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Mark Dion's Theatre of the Natural World

Questioning the hierarchy of objects and our fragmentary approach to knowledge at the Whitechapel Gallery, London

‘I want to frustrate the viewer,’ Mark Dion remarks at the opening of his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. He’s referring in particular to Tate Thames Dig (1999) and the seemingly irrelevant taxonomies that this installation creates out of worthless junk combed off the banks of the eponymous river by a team of volunteers. Rubbish, in this case, isn’t simply a material to be transformed into art, but a medium to be shown on its own merit: Dion digs, washes, classifies and presents the meticulously organized refuse in a sumptuous, carved wooden cabinet inspired by early British Museum display cases. Gathering every object found in a week, the work has become a monument to material culture of the past few centuries. If a little tainted, it questions the nature and the hierarchy of our knowledge systems while subtly caricaturing the fetishism of museum collecting: what gets saved and what gets thrown into the rubbish bin of (art) history?

Frustrating as it might be, the exhibition fails to disappoint. Spread across the gallery’s two floors are around 20 works, as well as drawings and prints, created over the past two decades, which keep an inquisitive mind constantly engaged. ‘I do not want the visitors to rush through, as if it was an Ikea shop,’ Dion says. The art of slowing down is prompted in multiple and multisensory ways: as we peek inside a wooden lodge, Hunting Blind (The Glutton) (2008), where cured meat hangs from the ceiling and a table is set for a feast; examine the mind-boggling detail of the Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy (2005), a fictional recreation of the Surrealists’ Parisian office of 1924; in a sumptuous library that Dion arranges on the top floor.

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Mark Dion, The Library for the Birds of London (detail), 2018, mixed media; steel, wood, books, zebra finches, and found objects, installation view, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery, London; photograph: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

The centrepiece of the ground floor is The Library for the Birds of London (2018), a walk-in aviary populated by Australian zebra finches who, examining their curious visitors, jump from branch to branch on an apple tree, rest on Introducing Marxism (2004) and various other books representing the multitude of disciplines that define humankind’s fragmentary approach to knowledge. It seems as if the entire world could be sliced down and placed onto neat shelves in a library: here biology, there mathematics, over there philosophy. The finches chirp ever-gleefully, displaying little interest in science nor the humanities; neither quantum physics nor curative medicine, but rather in the regular seed supplied by staff. Visitors are told to enter and exit the cage with extreme caution, so that none of Dion’s bird friends escape the installation into the wilds of the gallery.

The wilderness is no safe place, as two life-size wooden hunting blinds displayed in the same room remind us. The works focus on the history and culture of hunting: that peculiar human activity combining a profound sense of respect and admiration towards non-human species on the one hand, and the inexplicable brutality of killing for the sake of enjoyment on the other. Dion makes no quick judgments in his portrayal, but rather questions the practice and the associated political and ecological entanglements. Once known as ‘the sport of kings’, the hobby is itself moving fast towards extinction; the intimate and ‘cultured’ tradition of hunting replaced by slaughter on an industrial scale.

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Mark Dion, Hunting Blind (The Librarian), 2008, mixed media, 5.2 x 1.8 x 1.8 m, installation view, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery, London; photograph: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

Dion has little optimism when it comes to the future, which is perhaps why he directs his gaze almost exclusively towards the past in his work. From renaissance studioli to 16th and 17th-century wunderkammern and Victorian museums, his fictional world offers a full immersion in the history of science, collecting and museum displays of the past five centuries. A place from which we emerge with habitual taxonomies and hierarchies ever so slightly recalibrated. 

'Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World' is on view at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until 13 May.

Main image: Mark Dion, The Wonder Workshop, 2015, dark oak cabinets, epoxy resin, paint, 124 magic sculpt objects, installation view of Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery, London; photograph: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

Aliya Say writes on contemporary art and culture. She is currently based in Moscow, Russia.

Issue 194

First published in Issue 194

April 2018
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