by Vivian Li
Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist
INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, BOSTON | OCTOBER 4–DECEMBER 31, 2017
In Mark Dion’s first U.S. survey of the last thirty years of his career, the only work that is unquestionably fictional is the first one. Toys ‘R’ U.S. (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) (1994), a life-size bedroom installation replete with dinosaur patterns and paraphernalia, appears in the introductory vestibule of Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. In this work, there is no effort toward fact, objectivity, and order, just the innocence of a child’s fascination with dinosaurs and a manic collecting of everything and anything dinosaur-related. The few detailed posters and models of dinosaurs, which are scattered on the floor and decorate the wall, bookshelf, and dresser of the bedroom tableau, mingle with the colorful cartoon dinosaur print of the wallpaper, bed sheets, and clothes casually hanging out of the dresser drawer.
While the disheveled, staged bedroom in Toys ‘R’ U.S. might suggest a naïve and playful quality for the rest of the show, much that follows are various tableaux appropriating sterile science and museums’ didactic modes of classification and display that deliberately blur fiction and nonfiction, past and present, and the familiar and the unfamiliar. Many of Dion’s prominent works are related to his numerous pseudoscientific performances, in which he adopts the appearance, tools, and methodologies of scientists and naturalists who have for generations authoritatively collected, studied, and presented specimens from around the world. Yet Dion’s globetrotting activities aim at excavating the banal, overlooked objects of the present-day, from organic material gathered in the Amazon rainforest to debris and found objects on the site of a burned-down, local tavern in his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
His collected items are then decontextualized and precisely ordered, preserved, and presented, often in large wooden or metal wunderkammer cabinets, like his Cabinet of Marine Debris (2014). The cabinet is filled with plastic litter he found along the coast of Alaska, which he then cleaned and carefully grouped by color and shape to give the semblance of order and importance, however arbitrary. In some other works, the collected objects act as props in his performances, such as the variety of fish Dion bought on an urban shopping trip in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Individually labeled and bottled in formaldehyde on shelves in his constructed office, the jars of unrecognizable sea creatures with recognizable names—such as rockfish, croaker, and striped bass—served as the centerpiece of his 1998 performance piece The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco (Chinatown Division), in which he role-played as a fish botanist at work.
Dion’s critical assessment of the tradition of man’s study and appreciation of nature is less apparent in the works of the first half of the show than the second—with a few exceptions, such as The Ladies’ Field Club of York, which he made with J. Morgan Pruett in 1999. A series of eight sepia-toned studio portrait photos of powerful women in the 1990s U.K. art scene honors them by reimagining them as 19th-century leaders in different fields of scientific inquiry.
The ambivalence of the artist toward former naturalists’ spirit of discovery, with their assertions of scientific authority, becomes stronger in the second half of the show. As a transitional piece to the second part of the show, a large caged enclosure houses a transplanted tree and a group of twenty-two finches and canaries that inhabit the ecosystem. In the installation The Library for the Birds of New York/The Library for the Birds of Massachusetts (2016/2017), visitors are invited to step inside the chirping and fantastical aviary situated in the middle of the show to marvel at the birds in their habitat as well as the several books (all about birds) fastidiously lining or hanging from the limbs of the tree and piled around the bottom. Knapsacks and other trappings of former adventurous naturalists also hang from the tree. The curious viewer, on closer inspection, can also see the irreverent layers of droppings accumulated on the books and on the tree of knowledge by the very birds the library is supposedly intended to serve.
The romanticized adventures of a naturalist further unravel in the following gallery. The room is imagined as a 19th-century drawing room with burgundy, safari animal wallpaper and wood paneling, a decorative floor rug, and a large wooden cabinet of Dion’s personal memorabilia collected over the years from his work and travels. In a corner of this warm, domestic interior plays his earliest work in the exhibition, a video Dion made with Jason Simon titled Artful History, a Restoration Comedy (1987/2001).
Shot as a pseudo-documentary confessional starring a young, bespectacled Dion, and drawing from his experiences as an art restorer early in his career, the video follows Dion as he reveals how paintings are radically changed not only to preserve them but to enhance their value for profit, or simply on the whim of the restorer to resist boredom. Like his other works in this exhibition spanning three decades, this early work slyly vacillates between the fictional and nonfictional. Despite the unsure footing on which Dion places the viewer, all his works undeniably make us reconsider how our human history is formed, whether from archaeological digs of the immediate past to intentionally modified artworks.
Right before the entrance to the exhibition, a quote from Dion stands alone on a wall. “I’m not interested in the virtual; I’m interested in the actual,” it reads. “I like to be in places and work with things to create a situation that is experiential.” Walking past his quote, exiting the show, the gathering of Dion’s several convincing performances and carefully staged, pseudoscientific installations seems to offer a fresh perspective to our current polarized, post-truth climate. Rather than an outright duel between fact and fiction, Dion demonstrates that the judgment more at stake has always been between truth and value and how we balance the two.
VIVIAN LI is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.