NORTH ADAMS -- Artist Mark Dion has made it possible for visitors to Mass MoCA to actually enter and browse his own mind in his new installation.
Dion's "The Octagon Room" opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.
"An interesting experience with the piece is a contrast between the outside, which really does give the impression of a concrete bunker, and the inside, which is a spacious, gentleman's parlor," Dion said. "There's something about the work that does confound people's expectations from what you see on the outside. The piece functions a little bit like the kind of psychological space that we create around ourselves, blocking off the nightmarish that happens in every-day life, and create a special place for ourselves to contemplate other things happening in the world."
Dion's piece is a reaction to the last 12 years of life in America, most specifically the Bush years, and it functions partially as a self-portrait of the part of the artist that is less easily represented in realistic terms as it is in psychological ones. Dion's view of the presidency of George W. Bush is a demoralizing one that created a sense of helplessness and self-preservation among the very crowd that would usually be the most vocal in their defiance.
"There was a kind of retreat among intellectuals and artists and other people, because everything seemed so terrible, especially after the second election," said Dion. "The forms of conventional resistance, like demonstrations, and other fields of opposition expression seemed so compromised, and over-coated with failure, and, also, really sidelined by police strategies."
"It just seemed like the forms of resistance were futile and we were caught in this place just trying to understand how it could be this bad. I think that brought people, like maybe what was happening with French intellectuals in the Nazi occupation, you had people create their own isolated worlds."
Dion's major interest is in systems and taxonomies, and the room manifests these in context of its eight sides, each of which represents one part of what kept Dion busy during the time he was making his own isolated world.
One wall will focus on travel, another on books, and still others on people and different roles that were undertaken by Dion. They offer a catalog of detritus from eight years of doing his best to ignore the breakdown of dissent.
"In no way do I want to pose that retreat as a positive thing," Dion said. "This is meant to be, at least for me, a very self-critical piece. This is how I fiddled while Rome burned."
Dion was inspired to use the octagon shape through the work of Orson Squire Fowler, a 19th-century phrenologist who lived a good portion of his life in New England, where he attempted to popularize octagonal houses.
Fowler's idea was that nature is the perfect architect and the circle is the most perfect natural form, but the best humans can do to achieve that shape in building is to utilize the octagon, a linear form Fowler pronounced close enough to a circle. Dion found Fowler's ideas fascinating, particularly those of use of space and energy efficiency that octagonal houses would be of benefit for, and the hint of utopianism they espoused.
In practical terms, it also struck Dion that the eight sides of the house coincided with the eight years of the Bush administration, and would help him organize what he describes as his "memory theater," serving as a retrospective of his own ideas and work.
"I feel like I designed my own prison cell and I sentenced myself to a luxurious eight years of self-interrogation," he said, "which had manifestations that are works, and then this also refers to some of those didn't become work or didn't make it into a final work, but are things on the boundaries of those works."
Of particular concern to Dion, and visibly so in the work, are the ecological conditions of the world. This is another area that optimism has overtaken, and his view of conservation efforts over the last 30 years have offered few victories and much dread. He acknowledges that because of this, the piece at MoCA might not be considered uplifting, which he understands is not always what people want out of art.
"At a certain point, when you have confronted loss after loss, and degradation after degradation, you lose your optimistic edge, and the work become less optimistic and more pessimistic," Dion said. "Not cynical, but pessimistic. I don't really have a lot of faith in the notion that we're going to work things out in a very positive way. I think that permeates a lot of my work, and this piece as well. I think people want to look at art, and especially want to look at socially engaged art, being a reservoir of hope."
Dion says that part of his shift also has to do with the changing nature of environmental problems, in that at one time, it was an information problem -- people didn't know and it was part of the job of art to get it out there. Now people know all about issues like climate change, but that hasn't inspired any more action. That can't help but be reflected in his work.
"People just don't have the will and there's not the political will, there's not the leadership, to do a damn thing about it," he said. "That leads us to a really weird and complicated place where we're all just sitting out the end of the world instead of imagining the kind of nature that we want and working toward that."
"It's a very grim place, and a place I wouldn't particularly want to arrive at, but maybe it is the place that a work like this helped me understand that if I was being honest with myself and honest with the viewers, that's where I am. There's a lot of weirdness being in a place like that because of the huge amount of pressure to be positive, but if you look at it very soberly, there's not really a lot to be positive about."