Reflections on Phantoms

COPYRIGHT MARK DION STUDIO, COURTESY: TANYA BONAKDAR GALLERY, IMAGE: JAEGERSLOAN, ©STERLING AND FRANCINE CLARK ART INSTITUTE, WILLIAMSTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS.

Before returning to the Northwestern campus to work at the Block Museum this summer, I took advantage of a free afternoon in New York City to visit Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, an exhibition by the artist Mark Dion curated by Block Museum director Lisa Corrin. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute commissioned Dion to reflect on the 1908 expedition to northern China by the Institute’s founder, Sterling Clark. The result, Phantoms, was housed in the historic Explorer’s Club, a four-story building originally built by Clark’s brother, Stephen, that is richly adorned with artwork, antiques and archival material from around the world.

Dion began his artistic process by studying records and artifacts from Clark’s Shên Kan venture and drawing re-interpretations of them with red and blue pencils. He then translated these images into what he describes as cartoonswhite papier-mâché sculptures of tools, materials, and specimens. For Phantoms, Dion’s cartoons were arranged in the Club’s Trophy room, amongst artifacts collected on other global expeditions by Club members over the years.

While Phantoms explores Clark’s interest in science and art and his desire to contribute to the body of human knowledge, Dion’s work also probes Clark’s identity as a man.  Just as Dion’s cartoons are generic versions of tools we have all seen before, at first glance, Clark appears as just another “man of great privilege and masculinity.” The discord between genuine identity and external ascription that flows throughout the exhibition invites us to look beyond the surface of things. While viewing and reflecting on Phantoms, I kept coming back to the question, “Who was Robert Sterling Clark, really?” How might notions of masculinity projected by such figures as Theodore Roosevelt—the war hero, cowboy and American President of Clark’s time whose exploits and exhortations encouraged men to test their mettle with adventure—shaped Clark’s character and informed his actions? Dion offers material from which to draw our own conclusions, but provides no concrete answers himself.

—Frankie DiCiaccio (School of Communication, 2012)

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