Mark Dion, Department of Tropical Research, 2005, mixed media, 9' 9 3/8“ x 11' 2” x 8' 2 1/2".

Mark Dion, Department of Tropical Research, 2005, mixed media, 9' 9 3/8“ x 11' 2” x 8' 2 1/2".

Mark Dion

EARLY IN THE MARK DION RETROSPECTIVE, “The Natural History of the Museum,” at the Carré d’Art Nîmes—Musée d’Art Contemporain, visitors encountered a large tarp spread on the floor, with gear from what appears to be a nature expedition arranged carefully in discrete piles: pickaxes, flippers, gas lanterns, butterfly nets and fishnets, twine and rope, canteens, spades and machetes, floppy hats, forceps and tweezers, work gloves, backpacks, and several huge packing crates. The meticulous organization is nonhierarchical: Here a stack of plastic bags is on equal footing with a pile of printed matter. In foregrounding the physical material, the mediating things that are needed to collect and analyze various kinds of rare specimens, Department of Tropical Research, 2005, resembles several of Dion’s previous installations, including researchers’ workstations such as Desk of the Paleontologist, 2001, and History Trash Scan, 1996—both on view later in the exhibition. More so than in the workstations, however, Department of Tropical Research submits the paraphernalia used in making a collection to the same methodical taxonomic organization by which the collection itself is arranged.

This neat conceptual recursiveness does not quite account, however, for the fascination the piece generates through both its individual things and its categorization of them. The term fascination, linked as it is with the stronger affect of wonder, has had a central though uncomfortable status in Dion’s reception. “Although the objects he amasses or fabricates form a fascinating compendium of flotsam and jetsam,” Lisa Corrin writes in a 1997 Phaidon monograph on the artist, “what is on display are the processes of naming and sorting and the political and ideological conditions framing them.” In this reading, Dion’s evocation of the Renaissance and Enlightenment Wunderkammer seems to transcend its own disturbing materiality, its suggestion of what Corrin calls a “problematic and fetishizing relationship to objects,” by catapulting viewers immediately toward a critical understanding of collecting. A large museum retrospective of Dion’s work such as this—more than 120 works from the past fifteen years were on display in Nîmes (where the show was organized by director Françoise Cohen)—must then present an especially embarrassing spectacle: so many things to forget en route to a critique of collecting.

Placing Dion after both the phenomenological model of site-specificity cultivated by the Earthworks artists and the model of museum or gallery as site developed by artists associated with institutional critique, Miwon Kwon (writing in her 2002 book, One Place After Another) sees Dion’s activities as part of a development since the late 1980s in which the totality of natural history—“delineated as a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange, or cultural debate”—becomes a single “discursive site.” Here the real returns by replacing the domain of the (potentially disembodied) concept with that of the (socially grounded) discourse, seen in a Foucauldian light as “a space of exteriority in which a network of distinct sites is deployed.” Like Corrin, then, Kwon sees the messy materiality of Dion’s practice (be it performance or installation) as but a brief preliminary to his more significant engagement with the larger “discourse” of natural history.

But what if the fascinating material substance of Dion’s things were not some distracting preliminary to the real work of good old institutional critique? Rather than seeing his work as engaging the discourses of the museum and natural-historical practices by moving away from the object, we might see it instead as doing so by producing an oscillation between neat illustrative objects and unruly multivalent things. In distinguishing things from objects, literary critic Bill Brown frames these two categories in a sequential, though never final, relationship: “Temporalized as the before and after of the object, thingness amounts to a latency (the not yet formed or the not yet formable) and to an excess (what remains physically or metaphysically irreducible to objects).” Useful objects become recalcitrant things, both when they cannot be identified (as in the word at the tip of one’s tongue) and when their physicality or significance exceeds their instrumental function. We might understand the natural-historical display as the never fully successful attempt to make things behave as objects. Dion is a connoisseur of the difficult-to-name latencies and intractable physical excesses that are by-products of this struggle.

The performative aspect of Dion’s field research presents both. On a clothesline in Department of Tropical Research hang shirts and pants, reminders of the bodies that animate this gear—which, in turn, remind us of the various roles Dion takes on: tropical explorer, archaeologist of the mundane, entomologist, paleontologist, spelunker, romantic traveler, vivisectionist, and so on. “While I’m not acting, taking on a fictive role,” Dion says in an interview included in the exhibition catalogue, “I’m impersonating somehow by re-enacting the methodology of another professional.” If the tarp collects one enticing infrastructure of collecting, it also documents one role in a string of Dion’s ongoing metascientific performances.

Dion’s critics, however, have sought to contain the messy implications of these various performative roles. While Kwon’s proposal that Dion’s “site” is the discourse of natural history usefully highlights the real social effects produced by scientific models and practices, it also unifies and in a sense hypostatizes what are in fact widely disparate scientific paradigms engaged in Dion’s work: from recent eco-dilemmas and disasters (wolf habitats in Mobile Wilderness Unit-Wolf, 2006; bird extinction in Monument to the Birds of Guam, 2005) to epistemological questions grounded in Renaissance wonder cabinets; from nineteenth-century exploration gear and travel journals (A Tale of Two Seas: An Account of Stephan Dillemuth’s and Mark Dion’s Journey Along the Shores of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and What They Found There, 1996) to Neoclassical knowledge-tree prints (collaborations with Robert Williams) and films about twentieth-century zoos such as Seven One Minute Movies, 2006. Gary Snyder rubs shoulders with Linnaeus; Rachel Carson chats with Buffon and Sir John Ray; Cuvier and Donna Haraway rearrange Aldrovandi’s cabinet. Although there are obvious shared points of interest—the construction, destruction, systematization, and display of “nature”—emphasizing the siting of the work within a unified “discourse” may obscure Dion’s quite various recodings of discrete scientific vocabularies and practices. Identifying a discourse is a less specific and compelling act than making its various manifestations speak in unpredictable new ways, which Dion has done.

