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Clark Art Institute presents Mark Dion installation at the Explorers Club in Manhattan
Papier-mâché objects from the installation in process at Mark Dion’s studio. JaegerSloan. ©Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute presents a new installation by artist Mark Dion, Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, reflecting on the history of exploration and on an expedition to North China that the Institute’s founder Sterling Clark undertook in 1908. On view May 9 to August 3, 2012, the installation consists of a series of dioramas and sculptures representing objects and specimens that would have been used or collected during expeditions that occurred in that era. The installation is being presented at The Explorers Club at 46 East 70th Street in New York.

The Clark commissioned Dion to create the new work as part of the Institute’s commemoration of the centennial of the 1912 publication of Through Shên-kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908–9, written by Sterling Clark and naturalist Arthur deCarle Sowerby. The Explorers Club site was selected both for its connections to the history of exploration and for its links to the Clark family’s history. The brick townhouse was the former home of Sterling Clark’s brother Stephen, and is the current site of the Clark’s New York office.

“Mark has created a provocative project with compelling connections to the idea of exploration and to early interest in northwest China,” said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark. “Mark’s work adds a fresh, contemporary dimension to our founder’s previously overlooked contribution to science and learning.”

The Dion installation is part of the ClarkNOW initiative announced late last year – a program of some 60 exhibitions, events and activities taking place in New York, at the Clark in Williamstown, and at international venues as it extends its reach and engagement during the final construction phase of its campus enhancement program.

Curated by Lisa G. Corrin, Director of Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and a former Clark Fellow, the Dion project features reinterpretations of dozens of objects similar to those typically used on expeditions or found in museums of natural history. After studying records and artifacts from Clark’s China expedition, Dion used his signature red and blue pencils to reinterpret the items in a series of drawings that became the basis of his installation. The drawings have been translated into unpainted papier-mâché sculptures of equipment and tools and surreal “specimens,” which Dion describes as cartoons. From a giant moth pinned to a wall to an oversized squirrel, the artist plays with expectations of scale, causing viewers to think twice about what they are seeing. Dion’s stark white creations, colorless “phantoms” of the originals, are intended, in his words, to evoke “the sun bleached bones of expeditions past.”

“Phantoms of the Clark Expedition highlights not only what Clark and his team documented in China, but also “what they brought to the site of inquiry,” according to Dion. “Thus the equipment and provisions necessary for undertaking such a complex tour are given a new importance, which emphasizes the labor of the journey rather than the particular scientific results. In this way, the Clark team itself becomes the locus of an ethnographic investigation, an attempt to understand the cultural underpinnings of a distinct social group based on their physical belongings.”

The installation is presented in The Explorers Club’s Trophy Room, surrounded by artifacts and specimens collected by the Club’s storied members on historic expeditions to far-flung corners of the globe. Some of Dion’s objects are arranged into tableaux of the expedition archetypes, such as a campfire or provision stores; others are in a more taxonomic grouping based on categories such as utility. Objects in the exhibition represent either the general conditions and needs of all explorers or objects particular to the Clark expedition. An artist-conceived "field guide" will direct visitors through the installation and describe The Explorers Club's history and collection.

“Since the earliest days of exploration art has played an especially important role in chronicling pursuits of discovery,” says Lorie Karnath, past president of The Explorers Club, who led the organization’s decision to team with the Clark on the project. “For much of exploration's history, artist's renderings provided the sole witness of expedition into the unknown. It is through these that we are able to piece together the landscape, peoples and species of earlier times This work by Mark Dion at the headquarters of The Explorers Club intertwines history in a cultural context at many levels. It is fitting that this building, now considered the worldwide center for exploration, provides the setting to contemplate from an artist’s perspective the discoveries of Sterling Clark, this man of adventure.”

Corrin draws parallels between Clark’s pursuits and the example set by one of the leading figures of his day, Theodore Roosevelt. “Like many men of his generation,” she notes, “Clark internalized Theodore Roosevelt’s exhortation that the nation’s future was dependent upon the actions of manly men willing to test their mettle against the unknown, whether it be nature, the frontier or non-white culture or all three, as was the case in the Shên-kan expedition.”

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