Joana Ricou talks with Bryan Wilson, working in Mark Dion’s studio.
Behind an unmarked white door in the basement of 56 Bogart is a room bustling with activity and a fine white powder in the air. Bryan Wilson and a team of interns are (very, very, very) hard at work with Mark Dion to create an exhibit titled “Phantoms of the Clark Expedition” at the Explorers Club in Manhattan.
56 Bogart (56B): Wow, what is going on here?
Bryan Wilson (BW): What we’re working on here is a commission from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. It’s commemorating the 100 year [anniversary of] the expedition of Sterling Clark, who was the founder of who is responsible for the Clark University in Massachusetts and the Clark Art Institute. The expedition was to Northern China, 1909-1912. It didn’t have a really specific goal but it was all encompassing, in terms of being a geological survey, a biological survey. Kind of one of the last great western expeditions into foreign lands, a very antiquated notion but it would be the last of that kind…
Unlike a Shackleton expedition to the South Pole, a lot of the objects from that trip don’t exist anymore. It’s not like, if they were going to mount an exhibition, they could say like, “Here’s the shoes that they wore. ”
[Or the camera…]
BW: This is unique for the Clark Art Institute because their collection is mostly from Sterling Clark’s private art collection. They don’t really do work with contemporary artists, so they are kind of branching out. They reached out to Mark to do this project. He had this idea of remaking all the objects, some of the journal entries, and also some of the few photographs that are left.
56B: Where do the pigs come in?
BW: There was a wild boar that they shot while they were in Northern China. There is a photograph of them carrying it with a branch.
Everything is being made out of Celluclay, kind of a pre-made papier maché material. Most of this material is meant for small type of objects. Never designed or intended for this scale, I mean we are working with life size with everything! It’s been tremendously challenging It’s a very very very labor intensive process.
Everything is going to be white. The name of the exhibition is Phantoms of the Clark Expedition. So it’s the idea of a bone-like, ghostly quality to all the objects.
That exhibition will involve about 150 objects.
56B: Is that what you’re making?
BW: Yes, from scratch. About 150 objects that would be the camp provisions coupled with life-sized dioramas. All of them again have this kind of child-like, toy, GI-Joe kind of aesthetic to everything - filtered through his Disney aesthetic.
56B: Why the Disney aesthetic?
BW: Mark has done a lot of work that taps into that moment when you first get interested in. It’s a common theme amongst people in western cultures that they experience history and the natural world through museums which are very carefully curated for children in many ways. And those are very potent experiences.
What do you imagine if I were to talk to you about dinosaurs?
56B: I’d go to Jurassic Park..
BW: You think Jurassic Park, you think cartoons of dinosaurs… they’re dinosaurs but they’re horribly inaccurate, right? They’re a cartoon. Disney is a very intentional reference because most people can identify with Bambi more than they can necessarily with the biodiversity here in new york state, you know what I mean?
It also keeps it within this idea of imagination, never presenting these as 1:1 specimens. There are a couple of objects getting made to look exactly like as they would, but those are only 2 or 3. Specifically there will be a 8 ft squirrel.
BW: And then there is a [1:1] pistol, that is anecdotally significant because that’s when the expedition was cut off. One of the members of the expedition was killed when he left the camp after he was informed to bring a pistol and he didn’t.
56B: So how long have you been in the building?
BW: Since October 1st. We’ll be leaving the space beginning of June. What sweetens the deal for me being kind of the manager of this project is that I’ve been able to use that space for my own work, I’m building a cave in the back.
56B: For personal use?
56B: Yea! For my work.
56B: So, who else is in your space?
BW: This will be the last week… We’ve had Robert Bedford, Marlene Frontera, Jana Weaver and Edgar Mosa.
Read more about Mark Dion and see a video of the sculpture process at the New York Times Blog: “The Know It All,” by Jim Lewis.
So, about that cave… we’ll do another post.