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photo-eye Book Reviews: Oceanomania

Oceanomania, By Mark Dion.
Published by Mack, 2011.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
Mark Dion Oceanomania
By Mark Dion
Mack, 2011. Hardbound. 176 pp., 200 color illustrations, 8-1/2x11-3/4".

The ocean for me is the lyrical vision of Hiroshi Sugimoto – magnetic, impenetrable fields of horizon and sea. It is also an enveloping realm of childhood adventure, persisting in nostalgia’s muted recollection. Of late, the sea is fodder for Peter Thiel’s Libertarian island dreams and victim of BP’s spewing, stifling sludge. We are drawn in by countless aspects of the deep; turning to the mediated experience of the museum to enhance or replace direct, visceral experience. A suspension of disbelief is required by these seemingly transparent portals that are in fact imbued with the assumptions and attitudes of the culture at large. Artist Mark Dion visits them with a mind toward deconstructing the curatorial acts of selecting, ordering and describing, and creating critical shifts in the museums’ prevailing narratives.

Oceanomania, by Mark Dion. Published by Mack Books, 2011.
Dion’s latest project, Oceanomania took him to the Nouveau Musée National and the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium of Monaco where he explored the grand halls and backrooms of these storied maritime collections. Past works that convey his long-standing interest in representations of nature and concern for its degradation were inserted into existing displays. The creation of a gigantic curiosity cabinet was a more regimented and often jarring re-framing of collected objects. The project team also invited twenty artists to use the museums’ souvenirs and specimens as both inspiration and appropriated objects. The resulting disparate visions underscore the museum as a mutable construct and argue for what the ocean realm has come to mean in contemporary art and life. The sea as exploited resource and sometimes treacherous conduit informed political works by Allan Sekula and Xaviera Simmons. Alternatively, artists James Prosek and Alexis Rockman explored the continuum between the illustrations of natural history and sci-fi creations, with a heavy dose of beauty along the way. 

Oceanomania, by Mark Dion. Published by Mack Books, 2011.
Oceanomania, by Mark Dion. Published by Mack Books, 2011.
Oceanomania’s deep blue covers and gilt-edge pages conjure a Victorian encyclopedia – the whimsy and wonder of an era’s mania for the sea woven into a serious tome. With both a sly glance and a deep cut, this book travels through the cultural intersections of science and art from the mid-19th century to the present day. Explorers in search of new discoveries and bragging rights populate its chapters as do the heroic vessels of Jacques Cousteau and Captain Nemo whose technology and tools are the stuff of steampunk fantasy. Photography also plays a prominent role in the purposeful disorientation cataloged in this volume. Long a tool of collection and classification, it is the medium of choice of several project artists, but also serves as document, reproduction, and installation shot for all. Until captions and context sort things out, a first flip-through of Oceanomania’s photographs further muddles our assumptions about what is art or artifact, chosen or created. This is a playful tandem journey to Dion’s larger project which should entice even those otherwise immune to mania.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.