PRINT November 1999


“Mark Dion: Tate Thames Dig,” currently on view in the museum’s Art Now room, marks the final phase of a project that began in July with a pair of week-long archaeological digs. Contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum tracked the project from the outset. His chronicle follows, with photographs by Andrew Cross.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs
are departed.

—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot was wrong. You can find all that in the Thames and more—or so I learned one morning as I walked along the banks of the river with Mark Dion. It happened to be the day of the recent solar eclipse, so we were on the lookout for the right kind of colored glass for viewing the black sun. The foreshores in central London are archaeologically rich, and we discovered curious things among the anticipated tin cans and used syringes: a fragment of Elizabethan ceramic, an odd-looking shard of bone from a pig, a beautiful fragment of Dutch porcelain, depicting two human figures. I wouldn’t have been able to identify any of this, but a summer of intense beachcombing has made Dion something of an expert in riverbed archaeology. Every six hours the tide provides him with a new layer of material, centuries-old treasures and yesterday’s trash in an unpredictable mix. It’s this complete lack of hierarchy that appeals to Dion. The Thames is a museum with a collection that reaches back to the Romans, its display strictly democratic and continuously in flux.

In July, Dion organized two week-long digs, at Millbank, across the river from the old Tate Gallery, and at Bankside, just below the future Tate Gallery of Modern Art, which opens in May. With the help of some twenty-odd volunteers—who were asked to collect and then identify anything that caught their attention—they systematically scoured the foreshores in the first phase of the Tate Thames Dig, an ambitious project culminating in the exhibition currently on view at the Tate’s Art Now room. The complex process that led up to the show matters as much to Dion as the final display:

I think about this project as consisting of three stages: the dig, the cleaning and preparation, and the exhibition in a cabinet. For me they are all equally important. Then there is a significant appendix, which is the lecture series. One way to describe this project is to say that it visualizes the entire process leading up to the final exhibition. It’s a bit like going to the cinema and being able to see not only the film but also the production. The whole operation is made public, and I’m not interested in distinguishing between the parts that are art and the ones that aren’t. Instead of keeping everything to myself, it’s all acted out in front of an audience, the group of volunteers being the first circle of viewers.

For a month this past summer, passersby could stop at the three archaeologist’s tents set up on the lawn outside the Tate and observe the cleaning and sorting of the finds. When I visited in August, the team of volunteers was busy in two of the tents, one devoted to Millbank, the other to Bankside. They would carefully wash an object, try to identify it, and then put it in the appropriate box: ceramic, bone, glass, organic, shells, wood, leather, metal, plastic, electrical, textiles, concrete, and so on. Occasionally, some exceptional find would create a stir of excitement. Of course, the number of categories and subcategories increased constantly. In the third tent, a small display of objects had been identified and studied more closely: an assortment of rusty keys, the tiny sole of a baby shoe, a bullet shell, and a mysterious doll that brings voodoo rituals to mind.

Among the more intriguing finds are three bottles with messages inside, one of them representing a real enigma. The Arabic text at the beginning and the end of the message is a prayer. The rest is a secret numeric code as yet indecipherable. Who wrote this note, and for whom was it intended? We’ll probably never know.

The exhibition tent also displays a schedule of all the lectures arranged in conjunction with the digs and the preparation. This pedagogical aspect is something Dion especially wants to stress: “What’s important to me is that the research also is made public. We have had the foremost experts come to us to talk about various aspects of the river, people like Steve Davies, from the Metropolitan Police Thames Division, and Colin Renfrew, the world-famous archaeologist. This is part of the same visualization of the process leading all the way up to the final exhibition. These people know so much more about the river than I could ever learn from my own reading. Now this knowledge can be shared by anybody willing to participate.” Dion has carried out archaeological digs on a smaller scale before, notably for the 1997 Venice Biennale, where he searched a modest section of a canal and exhibited his finds at the Nordic Pavilion. Apart from scale, what the Tate Thames Dig adds is an emphasis on collective work. The group of volunteers, mostly teenagers drawn from local community groups, plays a central role not only for the realization but also for the shaping of the individual steps of the project. The lecture series, which perhaps brings the greatest number of people together, provides a polyphonic discourse—throwing light on every possible and impossible aspect of the river—that is clearly beyond any individual artist’s ken.