Consider The Gift, 1993–2000, composed of a large open cabinet filled with unopened packages mailed from the artist to collector Karola Grasslin, mostly while she was in Cologne. While playing on mail art, The Gift also materializes a scientific correspondence—one of the basic institutions of scientific knowledge since the Renaissance. If in one sense we are kept at a distance from the matter of the correspondence, in another that’s all we see: The title suggests a revision of Marcel Mauss’s famous anthropological study of the same name, in which Trobriand islanders try to outdo each previous gift. By performing the role of the scientific-specimen mailer, and collecting the results inside a monumental display cabinet, Dion suggests that Mauss’s model of potlatch might apply equally to the exotic world of scientific correspondence, where the free circulation of (trusted) empirical observations among an expanding network of scientists allows the exponential accumulation of knowledge (“enlightenment” is the term for this, when it’s cleaned up).

In other work, by contrast, Dion literalizes and recodes knowledge by giving form not to its intersubjective networks but to its atomistic nodes—like the cubicle. Many of these, such as History Trash Scan, are performance relics, workstations where Dion has dusted off and labeled pottery shards or glass vials unearthed during one of his digs; some, though, such as Desk of the Paleontologist, present cubicles without a performance history, with the resulting suggestion that the knowledge-worker might return.

Dion’s postperformance installations are most fascinating when they do not seal his self-consciously contingent taxonomic work within closed cabinets. The Great Munich Bug Hunt, 1993, for instance, appears (from photographs published in the exhibition catalogue and elsewhere) to have been a compelling performance in which Dion and assistants spent the period of the exhibition (at K-Raum Daxer in Munich) removing and categorizing all the insects in a tree that had been brought to the gallery from the Black Forest. The present show features solely the cabinet containing the “results”; with only one drawer open, however, the piece is fairly mute in its later life as a museum relic. More lively are the two pieces that emerged from Dion’s excavation of a site outside Fribourg, Switzerland—another cabinet (History Trash Dig, 1995–96) and a workstation (History Trash Scan), where the sorting of the objects appears to have occurred. Though only one tray of this cabinet is open, here we see a world of paratactically arranged but radically discrepant things: pottery shards next to horse jawbones; oxidized metal next to shoe leather. Above this a notebook numbers, describes, and provides a brief sketch of each object. Dion makes permanently visible enough of the things and their groupings for the viewer to comprehend the often eccentric categories he has invented to systematize them.

This side of his project is on conspicuous display both in the exhibition’s categories used to organize the galleries (which include “Departments” of Earth Science, Entomology, Archaeology, Ornithology, Mammalogy, along with “Archives: Deep Storage” and “Museums and the Culture of Collecting”) and in the series of curiosity cabinets Dion has recently created for universities and museums, where the source materials come not from his digs or field trips but from the institutions’ own collections. My favorite (drawings for which are included in the “Archives” section) is his proposal for the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. For this work he divides the world into nine categories—the Underworld, the Sea, the Air, the Earth, Humans, Knowledge, Time, Vision, and History—assigning each a cabinet that is then stuffed with objects that awkwardly allegorize their fraction of the cosmology. (This awkwardness emerges, for instance, from the playfully contingent fact that cacti and rabbits are selected among the twenty or so objects that embody “the earth.”) As the drawing suggests, such contingency is on endless display in the cabinet’s baroque visual language of division and instantiation. At this exhibition’s second venue, Dunkers Kulturhus in Helsingborg, Sweden (where it is now on view), the show includes objects Dion has chosen—and of course “systematized”—from the city’s museums.

The retrospective includes one cabinet, Theatrum mundi: Armarium, 2001, created with Robert Williams (and using objects from Cambridge University): two large bookshelves—a human skeleton encased between—each of which organizes the world into eight hierarchical categories (according to the respective cosmologies of the early seventeenth-century English hermetic philosopher Robert Fludd, whose attention was drawn in particular to physical substances, and the Catalan medieval writer and philosopher Ramon Llull, who organized primarily in terms of cultural concepts). Thus, on Fludd’s side, for instance, we get the crystals and coal of the mineral and fire domains; the pinecones, gourds, and starfish of the plant and terrestrial zones; the skulls, books, and plastic hearts of the anthroposphere; the birds (and bird guides) of the air; plastic tchotchkes standing in for the spirits and angels of the heavens; below god’s always empty, because especially latent, shelf (subject as it is to bans on representation). In such pieces wonder usefully turns in on itself, pleasure in things coinciding with (not simply giving way to) the vertiginous epistemological and social questions that their arrangement presents.

“Mark Dion: The Natural History of the Museum” is on view at Dunkers Kulturhus, Helsingborg, Sweden, through Aug. 26, and travels to Seedamm Kulturzentrum, Pfäffikon, Switzerland, Sept. 15–Nov. 11.

Lytle Shaw is assistant professor of English at New York University.