Exhibit reveals forgotten objects, inner workings of Oakland Museum
on September 10, 2010
When conceptual artist Mark Dion needed materials for his new exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, he headed behind the scenes, or technically, under the scenes. “It was a little bit like raiding the icebox,” he says of his time in the belly of the building. “I began scrounging through the archives, spending a lot of time in storage.” After unearthing an eclectic mix of lost treasures—everything from Reagan campaign buttons to a stuffed baby elephant—Dion constructed “The Marvelous Museum,” which opens Sept. 11.
Dion and project manager Chris Fitzpatrick worked with the objects for two years and emerged with an installation laid out in three different parts of the museum building. The first part is what Dion calls twenty “interventions,” or pieces that were found in storage and are now worked into art displays. For the second portion, Dion constructed a mock storage space on a museum floor. Finally, there are his recreations of actual curators’ offices.
The office installation is located in a side room—three desks representing the working lives of curators from critical periods in American art. A replica of a 19th century curator’s desk, and the artist’s interpretation of a museum registrar’s desk from 1976, are both cobbled together using objects from storage. The third desk is a little different. It’s modeled after the office of Rene de Guzman, a real OMCA curator who is presently alive—unlike the baby elephant—and has volunteered to be part of the art exhibit.
De Guzman’s belongings populate the faux workspace. Personal touches include books organized by color, a painting of a fly fisherman (one of de Guzman’s hobbies), and de Guzman’s running shoes. De Guzman has even selflessly agreed to sit at the desk for some part of the exhibition and interact with the visitors. How does it feel, this being on display? “I feel a little vulnerable,” de Guzman said, glancing around uneasily during a practice run. “In order for this to work it has to have a real level of authenticity.”
It’s no surprise that de Guzman is willing to put himself out there for “Marvelous”—he is responsible for bringing Dion to Oakland to work with the artifacts. After the renovation that closed the Oakland Museum from August 2009 to May 2010, de Guzman hopes this exhibition will articulate the museum’s story to visitors. When it first opened in 1969, the Oakland Museum combined objects from many collections—all in keeping with the California theme—in order to exhibit art, history and natural science in one central space. “What Mark does, in the midst of this change and forward-looking posture of the museum, is look back at our legacy,” de Guzman said. “It’s important to bring our roots to the present.”
Dion exposes that legacy further in the exhibit’s “storage” portion, which is designed to look like a museum behind the scenes. Folks who wander into this area might think they’ve taken a wrong turn. Boxes and cages piled to the ceilings; forgotten objects from another era encased in wood, plastic and packing materials—all are real items from the storage at Oakland’s Museum. This is Dion’s favorite thing. “A big part of the exhibition is trying to take out all the things people don’t normally see, which is actually the sexy stuff,” Dion said. “It’s the opposite of the way a museum presents things, where everything is easy to access. In storage, everything is protected, everything is hidden.”
Less hidden are the “interventions,” or artifacts Dion worked into the standing galleries. In the room dedicated to art of the gold rush, for example, Dion inserted a large stone coin from the Pacific island of Yap. The coin is situated on the floor under a wall of paintings, still partially hidden by the box it has lived in for years, and provides commentary on the randomness of gold as currency. “In Yap, the heavier these stones are, the more they’re worth,” Dion said. “It seems arbitrary, but it’s not any more arbitrary than the value we’ve placed on gold. There’s nothing inherent about gold which makes it valuable, yet the entire face of the world has been changed by our desire for it.”
A giraffe in a cage of plastic sheeting stands next to a collection of portraits, a telephone pole is tethered to a wall, and a soapbox derby car has been plunked in the middle of the gallery floor. If the placement of the objects seems random, rest assured that Dion thought each one out methodically. “It’s very different from other museums because it’s thematically organized rather than chronologically,” Dion said. “These things all make reference to the place where they are.”
The Oakland Museum’s unique character is one of the things that attracted Dion, who lives and works mainly in Pennsylvania and Manhattan, to the project. And though Dion was new to Oakland, he quickly gained an appreciation for the city’s personality and how the museum fits into it. Dion even compared the Oakland Museum to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and SF-MOMA’s counterparts in New York, Paris and London. “Oakland Museum has a bit more of an attitude” than the others, he said. The big name artists and the international reputation of MOMA-type institutions tell what Dion calls a “dominant story,” which really has no place in Oakland. “Oakland has another story, which is a much richer and more interesting kind of story, in a way,” he said.
Lead image: Curator Rene de Guzman at a recreation of his desk, which is part of the “Marvelous Museum” exhibition.
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