What, then, will the collection of objects Dion offers up teach us about this city and its river? And is that aggregation of knowledge really what he’s after? The attraction of Dion’s best projects lies in the way they lend themselves to being experienced and interpreted on different levels. On the one hand, the Tate Thames Dig really does teach us a lot of curious things about the river; on the other hand, the artist makes a theoretical point to which most of his works seem to return: the fundamental contingency of all systems of representation. What may sound like a quite dry problematic gains, in Dion’s hands, new pertinence and a welcome dose of humor. Most museums, especially those run by the state, provide an official version of history and the development of culture—a version that by necessity excludes many other points of view. Quoting Walter Benjamin, Dion likes to point out that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” For those of us interested in exhibitions and the representation of culture in general, the next sentence is perhaps the most thought-provoking: “And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it is transmitted from one owner to another.” Thus, not only the producers of the documents are to blame, so are the mediators and transmitters. In other words, not only kings and princes, but the artists who memorialize their patrons’ deeds, have blood on their hands. So do art dealers and curators. The crown jewels at the Tower of London teach us one history lesson, the Tate Gallery another, perhaps not completely incompatible one.

The “archaeologist,” in contrast to the traditional historian, has every chance to lay bare histories other than those involving nobility, governments, and national institutions. Clearly what Dion most wants to eschew is hierarchy. His discoveries in the Thames— toys and cutlery, clay pipes and pieces of clothing—bear witness to developments beyond those decreed by the ruling elites, to daily practices that have left few traces in the history books and museum collections. And Dion’s interest in an accounting of everyday life over the centuries follows a path that has by now of course been well trod by cultural historians. “Beneath the rapidly changing history of governments, wars, and famines, there emerge other, apparently unmoving histories: the history of sea routes, the history of corn or of gold-mining, the history of drought and of irrigation,” writes Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Those concrete histories leave material traces, and the assortment of items on display in Dion’s tents hint at many others, such as the history of lemonade, the history of locks and keys, and the tradition of throwing the knife into the river after stabbing someone to death—at least that’s my admittedly gloomy explanation for the surprisingly large number of knives of every imaginable size and design.

So how do Dion and his team go about systematizing this rich and confusing mass of items? After being cleaned and identified, the objects are ordered into basic groups—organic, glass, bone, and so on—each of which subdivides into a large number of lower classes (for example, in the case of bone: fish, large mammal, small mammal, jaw, teeth, skull, fossil). Rather than prescribing what can be identified and named, as was often the case in classical taxonomy, this system is flexible and develops with the finds. More than any other artist I know of, Dion is acutely aware of the power of classification. In a large number of projects over the years he has developed a subtle critique of the traditional institutions of ordering and displaying nature, such as the zoo, the scientific library, and the museum of natural history. For instance, in The Project for the Antwerp Zoo, 1993, Dion transferred imagery from seventeenth-century Flemish woodcuts depicting exotic birds (several of species now extinct) onto tiles and installed them in a modern aviary, thus juxtaposing artifacts of long-gone colonial barbarism with today’s environmentally sensitive way of representing nature. It was left entirely to the viewer to interpret the clash between the two systems of representation (the beautiful birds in the dioramas, perching on branches on the other side of the glass, offered little advice). Was the story being told here one of progress and enlightenment, or were we only exposed to two equally conventional modes of representation, both incapable of getting at the “real thing”—in this case, the Kantian “bird in itself”?

In the early nineteenth century, G.W.F. Hegel, that most systematic of philosophers, was accused by an unusually independent pupil of having overlooked the existence of a certain plant in South America that did not quite seem to fit the a priori categories of his speculative encyclopedia. Hegel’s reply, perhaps illustrative of a certain scientific stance, was immediate: “So much the worse for South America!” Many of Dion’s writings give fierce expression to the criticism of such presumption, typical not only of dialectical idealism but of seemingly more innocuous theories of nature. In a 1990 text on Walt Disney’s fantasy world, Dion states, “Taxonomy, the classification of the natural world, is a theory of order imposed by man, not an objective reflection of what is present in nature. The categories are actively imposed and contain the assumptions, values and associations of human society.”

