Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World review

Art, Contemporary art
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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‘Wunderkammer’ is a neat little German word. It means a ‘room of wonder’, filled with incredible, awe-inspiring objects and trinkets. Now imagine if that wonder was replaced with something much darker: the truth of humanity’s legacy. US artist Mark Dion has been replacing wonder with ecological misery for his whole career.

He’s sort of like a little kid with a butterfly net who gave up catching bugs decades ago, and instead started catching ideas. His retrospective show here is full of the symbols and signifiers of academic research – leather-bound books, mahogany cabinets, anatomical drawings – but instead of science, he’s delving into ideas of human impact, of the nature of the quest for knowledge, of futility and frustration.

It starts with four hunting blinds, enormous structures for hiding yourself away and laying in wait for your prey. Each is filled with books, trophies and chairs or laid out for a dinner party. The prey here, metaphor fans, is knowledge itself. One of the blinds has fallen and collapsed. It’s a futile pursuit.

In the centre of the room, 22 beautiful little zebra finches flit about in an aviary/library. You can enter and stand among the poor things as they swoop and dip, stopping only to rest and take dumps on piles of nature books. They’re literally shitting on our acquired knowledge. Dion’s not subtle.

More books and nature drawings follow, tracing lines between art and academia. There’s a closed-off office filled with objects collected in Manchester and a pitch-black room of glowing sculptural recreations objects of wonder: ethnographic masks, chunks of coral, lizard-like mermaids and bizarre creatures mutated through endless rounds of inaccurate medieval drawing. It shows the folly, the manipulation, of human knowledge.

But the real star is the return of ‘Tate Thames Dig’, created for the opening of Tate Modern in 2000. This huge cabinet is the result of Dion and team digging through the mud of the Thames and obsessively cataloguing everything they found. You pull on the drawers and doors to find neatly arranged bottle caps, boxes of electrical wire and animal bones, and suddenly the whole show makes sense.

Dion is saying that you, as an individual, are destined to be forgotten. The only way you’ll be remembered is through the detritus you leave behind: your drink bottles, the soles of your discarded shoes, the bone in your jaw. Dion is showing that we are nothing but the effect we have on the world. We are the pollution we cause, the litter we dump. Aesthetically, Dion’s university reading room vibe leaves me cold, but riffling through these drawers, you’re putting your hands on a future you’ve helped shape, but won’t be part of. I guess maybe it’s time to start taking recycling seriously.



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