Dion engages with art students in visit

Left to right: Graduate students Sarah Jentsch, Kim Tomlinson and Hannah Demma with the edition of prints they created with Mark Dion. The image is of a lobe-finned fish surrounded by a list of terms that refer to corruption. Photo by Eddy Aldana.
Left to right: Graduate students Sarah Jentsch, Kim Tomlinson and Hannah Demma with the edition of prints they created with Mark Dion. The image is of a lobe-finned fish surrounded by a list of terms that refer to corruption. Photo by Eddy Aldana.

Dion engages with art students in visit

calendar icon11 Nov 2021    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Mark Dion tours Morrill Hall with Director Susan Weller and graduate students from the School of Art, Art History & Design. Photo by Eddy Aldana.
Mark Dion tours Morrill Hall with Director Susan Weller and graduate students from the School of Art, Art History & Design. Photo by Eddy Aldana.

Lincoln, Neb.--Conceptual artist Mark Dion visited the School of Art, Art History & Design Oct. 25-28 as part of the Hixson-Lied Visiting Artist & Lecture Series.

Dion’s work examines the ways in which dominant ideologies and public institutions shape our understanding of history, knowledge and the natural world. He frequently collaborates with museums of natural history, aquariums, zoos and other institutions mandated to produce public knowledge on the topic of nature.

Some of his recent work that he discussed in his Hixson-Lied Visiting Artist lecture on Oct. 27 included “Den,” a large-scale folly in Norway’s mountainous landscape that featured a massive sculpture of a sleeping bear in a cave, resting on a hill of material culture from the Neolithic to the present; “The Amateur Ornithologist Clubhouse,” a Captain Nemo-like interior constructed in a vast gas tank in Essen, Germany; and “Raiding Neptune’s Vault: A Voyage to the Bottom of the Canals and Lagoon of Venice,” where he convinced the city of Venice to give him the contents of one of the barges that dredges the canals and exhibited them in a scholarly way, along with his work-clothes and tools.

While he often uses scientific methodology in his work, Dion said the artist has other tools available to them that scientists can’t use.

“Science is bound by certain rules, and if you’re a scientist, you can’t really speak ironically, you can’t use humor, you can’t use metaphor and all of these allegory, all of these things that are really like the bread and butter of artists,” he said. “We can work on similar things, but we come to it with very different vocabularies and with a very different focus. We’re not in any way the same thing. And certainly, I always think we’re allies because we have the same enemies—small mindedness, fundamentalism, prejudice, all of these kinds of issues. That’s what potentially could bind us together. We’re both involved in inquiry, and we’re both involved in sort of exploding conventional perception and finding new things.”

Perry Obee, lecturer in printmaking in the School of Art, Art History & Design, said Dion’s work bridges science and visual arts.

"His work is often mistaken for actual science, which I think Mark enjoys,” he said. “I’ve heard him comment on how easily people accept things that look like science as the real thing. But Mark approaches it from the perspective of the dilettante, someone who tries very hard to get it right, but may not have all the skills of the expert. His work is very clever with a sense of humor and irony. There is a critique of society, culture and institutions mixed in with it. It engages on many different levels and has appeal to a wide range of people because it is such a unique and clever perspective. It makes you think, perhaps more than other work I’ve seen."

Obee met Dion when he was at the Tamarind Institute, a lithography workshop and center for collaborative printmaking at the University of New Mexico, prior to Obee coming to UNL to teach.

“I was apprenticing with the master printer there and collaborating with professional artists, and Mark Dion was one of the artists that we worked with. I really liked him and his work, and he impressed me with his willingness to work with students. I think he stands out as someone who really values teaching and inspiring the younger generations.”

Dion, who visited with students in printmaking, sculpture and painting/drawing during his visit, said he enjoys working with students.

“When I studied, there were a handful of people around me who really mentored me and saw in me something, a level of commitment that was something that they really fostered,” Dion said. “So I always thought that, in some way, fostering the next generation is part of the job if you’re an artist. It’s really important.”

As part of his visit, he collaborated with three graduate students in the School of Art, Art History & Design to create an edition of prints—Hannah Demma and Sarah Jentsch, who are both third-year graduate students in printmaking and Kim Tomlinson, a first-year graduate student in printmaking. Undergraduate students also assisted with the project.

“We did a sort of experiment where we’ve taken this same basic image, but we’re using two different techniques to produce this, silkscreen and lithography,” Dion said. “So it’s a way of being able to judge these two techniques against each other. It’s a good way of teaching these already advanced students about editioning and the rigors of editioning versus just printing for yourself. When you’re printing for other people, you have to be even more demanding than printing for yourself.”

Jentsch and Obee worked on the lithograph, while Tomlinson and Demma worked on the screenprint.

“It ended up just being a really great way to kind of diversify and make it a great experience for everyone,” Jentsch said. “Mark was on board and really excited about the idea of comparing both processes with the same image and seeing how they looked next to each other.”

They received drawings from Dion in the mail a few weeks before his visit.

“We got these drawings and interpreted them into kind of print form before he arrived,” Tomlinson said. “You can tell he works with students a lot. He was really flexible going into it and made some kind of minor tweaks to the work we had prepped for him. We got a stamp of approval, and then we were able to just frontload the week with printing.”

