Significance of Stuff

by Lucy

Quirk loves stuff.  We love art, objects, trinkets, knick-knacks, tchotchkes, and the unspoken stories told by inanimate things and collections.  Recently we had the pleasure of hearing venerated artist Mark Dion, another great appreciator of “stuff,” speak about his prolific body of work at the University of Richmond.  Dion is widely recognized for his use of context and juxtaposition to create large installations that rebuff an audience’s expectations while also piquing their curiosity.

dion and cabinet

Dion during his epic 1999 Tate Thames Dig project, a 2008 wunderkammer titled “Travels of William Bartrand – Reconsidered”

His spaces and pieces initiate intimate interaction with viewers who find all senses stimulated by Dion’s attention to detail and environment.  Listening to Dion speak about his body of work brought to mind another artist loved by Quirk for his appreciation of nuance and whimsy, filmmaker Wes Anderson.  

marvy museum, hotchev

Part of Dion’s “The Marvelous Museum: A Mark Dion Project” 2010, still from Anderson’s 2007 short film “Hotel Chevalier”

Known for his creation of “self-contained worlds” within the movies he spearheads, Anderson’s visual style depends heavily on context to further an unspoken tale, much as the spaces created by Dion do.  Anderson and Dion both use narrative tools to create “versions” of our world to encourage viewer interaction and inquisitiveness, much in the same way that we do at Quirk when installing exhibitions and arranging the shop. 


Dion and Anderson both rely on the biographical nature of a person’s belongings to articulate intangible ideas to their audience.  In Anderson’s projects the figure is still present in their surroundings, whereas often in Dion’s work the figure has just stepped off of the scene.  The popularity of Anderson’s movies depends heavily on the appearance of their sets, like the meticulously detailed multi-level townhouse of the Tenenbaum clan, or the mid-20th century magnificence of the “Grand Budapest Hotel.”

tenenbhouse, gbh

Stills from “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the lobby of the “Grand Budapest Hotel”

The sets of these movies are tributes to their characters, much as many of Dion’s pieces are a tribute to their location or an absent protagonist.  His piece “The Curator’s Office” is based upon the office of non-fictional Barton Kestle, original curator of the Minneapolis Museum of Art, whose mysterious disappearance 1954 left his office unopened for decades.

curators office

“The Curator’s Office” 2013

Once opened in 2013, Dion used Kestle’s office to create his own idea of Kestle and then “The Curator’s Office.”  The books on the shelf, cigarette butts in the ashtray, and watermarks on the floor from where the Curator would’ve removed his rain boots act as Dion’s faceless portrait of Kestle.

Curator's Office

detail from “The Curator’s Office”


“Oceanomania” by Dion, installed at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, tells of Prince Albert I of Monaco and his passion for ocean exploration through Dion’s creation of the “largest ever curiosity cabinet of the sea.”


“Oceanomania” 2011

Viewers of the piece are encouraged to visually move through its space from afar, as quadrants of the cabinet are unreachable.

Mark Dion OCEANOMANIA – Souvenirs des Mers Mystérieuses, de l’expédition à l’aquarium. Cabinet de curiosités pour le Musée Océanographique de Monaco, 2011 © Michel Dagnino

Detail of “Oceanomania”

At Quirk we encourage this type of interactive observation when installing exhibitions.  Viewers traveled through Andras Bality’s January 2014 show as they would a road-trip through the state of Virginia, beginning with paintings inspired by the eastern coast of the state and culminating in the state’s mountainous western region.  Tyler Thomas’ 2013 Vault show immersed guests with its jam packed inclusion of artwork and objects that, combined, formed a pseudo-autobiography of the artist himself.


Audience interaction is essential to Dion and Anderson’s work and how they invite intimate viewer involvement.  Dion’s site-based and gallery installations provoke audiences to explore the pieces with all their senses.  In his piece “Society for Amateur Ornithologists” Dion urges visitors to relax and touch the space’s contents, something often frowned upon in conventional gallery settings.


Exterior and interior views of “The Society for Amateur Ornithologists” 2010

Dion even offers visitors liquor in “Society for Amateur Ornithologists,” activating their sense of taste, but only from fowl-themed brands such as Grey Goose and Wild Turkey (a whimsical touch that would not be out of place in a film of Anderson’s).  Although Dion’s noteworthy museum-installed Wunderkammers have working drawers for gallery-goers to open and explore, he denies their expectations by organizing the contents of the cabinets in non-traditional ways or by hiding certain collections in labeled boxes.  In this way Dion maintains a curiosity within participants of his work, a desire for more information than what he has explicitly given them.

dion details copy

One of Dion’s characteristic red and blue sketches, details from his archaeology inspired work

Like Dion’s installations, Quirk’s shop is curated with a interactive aesthetic, where surprising textures, shapes and smells coalesce to create an immersive experience for visitors.  The shop acts as a sensual invitation to guests who can touch and smell a particularly delightful Library of Flowers soap or No. 311 candle, and are encouraged to try on fine jewelry made of traditional and nontraditional materials.

soap, stuff

Soaps and odds-and-ends sold by Quirk

Conversely, Anderson keeps the viewer as a surveyor of intimate interactions between characters, rather than allowing them to be a player in the scene.  Movie watchers of Anderson’s films find fascinating detail in their sets and appearance, but are unable to cross the threshold of reality into the movie.  They become mentally engaged in the appearance of the film as much as they are the plot, but are left without the physical collaboration inherent in Dion’s work. 

anderson voyeurism 2

Characters in Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” 1996, “The Royal Tenenbaums” 2001


Part of the appeal of Dion and Anderson’s productions is their use of in-expertise and ambiguity to create their own versions of a fantasy-peppered reality.  Dion is a self-described “Martian archaeologist,” at times approaching the individual components of his installations with both honest and feigned ignorance of their original use.  This dilettante approach to science and archaeology has become one of the trademarks of Dion’s work.  Rather than presenting his finds during his epic 1999 Tate Thames Dig project by chronology or material as a trained archaeologist might, Dion implemented non-literal and unexpected organization methods in the work’s central Wunderkammer.  Blurring the lines further between science and art is Dion’s piece “Neukom Vivarium,” a structure built for and containing a 60 foot Western Hemlock nurse tree in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture park.  Part greenhouse-part-living diorama, “Neukom Vivarium’s” oxygen-tent-like surroundings turn the nurse tree into a capsule of the forest ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.


Exterior and interior views of “Neukom Vivarium” in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture park, 2006


Similarly, Anderson has discussed his own movies as “self-contained worlds” that act as narrative tributes to his characters.  Many of his films are set in unspecified time periods, allowing viewers to mentally interact with the movie by connecting visual clues.  WIth this manipulation of context and audience expectations Anderson was able to set “The Royal Tenenbaums” in New York City without ever including the words “New York City” in the film.  By not defining time period or location Anderson emphasizes that the worlds of his movies are his version of the world, no matter how similar they may seem to our reality.

richie and mary

Richie’s gallery in the Tenenbaum house, Elizabeth Coffey’s October 2014 Vault show


Quirk uses the same narrative tools as Mark Dion and Wes Anderson to establish renditions of reality for participant exploration and to inspire curiosity.  Every aspect of the gallery and shop is considered to create a completely immersive moment for gallery goers and shoppers alike.  We love our stuff, but more than that we love it when visitors love our stuff.  Whether it’s a painting in the gallery, an Aggie Zed ceramic figure, or a pair of sunglasses, the smallest things can have the most significance.


Mark Dion is part of a group show called “Forecast,” on view at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery through December 7th, 2014.