Shotgun Review

The Marvelous Museum

By Dena Beard September 12, 2010

Marcel Broodthaers’ Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles was conceived in Brussels in 1968 as “institutional critique,” a subversion of institutional functions that culminated in the attempted sale of the museum itself. The reason, of course, was bankruptcy, but the type of bankruptcy—financial, moral—was not specified. In the thirty years following, the terms of institutional critique have grown tired and less radical, perhaps because the ’80s allowed us to see their potential for alienation, and the ’90s reconceived them as a nostalgic longing for the museum as a hallowed church of cultural preservation. Current thinking, on the other hand, has been wildly anachronistic, parasitic upon earlier conceptual and aesthetic genres—sometimes with playful satire, sometimes with academic hubris, but always with extraordinary and earnest research.

In the same way, Mark Dion’s exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is a retrospective; a looking-back into the annals of history with a nod toward scientific practices of natural historians, politically disenchanted documentary filmmakers, and romantic ideals of the salon curator. Dion narrowly avoids the mythology of these practices, however: viewing apparatuses, slide projectors, flat file cabinets, vitrines embedded in plastic nature scenes, and gilt frames are set into high relief by their narrative context. Their obsolescence does not make them somehow more real—Dion uses their limitations to tell a better story about the nebulous status of our material history.

The exhibition consists of nineteen interventions into the irreverent permanent collection show. It’s introduced by a video of hands sifting through glass lanternslides dating as far back as the 1600s, which are viewed from the micro to the macro. The images expand outwards towards the stratospheres of space, and Dion makes a play for/on transparency, laying out his strategy as a semiotician and custodian of OMCA’s collection.

The interventions are what he calls “orphan objects,” deaccessioned objects, or objects that are too expensive to ship back to their rightful owner, and objects that were part of the three eccentric founding collections but no longer fit OMCA's California thematic. A baby elephant, a painting rack with a salon-style mélange of dusty still-life paintings, a strangely beautiful ceramic insulator, a rope sculpture that



Architectural Fragment from the Tubbs Cordage Co. Building at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1915. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: David Maisel.

was used to advertise Tubbs Cordage Capital at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (brilliantly placed in the gallery dedicated to Outsider Artists). Dion displays these for perhaps the last time, embalmed in their crates, popcorn stuffing, and plastic as testament to their permanent status as stored object. Of course, he's right—this is is the permanent collection, our cultural capital stuffed into warehouses for all eternity.

Where Broodthaers was openly defiant, Dion is demanding, requiring the museum to reveal its thwarted attempts at greatness and its ungainly holdings stripped of their capacity for permanent truth-telling. I found something deeply meaningful in the glass lanternslides, the travelogue that enabled early Californians to experience an exhibition through the lens-based medium. The frontier exhibition, after all, necessarily exists in standard deviations from the original object. Perhaps a true leveling of the Museum of California would leave nothing left but the images of its holdings, a collection of history and art rightfully experienced through the lens, divorced from any pretense of autonomy.



The Marvelous Museum is on display at the Oakland Museum of California through March 6, 2011.


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