERICAL. She makes ten thousand curvilinear to one square figure. Then why not apply her forms to houses?” 1 Additional proponents of octagonal architecture as advertised by Fowler included: the use of new materials
for building (Portland cement), the fact that it is easier and cheaper to build, along with the fact that the shape naturally provides a larger living area, more natural light, and is easier to heat and cool. And as a practitioner of phrenology Fowler also argued that the structure created good alignment for the mind and body. Though the decoration and material used for octagon houses were still of a Victorian vernacular, Fowler’s thinking about space and materials were more aligned with what would become modernism. In some ways, Fowler may be called a pre-advocate of “form follows function,” the phrase coined by architect Louis Sullivan in 1896 (just 9 years after Fowler’s death) and which would become
a mantra of the 20th century Bauhaus and Modernist movements. Another kind of architecture that would become more prevalent in the 20th century was that of the bunker—a means of protection in warfare. Dion’s work situates itself between Fowler and the wartime bunker. The exterior of Dion’s Octagon Room is cool white with sandbags lined along its edges; it is an uneasy structure, one that projects a brutalist authority while serving as a harbinger of peril. This sense of unease is exactly what Dion was interested in, for he wanted to make it clear that this was a sculpture made in a time of seemingly endless war. Dion relates the idea of this structure to “a certain sense of retreat that was experienced by individuals and people in the arts under the George W. Bush administration.” 2 During the Bush years, many progressive, left-leaning individuals consciously pursued work outside of the United States, seeking refuge from the official government and its politics. Dion was no exception, picking up more projects in
Europe and Scandinavia than at home. For Dion this era brought on introspection and a deep sense of pessimism. The Octagon Room can thus be read as one artist’s personal negotiation with a society uneasy with itself. While many of Dion’s works represent his interests in systems of art and science, collecting and categorization, The Octagon Room is deeply personal, which is perhaps why the interior stands in such stark contrast to the blunt exterior. Once through the door, viewers pass from wartime facade into the warmth of a Victorian parlor. Like many of Dion’s installations, this space rewards close exploration, like immersing oneself in a curiosity cabinet filled with wonders to behold. Objects inside include: a map of the world with pins marking his projects under development, miniature versions of art installations, drawings, notes and various costumes Dion wore while performing (lab coats, fishing waders, safari vests, etc.). On the desk there is a collection of hotel key cards, membership
cards and invitations which further detail the artist’s travel and daily life. There is also a collection of books which inspired Dion’s work alongside a hall of fame (framed photos and prints) of thinkers who have directly influenced his practice. Perhaps one of the most personal items in the room is a series of urns that line the fireplace. Each of these urns holds the ashes of Dion’s archives from his years at American Fine Arts, Co., his longtime gallery which closed after the death of its founder, Colin de Land, in 2003. American Fine Arts, Co. was a seminal gallery that paved the way for artists like Dion, allowing them to make complex project-based work within a commercial system. These urns become not only an exorcism of past work but also stand as poignant symbols of the presence of loss, both personal and professional. In many ways The Octagon Room is the most intimate, and perhaps only, selfportrait Dion has ever created. While much of his work positions his persona “as artist under guise of explorer, scientist,
etc.,” it doesn’t often go right to the heart of what Dion himself is feeling. As Dion remarks, “This work is about the artist in retreat, disconnected from the social experience, feeling a sense of melancholy and pessimism. It is a waiting room, which speaks perhaps to the possibility of hope.” 3 Made in 2008, at the onset of a new administration, but at a moment still filled with great uncertainty about the US’s place in the world political and military stage, and deep fears about the condition of the domestic and global economy, The Octagon Room is a poignant time capsule, posing questions about politics, history, architecture and the artist’s own identity. Denise Markonish Curator
Orson S. Fowler, The Octagon House: A Home for All (London: Dover Publications, 1973). p. 82 From an email interchange between the artist and curator, November 6, 2012 3 Ib.id. 1
Mark Dion: The Octagon Room March 23, 2013– January 20, 2014 Curated by Denise Markonish The Octagon Room, 2008, mixed media installation 100 × 330 × 330 inches; 254 × 838.2 × 838.2 cm Photos: Christopher Burke Studio Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. This exhibition is supported by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
1040 MASS MoCA Way North Adams, MA 01247 413.MoCA.111 massmoca.org
In The Octagon Room, Mark Dion investigates into the blurred boundaries between art, society, and history, as well as the homogenized method...