The image is of a lobe-finned fish surrounded by a list of terms that refer to corruption.

“The image is a very comical one. A lot of my work engages political issues in some way, and in this case, this is as a list of terms that refer to corruption, which is one of not just our problems, especially given our recent history, but actually is just a huge problem in the globe that is dragging everything backward,” Dion said. “So I’m taking an organism that is sort of this kind of early evolutionary figure, this primordial lobe fish that crawls out of the water to inhabit land that is the precursor to reptiles. And so talking about corruption as something that has deep roots. It’s meant to be very comical. I’m taking what would be a normal sort of anatomical chart and derailing it by laying an entirely different system of information over it. The chart, of course, in some way, makes no sense. But that’s what art is. It makes a different kind of sense.”

Each of the three printmakers received a copy of the print, along with copies that went to Sheldon Museum of Art, the printmaking archive and the School. The remaining copies went to Dion.

“Hopefully they’ll be in someone’s collection or someone’s Christmas present or something like that,” Tomlinson said.

Demma said she enjoyed the process of working with Dion.

“It was just fun to see a professional artist,” she said. “He’s pretty dang famous, but he’s really approachable and a good teacher, and he was super generous with his time.”

Jentsch said his approachability extended to critiques of their work during his visit.

“I think at the beginning of the critique, he introduced himself as like our friendly uncle, who sees something in all of us and wants us to be the best we can,” she said. “And that’s definitely how I felt about the whole visit. He really, even more than a lot of visiting artists I’ve met at least, took a real interest in our lives and our work and related to us on a very casual level.”

Demma said the visit was “extra special” following the Covid pandemic.

“For Sarah and me, most of our grad experience has been during Covid, so we didn’t get a lot of experience with visiting artists,” she said. “This felt extra special, and we also felt extra pressure to wring it dry, but he was just so generous with his time.”

While he was in Lincoln, Dion led a seminar with graduate students that included a tour of Morrill Hall with Director Susan Weller, as well as the Research Collections with museum curators.

“Morrill Hall is both an old and new museum,” Dion said. “I think there is sort of two parts to that mission. One is to demonstrate for students how artists and scholars have a different relationship to museums than the public. So when the public goes to a museum, they’re more or less passive consumers of information. But as artists, museums are resources for research. I wanted to pull back that curtain for them and see that the behind the scenes is really where it’s at in a museum, that’s where a museum is most dynamic. And as an artist and scholar, you have access to that. I want the students to feel more proactive in terms of their looking at the world as a place of possibility.”

He said museums are transformative spaces.

“Good museums change lives, and I can say that because I am an example of that,” Dion said. “When I was a child visiting the Whaling Museum in New Bedford (Massachusetts), which was the only museum around, which was a museum of natural history, social history, economic history, vernacular arts, fine art, all of this stuff mixed together, I was immediately transformed because this was like nothing I had seen. It’s not a store, it’s not a church, it’s not a school. It’s an entirely different category of place. It’s a place based on acquiring knowledge through an interaction with things, and that’s totally unique. Only museums do that. So I felt immediately like this is the place where I belong. This is where I want to be.”

Jentsch said it made her realize all of the resources available at an academic institution.

“I think one of Mark’s main points in having that seminar was to show us how much is available to us if we just take the time to reach out,” she said. “We typically think of the college by its departments—we have the science department and the art department and the English department. We very rarely kind of cross-pollinate between, but there’s just so many people who are so excited and willing to reach out and help if you just kind of try to make that connection.”

Demma said she has spent time at Morrill Hall, but had no idea the vastness of the entire collection.

“I spend a lot of time at Morrill Hall. I did my undergrad and grad here, and I had no idea about the collection,” she said. “I am going to try to make use of it in my last few months. But it is incredible.”

Obee said he hopes students realize the vast resources available to them.

“One of the reasons we wanted to go to Morrill Hall is to show students that resources for their art exist everywhere, and that they should make use of everything around them,” he said. “He’s also a really good example of artistic rigor. He really is rigorous about his practice and his concepts and working through his ideas, and I think that’s inspiring to students.”

Dion’s visit will resonate with the students long after his visit was complete.

“It was hard being in school whenever we were in Covid. We lost a lot of opportunities,” Jentsch said. “And I think having an artist that big and impactful, especially to my work, I can just die happy now. It reminded me why I came to grad school and why I signed up for this experience. It was to have these really generative and inspirational opportunities that you really can’t get outside of an academic institution.”

Dion said he hopes his visit inspires students to keep going as artists.

“I think I’m a good example of someone who is a blue-collar kid with a family who had no interest in culture whatsoever,” he said. “And if I can do it, they can do it. It takes diligence, it takes rigor, it takes commitment, and it takes risk. But it’s possible.”

What he loves the most about being an artist is writing his own job description every day.

“If that means I have to spend the morning bird watching, that’s my job description,” he said. “If it means I have to spend it emailing, that’s my job description. If I decide I’m really interested in grasshoppers, then I’ll be researching grasshoppers. But I get to set the course for my investigation. That idea that you determine how you spend your time, it’s really an incredibly liberating privilege.”

To see more photos from his visit, go to https://go.unl.edu/dion