The Oceanographic Museum is a massive stone building, cleaved into an imposing cliff called Le Rocher (“The Rock”), along the Hitchcock-ian coastline of Monaco’s Riviera. Over the course of several recent sunny April days, the museum opened “Oceanomania,” a large-scale Mark Dion exhibition and curatorial endeavor that uses the sea as both a territory of biological discovery and mythological archetype.
With one of the largest marine life aquariums in the world, the Oceanographic Museum was the pet project of Prince Albert I of Monaco (1848–1922), a sea adventurer, early innovator in the science of oceanography, and great-great grandfather of the current sovereign of Monaco, Prince Albert II. With the charge to “combine art and science,” the museum opened to the public in 1910.
INSTALLATION VIEW, OCEANOGRAPHIC MUSEUM
A century later, following the directives of Robert Calcagno, Monaco’s former Minister of the Environment, and Marie-Claude Beaud, Director of the New Monaco Nation Museum, the Oceanographic Museum has shifted its scope to re-introduce the interventions and interpretations of contemporary artists. In 2010 the museum signaled its new direction with an exhibition of the work of Damien Hirst.
Next the museum invited Dion, whose explorations combine archeology, zoology, and ecology in a consideration of the institutions that define objects as works of art, or relics of culture. He worked with Sarina Basta, a New York curator (with whom, full disclosure, this writer has collaborated), spending two years re-imagining the role of the artwork in the aquarium. What resulted is a series of propositions for a marine ecological-minded future of museums.
On the occasion of the exhibition opening, Basta described “Oceanomania” to A.i.A. as an “opportunity to also examine what led up to the museum’s making. The ocean is a site of wonder, one that is under threat from negligence, and one that artist and theorist Allan Sekula rightly describes as the ‘forgotten space of Modernism.'”
Conversations with Dion took place in a dark oak-wood office a few floors above the aquariums of the Oceanographic Museum. He opened our discussion by reflecting on the exhibition’s twin concerns: a history-minded archeology of the Oceanographic Museum, and the politics associated with the present condition of the oceans.
The Oceanographic Museum exhibition focuses on Dion’s “curiosity cabinet,” whereby the artist exhumes and displays relics from a museum’s archives. This, one of the largest the artist has ever produced, holds artifacts from various stages in the museum’s history, including a never-opened box of fossils and selections from the personal collections of both Prince Albert II and Jacques Cousteau, the marine ecologist-explorer and director of the Oceanographic Museum, 1957–1989. The works have been acquired for the museum’s permanent collection.
In adjoining rooms, Dion presents exotic objects familiar to followers of his practice—for instance, a taxidermied polar bear tht stands atop its own packing crate. A complete index of the objects in the exhibition, is too extensive to catalog here, which is quite the point. Instead of appearing as discrete artifacts, Dion’s works comprise a whole and re-formed object—the entire museum under glass.
“Oceanomania” is heavily informed by two recent events: the 2010 Census of Marine Life, which resulted in the discovery of 6,000 new marine species; and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an ecological disaster for the region’s richly interconnected ecosystems. Dion describes the two opposition as poles: one one hand, “a kind of optimism, that the seas can still be this place of wonder and mystery…”; on the other, the reality that “we can actually make a zone of 80 square ocean miles have no life in it.”
“Oceanomania” spread to a second site, the New Monaco National Museum (NMNM) at the Villa Paloma. In the five-story Mediterranean villa atop one of Monaco’s many steep hills, Dion, Basta, and NMNM curator Cristiano Raimondi assembled an exhibition with over 24 artists that features works based on the ocean’s place in science, literature and film. The expanse comprises a series of smaller exhibitions on each floor, designed to match the levels of the sea. At the ground floor is the ocean’s bottom, titled “Captain Nemo,” including the sea life renderings of Ernst Haekle, James Prosek, and Alexis Rockman, and a humorous orange octopus by Katherine Fritsch. On the second floor, there’s a rare undersea film by Man Ray. Above water, there are meditations on sea voyage by Ashley Bickerton, Matthew Barney, David Brooks, and Peter Coffin. These mix with a small nautical painting by J.M.W. Turner; two Monet paintings of the Monaco harbor and elaborate costumes from the Monaco Opera’s first production of The Little Mermaid.
An entire floor of the villa is devoted to large-scale paintings by Bernard Buffet that depict scenes from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo, the protagonist of the 1869 novel, fascinates Dion, whom he compared to Cousteau. For the artist, Nemo is simultaneously “utopian and misanthropic… a Nineteenth Century figure torn by technological genius, and vision; being able to feed the world and solve the world’s problems, yet having so little faith in human nature.” The ocean’s only so large as man’s imagination.