New York/Ridgefield, CT

Mark Dion

American Fine Arts / Aldrich Museum

Mark Dion, like Broodthaers or Beuys, is an artist with an idiosyncratic formal lexicon. But instead of mussels or felt, Dion’s materials are taxidermied members of the “R-select species,” varieties of trees living and dead, and the systems and accoutrements of natural science.

Two shows running concurrently, at American Fine Arts in New York and at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, offered in-depth looks at Dion’s work from the mid-’80s to the present. At the gallery, the collaborative aspect of Dion’s work was stressed, while the show at the Aldrich was a retrospective. Both demonstrated how Dion’s notions of history and archaeology (or history as archaeology) have evolved into wide-ranging investigations into natural history, the relationship between animals, humans, and environments, and the Western systems of classification that overlay it all.

Dion’s interest in this Foucauldian archaeology was visible in the earliest work on view, a video installation at AFA titled Artful History: A Restoration Comedy Installation, 1986. Featuring the artist, who was working at the time as a conservator, this project attempted to show how paintings are refigured in the restorer’s studio, then sold as untouched “historical” works. In the video, Dion declares the whole practice to be “like an archaeological discovery” in which treasures and histories can be found under the top layer of paint (“one artwork discovered under another”). Restoration served as a springboard for Dion to other investigations.

Natural history and the natural history museum followed quickly. Tropical Rainforest Preserves, 1989/2003, a terrarium-like structure stocked with tropical flora, referred to the loss and destruction that came with exploration and colonization. With Library for the Birds of Connecticut, 2003, at the Aldrich, an upright dead tree, its branches laden with books, brought up ideas of history, nature, and systems of classification. Trees are, of course, the favored metaphor for genealogies, both scientific and art historical (think of Ad Reinhardt’s 1946 cartoon How to Look at Modern Art in America or Dion’s own multiple-diagram drawings).

Dion’s beloved “R-select species”—living things that thrive in disturbed habitats (climbing vines, seagulls, rats, and various bottom-feeding fish)—also made several appearances. In Concrete Jungle (The Mammals), 1993, an installation at the Aldrich, we saw garbage cans and piles of nonperishables—newspapers, plastics—installed alongside taxidermied scavengers (also the subject of related photographs at AFA, done in collaboration with Bob Braine and Alexis Rockman).

Many other works revealed the extraordinarily collaborative nature of much of Dion’s practice. Almost all his work has been done in concert with others, from students and community members participating in a Connecticut archaeological dig to his partner J. Morgan Puett to longtime pals Braine, Rockman, and Jackie McAllister (with whom he created Thirst for Knowledge, 2003, a mock art-school cloakroom complete with clothing and books “typical” of various art-student types).

This method is itself part of Dion’s critique of Western culture’s premium on individual achievement. The Delirium of Alfred Russell Wallace, 1994/2003, an installation at the Aldrich inspired by Wallace’s 1850 malaria-induced revelations in the Malay Archipelago, which Darwin apparently partially cribbed for The Origin of Species, brings together several of Dion’s favorite binaries—the individual and the collective; art and science; imperialism and naturalism; nature and culture—in order to show how they are, in fact, inextricably linked.

With its multiauthored eclecticism, Dion’s work can seem opaque—just like, come to think of it, that of Broodthaers and Beuys. As with those artists, he’s dedicated to highlighting and undermining Enlightenment values through the use of his own formal vocabulary. Just the act of looking at Dion’s work—all those books, photos, drawings, specimens, and objets trouvés—can be fatiguing. But what he re-creates in his art simulates the fatigue of Western history: the headlong rush to conquer, acquire, accumulate, consume, collect, classify, arrange, display, reconfigure, reconstruct, restore, preserve, and represent. Art for Dion is both academic—evoking a history lesson or a science project—and highly social; working in idiosyncratic ways, he reminds us how effective art can be when it collapses these varieties of experience.

Martha Schwendener