From the Collection: Mark Dion’s The Great Ash Dump Dig
(b. 1961, New Bedford, MA; lives and works in New York, NY)
The Great Ash Dump Dig (Flushing Meadows), 2001
Various archaeological artifacts, shelves, quote from The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
QMA 2008.14; Gift of the artist
Walking through Flushing Meadows Corona Park at any time of the year, one can spot shards of ceramic, glass, metal and oyster shells at the bases of the great trees planted in 1938 for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Brought to the surface as the soil surrounding their massive roots is constantly in flux, these fragments are incorporated in Mark Dion’s The Great Ash Dump (Flushing Meadows). Made for the 2001 exhibition Crossing the Line in which over fifty emerging and mid-career artists were asked to create site-specific works in various locations in and around the museum, the artist worked with scores of volunteers on a massive archaeological dig that took place in the grassy center of the parking lot adjacent to the museum’s north entrance. Hours of laborious excavation revealed layered strata of artifacts from the park’s pre-history (prior to the two world’s fairs in 1939 and 1964) as a vast refuse site known as the Corona Ash Dumps, from the turn of the last century through 1936, and prior to that, from its location as a pristine wetland and recreation area in the 19th century.
The Corona Ash Dumps were vividly described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in this novel The Great Gatsby from 1925:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile so as to shrink away from a certain desolate are of land. This is a valley of ashes-a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of house and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally, a line of grey car crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight…The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passenger on waiting trains can start at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.
Dion treats these fragments of china, metal and glass as scientific evidence in a kind of orderly recreation of the life of the time, applying strict methodologies to seemingly random collections of detritus. As if painting with broken shards of pottery and metal relics, Dion’s lyrical compositions remind us of the fragility of life itself as told through our own “remains.” Part Wunderkammer, archive and museum back room storage, his collections transverse the permeable boundaries of natural history and biology, art and archaeology. Like Charles Willson Peale’s self portrait, The Artist in His Museum, 1822, Dion consistently pulls back the curtain, inviting us into his remarkably evocative installations that reveal the wonders of the passage of time and human endeavors.
Detailed diagrams and instructions supplied by the artist insure an exact placement of the artifacts each time the work is exhibited.