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Mark Dion: Misadventures of a Twenty-First Century Naturalist by Melissa Gauger

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The scene opens on a child’s bedroom. It neatly resembles the beginning of life, a crossover between literal beginnings (prehistorics) and human beginnings (childhood.)  Dinosaurs quite completely litter the heavily cluttered space: cheerful red-yellow-blue dinosaur wallpaper lines the wall, amiable plastic dinosaur toys lie scattered across the floor, and a petite dinosaur comforter lounges neatly on the bed. A classic Jurassic Park poster sits adjacent to a pleasantly overflowing bookshelf.  Beside the bed, an inflatable T-Rex rests, and against the wall a miniature television displays an old science film. The only missing piece from the room is the child itself; toys lie dormant, movie lies unwatched, and the T-Rex feels forgotten.  The child’s bedroom feels prehistoric in itself -  a lost moment, a lively memory frozen in time.

The placard reads, “Extinct reptiles may again rule the earth, reborn as cartoons and consumer goods.”

Such is the typical work of Mark Dion, a Massachusetts-born contemporary artist whose installations have recently been displayed at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Mark Dion: Misadventures of a Twenty-First Century Naturalist explores the natural world’s representation in museum, popular culture, and science.  Through unique scientific method and display, Dion creates charismatic pieces exploring humankind and the role of societal power.  The exhibition, Dion’s first U.S. survey,  recounts thirty years of intensive excavation, fieldwork, and collection.

The famous mid-1990s bedroom, entitled “Toys ‘R’ Us (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth),” alludes to popular culture, consumerism, and creature commercialism.  This is Dion’s mission: to address very existential questions through tongue-in-cheek, satirical practice.

Needless to say, I was quite unprepared.

Upon my arrival, a shelf containing jars of fish heads greeted me warmly.  “Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco (Chinatown Division),” it was called.  Complete with a pleasantly organized desk, miniature fan, and world map, the strange “office” seemed drawn  from a distant movie, another time.  The dead fish were especially unnerving - as they should be.  Their empty eyes followed me, mouths agape, as if they had something to say, but couldn't quite find the words. Although presented in a cheerful fashion, a dark shadow followed close behind.  In a flash it was understood: the authority to behead and preserve these creatures was inherently twisted. I felt like a monster.

“Question authority,” the placard whispered.  So I moved on, Dion’s vision unraveling like a ball of thread.

Against one wall in the next room stood “The New Bedford Cabinet,” Dion’s personal excavation of a tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The cabinet harbored a collection of colorful broken glasses and plates, pocket watches, clay pipes, and the tavern’s old, forgotten floor.  Its contents were organized precisely into individual drawers and cabinets, mimicking the essence of ironic scientific authority. While poised as “a fantastical projection of how future archaeologists will find and understand our present,” the installation raised deeper questions regarding humanity’s own mortality. I wondered what aspects of today’s society would endure. Even the floor had faded.

Perhaps nothing we create will truly outlast time; we invent objects we think will last forever, but in truth, everything becomes rubble and dirt eventually.  But look, says Dion sardonically, at least our plates were beautiful.

A haunting, yet fascinating idea: we think we are worth so very much, but our destiny remains duly ingrained.

But throughout the room came the distant sound of birds.  Birds?  Frankly, I thought the unusual noise was a recording - until I stepped forth into the blue room.  Birds.  A massive aviary dominated the otherwise empty space.  Inside the cage, tiny zebra finches and canaries, flying in circles and fighting for birdseed, nestled in a rotting “tree of life.”   Although visitors could step into the cage if they so pleased, the birds paid these intruders no notice, as if they had not seen them at all.

Novels regarding natural history, birds, hunting, and nature littered the scene.  They dominated the floor, they coddled branches, they hung from pieces of rope. But while humanity’s great works served as decoration, they also served as a restroom: the birds quite literally defecated onto human knowledge.

So a question arises once again: does nature really care about what the human race has accomplished?  Sure, perhaps, a piece of the population works as conservationists, but Dion suggests, to what extent is this relationship healthy?  Who is truly being helped?

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In the next room an oversized diorama was propped against one wall.  Dion placed human trash inside, piled atop one another like a set of musty dominos.  Birds, rats, a wolf: they fed at the trash, pecking at the toxic waste we had left behind.  Dion brought our waste to the forefront, quite literally, as he seemed to subtly nudge and say, “Look at what we’re doing.  Look at the mess you tried to forget about.”  The diorama spoke of our own environmental impact without words, but with feeling.

I then viewed a photo from Dion’s series, “Men and Game,” a collection of 161 hunting photographs.  A cheerful man crouched beside a strapping, shining ram.  Two friends at work, one could believe, until it was realized they were not two friends at work. Blood stained the ram’s neck, but the hunter still smiled.  I recoiled.  

The conquest of nature comes with consequence.

Throughout Misadventures Dion creates an intriguing interplay between nature and mankind.  Although his work is presented cheerfully and sarcastically, darker connotations lie beneath every piece.  The work says, “mankind is wonderful,” but more exists in the story.  The exhibit is meant to inspire some sort of reaction - Joy? Anger? Confusion?  I stood there and thought, what am I really doing to the world?  What are the unfathomable impacts of my actions?  Who am I to decide what lives and what dies, what deserves domination and what constitutes power?  

These are the questions Dion leaves open for us.  He provides a statement without a solution, because the solution, inevitably complex, should not be left up to one man.  His work implies collectivity: how we, as a whole, contribute to the systems of power and control that leave behind chaos and disappointment.  

In the center of one silent room stood a large, looming staircase, entitled “The Classical Mind (Scala Naturae and Cosmic Cabinet).”  On each step Dion laid out pieces of his collection: the bottom step composed of minerals and sponges, leading up to a handful of logs and fruits, to rosy seashells, to cases of insects, jars of aquatic creatures, cats and geese.  At the top of the staircase, towering above me, perched one final object: a daunting bust of Aristotle.  Here, Dion expressed Aristotle’s concept of the Great Chain - a system in which mankind prevails over the Animal Kingdom.  Humans, according to our ancestors, stand dominant above all other things, above the butterflies and starfish and toadstools.  So there smiled Aristotle, peering down at life below him.

In the side of the staircase I found a discreet little door.  I briefly stepped inside to find the piece’s second dimension: a completely dark room void of all but a single chair.  Dotted on the ceiling were a thousand tiny stars, twinkling in the confined space: a galaxy in a box. Classical beliefs claim a “heavenly vault” surrounds the earth, placing humanity at the center of the universe.  But as I sat there, engulfed in silence and darkness, peering into the night sky, I thought this could not be so.  We are not conquerors. We are specks, as small as the cupboard’s “stars,” looking for a foothold among the immortality of space and time.