Mark Dion

Galerie Metropol

As Mark Dion is fond of pointing out, the world’s ecosystems are really screwed-up. Focusing on how this sad state of affairs came into being, Dion investigates the shifting conditions of species generation, survival, and extinction within an increasingly hybrid environment. Using research and classificatory methods lifted from environmental science and ecology, Dion relates these conditions to specific sites or situations. For Dion, “site-specificity,” or “context-specificity,” has as much to do with testing the physical/ideological parameters of the cultural institution as it does with making interventions in so-called noninstitutional/noncultural spaces.

Reinventing himself as a (faux)-research scientist to investigate specific instances of indigenous fauna and flora coming into contact with the long arm of (post)industrial culture, Dion worked, in one instance, with curators at the state zoo in Belize to develop a new system of signs identifying or representing the endangered species of that country; these have become a permanent element of the zoo’s official “information” system. In an effort to establish both concrete and symbolic linkages between disparate cultural-geographic situations, Dion displayed a duplicate set of these signs at a New York gallery, in some sense playing up—and mapping—the inherent contradictions of his own effort to “transgress” traditional boundaries.

While certainly influenced by the visionary pragmatism of Robert Smithson, as well as artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Michael Asher, Dion has made a concerted effort to inject the language/method of his vanguard cultural esthetics into the “pragmatic” realm of science and education, and conversely, to introduce scientific procedure into the fabric of his art. One month may find Dion foraging around the rain forests or jungles of South America, and another, traveling around the international art exhibition circuit.

Dion usually arranges scavenged materials into a mise-en-scène that sometimes functions as an archival workstation, as in another recent New York show in which Dion worked in the gallery on a daily basis to classify species of fish bought from vendors on Canal Street. In his recent gallery-specific project entitled “Aristotle, Rachel Carson, Alfred Russel Wallace,” 1994, Dion did a little excavating of the history of his own preoccupation with how models of the “natural order” have been constructed and institutionalized. One of the installations was a kind of metaphorical homage to Alfred Russel Wallace, who, as Dion explained to us in a tidy biographical narrative, was the “indisputable cofounder of the theory of evolution by natural selection” in the mid 19th century, not Darwin. Bringing together such items as a hammock with mosquito netting, a small palmlike tree, a taxidermied tropical bird, books, a hat, a chest full of sundry items, Dion assembled a picturesque—and ironically romantic—model designed to evoke not only Wallace’s spirit of exploration (he traveled to South America and Malaysia) and study, but also Dion’s taste for the expeditionary lifestyle. Echoing in this site of playful archaeological recovery and recuperation was a tape-recorded reading of Wallace’s treatises.

In an adjacent room, the artist set up what might be understood as a subversive memorial to an Aristotelean natural order: a large, stepped architectural structure featuring a display of Dion’s personal hierarchy of elements. At the bottom of the “stairs” stood artifacts representing man/culture, then came strata of fungi, fruits and vegetables, seashells, butterflies, a stuffed cat and duck, and finally a bust presumably of Aristotle, sitting atop the pinnacle. Coolly nostalgic and unexpectedly beautiful in their arrangement, Dion’s “natural selections” offered an allegory of the artist’s conversations with previous constructions of the relation between man and nature.

Joshua Decter