Mark Dion

“Our way of living is suicidal”

Mark Dion’ s installations

Mark Dion, Mandrillus Sphinx, 2012 – Private Collection, Paris – photo © Jean Vong, Courtesy artist & Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, NY.
By Anne Berk – Newsletter sculpture network March 2013

Some of Mark Dion’s wondrous collections look like humoristic ‘Wunderkammer’, others like three dimensional nightmares. ‘Our way of living is suicidal,’ conveys the American artist at the opening of The Macabre Treasure in The Netherlands.

As a child Mark Dion (1961) looked in amazement at the world around him. Growing up in the small town of Bedford, Massachussets, he stuffed his pockets with shells, shards, stones and bones, or hunted for butterflies that he carefully kept in cigar boxes. Dion still is an avid collector, getting exited about oilcans, wooden mallets, stuffed birds or old photographs he finds at flea markets. “I am an artist who gets a lot from things, and in that way I’m very much a sculptor. I really love the world of stuff.”

Mark Dion. photo: Amanda Dandeneau 2013

Representations of nature

Things showed him the way to the museum world and a career as an artist. Coming from a working class family, Dion was not familiar with museums. But his first excursion to the local natural history museum with school, with its display of artefacts about whaling, was love at first sight.

‘I identify with the mission of the museum, where you go to gain knowledge through things. That is very close to what (my ed.) sculpture and installations are about.[ii] I am a museum junky. As I arrive in a city, I hasten myself to the local museums. Especially natural history museums, which display the way of thinking about nature in a specific time. Museums are time capsules. They embody the values of their time.’ 

Dion clarifies this by showing me his photos of the representations of the polar bear, which he took in 22 museums around the world. ‘In the nineteenth century, the polar bear was presented as a fearful monster with sharp claws. Nowadays as a vulnerable creature that needs to be protected’ [iii], Dion declares. A dramatic shift of power in the relation between man and animal, which he underpins with his own version of the polar bear: a stuffed animal standing in a tub, his white pelt stained with tar, the sticky black residue of oil.

Mark Dion, The Macabre Treasury, 2013 – Het Domein NL. Photo: Anne Berk

World in a nutshell

Collecting is a way to ‘grasp’ the world, physically and mentally, to gain knowledge through things. When 17th century adventurers and merchants sailed the oceans, they returned with shiploads of plants, animals and artefacts, which were displayed in ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’. These represented the world in a nutshell, embodying the abundance of God’s creation.

Collecting starts with comparing, looking for similarities and connections, but ordering and classification systems are always based on value systems. Dion playfully questions the dominant ‘objective’ scientific taxonomies by reminding us that there are other ways of ordering. Just have a look at the world through the eyes of an amateur (or an artist). Subjective but committed.

Trees and birds

Dion’s activist approach fit the holistic concept of curator Carolyn Bakargiev, who invited him to take part in dOCUMENTA 13. In Kassel, the artist paid tribute to Carl Schildbach, who spent 18 years of his life, from 1771 to 1799, gathering the wood, leaves and seeds from 441 trees in Kassel’s environment, to create the first encyclopaedia of trees. Dion encased Schildbach’s famous ‘Xylotheque’, or wood library, in a beautiful cupboard, decorated with inlaid tree illustrations. Such as the oak tree, that refers to the gift of 7000 oaks of Joseph Beuys to Kassel in 1982.

Dions Society of Amateur Ornithologists – on show again this summer in EMSCHERKUNST 2013 – is dedicated to ornithologists and their love of birds. A hopeful sign in the Ruhr district, once the most polluted industrial region of Germany, which is now being ecologically revitalised. In the process, the Emscher, which functioned as a canalised open sewer, will be turned into a river again.

Mark Dion, Society of Amateur Ornithologists, 2010 – Photo: Roman Mensing

In Seattle, Dion realised a large permanent installation at the Olympic Sculpture Park. At first sight, his Neukom Vivarium (2004-2006) looks like a giant nursery. A dead tree from the nearby nature reserve lies in a glasshouse, horizontally, like a dead body in the morgue. Controlled lighting and humidity levels should bring the tree to life again. Visitors are invited to use magnifying glasses to inspect the log for sprouting seeds, living insects, and bacteria. But judge yourself. Our technology is too limited, it can never replace the incredibly complex bio system of nature itself.

In time, Dion has become very sombre about the future of humanity. ‘For 30 years now, I mediate environmental stories. I made works about tropical ecology, coastal ecology, the arctic, hoping that ecological calamity could be averted by awareness. If people knew about issues like the loss of biodiversity, they would act so as to halt the problem. But if you read the signs, you can see things are moving backward. We’re not going to work out the global warming problem. Gradually, the ecosystem will collapse, with ozone holes, ecological wars and species’ extinction. We have an instinctive desire to collect, to have things in reserve. Capitalism fits with our psyche as humans, but we are hoarding. Our materialistic, consumptive way of living is suicidal.’


Dion has no solutions. He holds his art up as a mirror to us, and expresses his mourning. His show in The Netherlands has the meaningful title ‘The Macabre Treasury’, showcasing a Mandrillus Sphinx – a species that is threatened with extinction – reduced to a skeleton, paving his way over golden treasures. And for those who follow the ‘Snowroute’ in the vast Norwegian mountains, Dion prepared another surprise with his installation Den (2012). When you enter a cave like building of architect Lars J. Berge, you find a bear sleeping above a mound of refuse of human civilization, which even here, in the vast wilderness, with its gorgeous vistas over glaciers and fjords, you cannot escape.

Anne Berk

Art critic for magazines and a newspaper and correspondent for Sculpture Network in The Netherlands

Mark Dion current & upcoming exhibitions and permanent installations:

20 jan- 5 May 2013 ‘The Macabre Treasury’, exhitition at Museum Het Domein, The Netherlands

22 June – 6 Oct 2013 Society of Amateur Ornithologists, Installation at Emscherkunst 2013

Neukom Vivarium, permanent installation at Seattle Art Museum

Den, permanent installation, Norwegian National Tourist Routes

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