Putting aside for a moment their oppressiveness, there is something thought-provoking and delightful about outdated and impenetrable ways of categorizing the world—an allure recognized by writers as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges and Georges Bataille. The effect of Borges’s oft-cited Chinese encyclopedia—which ordered the animal kingdom according to seemingly far-fetched and fantastic categories—and the laughter it provokes in the reader, was appreciated by Foucault for its insight into the limitations of any worldview, even our own “enlightened” outlook, allegedly free of the problematic conceptualizations of the benighted past. Dion’s artistic explorations of the museum of natural history, the Wunderkammer, and various obsolete theories of nature seem to oscillate between humorous investigations of often bizarre chapters in our intellectual history and an earnest critique of the contemporary mind-set, and his displays freely borrow their appeal from the strange poetry of curiosity cabinets and musty old libraries. In The Library for the Birds of Antwerp, 1993, for example, Dion rounded up eighteen African finches to live on the branches of a mutilated, leafless tree (on which bird books also perched), a portentous omen of impending ecological disaster. For Dion, the point is not simply to criticize the old structures of thought that have led to the degradation of the natural world; he also gently mocks the present-day tendency to romanticize nature as a sphere of purity and innocence. While on the one hand these birds are hapless victims of habitat destruction, on the other hand they are themselves plotting to destroy their Darwinian rivals, for among the volumes in the birds’ library, one notes with alarm, is The Great Cat Massacre.

Profoundly engaged in issues of ecology, Dion is always attentive to the dubious relation of man to nature that finds expression in old theories and collections that at first glance might appear harmlessly quaint. Closer scrutiny invariably reveals the root of today’s environmental problems, the understanding of man as the crowning achievement of creation—and even of evolution—firmly seated on the throne of the animal kingdom. The desire to question this hierarchy and to point up its disastrous consequences runs like a red thread through Dion’s projects of the past decade, leading to some quite sinister, even macabre installations, like Tar and Feathers, 1996, with its dead animals (taxidermic specimens, in fact) hanging from a barren black tree. The sinister atmosphere in works like this represents one strong tendency in Dion’s art; another, more optimistic side finds expression in a quote from American biologist Edward O. Wilson: “I suggest that as biological knowledge grows the ethic will shift fundamentally so that everywhere... the fauna and flora of a country will be thought part of the national heritage.” Dion’s works still convey the sense that knowledge of how nature functions could make a difference, but burning rain forests, ozone holes, and other ecological disasters seem to have made him increasingly pessimistic.

If man’s troublesome relationship to nature has been Dion’s principal theme over the years, his recent forays into archaeology leading up to the Tate Thames Dig could perhaps be said to represent a slight shift in focus, since the objects collected, organized, and displayed are to a large extent artifacts. Some of Dion’s perennial bugbears remain pertinent, notably problems of museology, but it’s worth pointing out that here the conflict of man against beast isn’t at issue. What’s at stake is, rather, man’s relation to his own past. The general atmosphere of the project, with its communal and pedagogical aspects, exudes much less pessimism than do recent works: Kids searching for treasures on the foreshores of a river is not such a sinister business. In fact, the general mood in the tents outside the Tate was that of curiosity and the excitement of discovery.

The last stage of the project, the display of the finds in a single wooden cabinet in the museum, will require significant decisions on Dion’s part. In fact, this is the critical moment when the artist will have to create categories and produce a structure. If most of Dion’s projects seem to poke fun at old-fashioned modes of categorization, they never seem to suggest that there is a firm position from which this critique can be launched. The critique is always self-reflexive. Fully aware of the impossibility of all systems, he will have to produce one. There is no way around it. As with a film production, the number of people involved decreases toward the end, and here the artist alone will be responsible for the final arrangement of the items. The complex structure of the display case is based on the nineteenth-century visual cabinet, which should allow for surprises and curious solutions when it comes to the juxtaposition and combination of objects. The tradition of these cabinets reaches back to the Renaissance Wunderkammer, but where the Wunderkammer exhibited only the exceptional, treasures and monsters of nature, Dion’s cabinet displays some of the most ordinary things. The artist effects a further reversal: In the Wunderkammer, the natural was enhanced by strikingly artificial modes of display and made to look even odder and more extraordinary. Here, it’s the other way around—processes of nature, like oxidation, make artificial things look strange.

What links the Tate Thames Dig closely to the artist’s previous work is its critical stance toward the past or, to be more precise, toward the contingent historical paradigms through which every era’s understanding of the past is necessarily mediated. For Dion the river is the perfect metaphor for the historical process, flowing toward us but also beyond us: “People sometimes claim that my works have a nostalgic edge, but that’s not how I see it. I’m never saying that we should return to some golden age. My view of the past is always a critical one, and what I want to convey is that our attitude toward the past is a very adolescent one and that we tend to think that everything leads up to us, that we are the pinnacle of history. If you believe that history leads to you, you tend to think that you have no responsibilities toward anything coming after you.” So how is one to get a grip on the past? Dion knows, of course, that the perspectives are infinitely many, a conclusive rendering impossible—as impossible as a definitive portrayal of a flowing river. “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long,” crooned Eliot. But in fact the song will go on forever.