Looking back along the history of institutions from museums to laboratories, Mark Dion keeps one foot in the golden era of American naturalism and the other in that of postwar institutional critique. His meticulously detailed installations combine an informed environmental didacticism with a sophisticated, methodical deconstruction of the taxonomic systems that underlie natural sciences, social hierarchies and the structure of the art world. The experience of his installations can be overwhelming. His recent 12-year retrospective at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut included scrapbooks and quadrille notebooks, charts and drawings, prints and stamps that he has collected, glass and plastic fragments, teetering piles of books, stuffed birds and bears and overalls and lab coats hanging on hooks. But rather than disorder, the overall impression is one of rigorous structure.
Dion’s notebooks link traditional scientific ranking systems with the cultural values that they reflect and are used to bolster. The animal-themed ephemera in one installation—sharing narratives of racism, species-ism and cruelty with a dark whiff of colonialism—are crowded together in a carefully arbitrary presentation reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’s Musee d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles “exhibitions,” installations of borrowed eagle-themed artworks organized alphabetically by lending institution. Similarly positioning himself as collector, curator or even naturalist, Dion reinscribes himself below artist as auteur in the art taxonomy.
Behind Dion’s exposure of the machinations of taxonomy lies an authentic exhilaration with the natural world. “The objective of the best art and science is not to strip nature of wonder but to enhance it,” he writes. Lately he has been exhibiting a length of a giant tree inside a glass and tile vitrine. Over time the tree slowly deteriorates while sprouting an impressive array of fungi and a patch of wood sorrel. While refraining the well-worn question of the elevated status of the artwork, this giant fund object complicates the science-project theme: the agent of transformation here is nature itself, not the artist, like “entropologist” Robert Smithson. Dion is interested in what happens after the work is “made”: composition giving way to decomposition. But Dion’s consuming interest in the biological balancing act of the natural world leads him to facilitate the blooming of new structures on the ruins of the old. For him entropy is always explicitly matched b the natural process of rebirth.
In several elaborate projects in the mid- to late ‘90s, Dion and a team of helpers excavated a site-always chosen to hold no real archaeological value-and extracted non-natural items (swizzle sticks, dolls, shards, bottle caps), cleaning, sorting and exhibiting them in neat rows according to material, shape or color in large wooden cabinets. Like Smithson’s mid-’60s “site and non-site” works, the Dig installations function as fragments of the original site, as evidence of the process of unearthing, as pointers to a collective local memory and as reminders of the structures of aesthetic and social taxonomy and of the museum itself. By displacing these inconsequential objects from the landfill in which he found them, Dion creates a synecdoche for human history that points to the tawdry artifacts of contemporary life and the artificiality of the very earth beneath the populated landscape. Introducing these trinkets into the museum, Dion again calls into question the eligibility requirements of art and adds a social dimension to the post-Minimalism that informs his installations.
The almost evangelical conservationism that infuses Dion’s work does not dull its incisive political content, just as the natural history leanings of his installations do not lower their aesthetic status. His desire to heighten our awareness is called for by the entropy of contemporary life. Presenting fragments of the local (past and present) as pointers to a whole that is absent, Dion offers the balance exemplified by natural systems as the tool with which to dig our way out of the holes in which we are entrenched.