Artistic License: Mark Dion

In “Our Plundered Planet”, the recently opened exhibition at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, pioneering American artist MARK DION questions how we collect and display nature. Penny McCormick tells us more about the artist’s style and the context for this exhibition …

Mark Dion

A library situated in a cage of birds with books perched on the branches of trees. A sleeping bear sculpture in a den on a mountainous landscape in Norway, a Captain Nemo style tank in Germany the inside of which is an ornithologist’s clubhouse. And a child’s bedroom replete with dinosaur patterns and paraphernalia. For American artist Mark Dion, such whimsical, large-scale installations are a means for him to question how naturalists and scientists collect and organise knowledge, and as a by-product how audiences interpret their findings.

“Misadventures of a 21st Century Naturalist”

In the course of his 30-year career, this interest has led him to establish an archaeological field station in midtown Manhattan and to organise an ichthyological expedition in San Francisco’s fish markets. He has also recreated a biologist’s office in his installation “The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York” and one of his most famous works, the “Tate Thames Dig”, which comprises cabinets of curiosities with items such as plastic toys, pipes and shells displayed, fished out of the river.

The Octagon Room, 2008

Dion riffs on the “wunderkammen” of the 16th-and-17th-century with their ordering and labelling of specimens – and often collaborates with museums and zoos for precision in his pseudoscientific displays. Indeed, Dion’s home in Upper Manhattan, which he shares with his wife, the artist Dana Sherwood, is crammed with bookcases and teaming with taxidermy and flea market finds which he collects every weekend.

Between Voltaire, and Poe

All this is the context for Dion’s first solo exhibition in Ireland – “Our Plundered Planet” at Hugh Lane Gallery – which has as its theme global warming and invites the audience to question inherited ideas about nature. The project was planned on paper with detailed drawings (in red and blue pencil) and the wonder cabinet idea is used once more, set against a backdrop of oceanic wallpaper specially designed by Dion.

The Society of Amateur Ornithologists, 2010; image courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/LA.

One of the sculptures “Against the Current”, inspired by a residency in Limerick, is of a severed eel which he describes as “an elegy for the depletion of wild species in Ireland’s rivers. A visceral sign of the cuttings of our River Shannon by modern engineering.” The subject matter is close to his heart – he has said, “for the things I care about — oceans, forests, wild places, and wild things, there is very little good news. This is a serious role for the arts — bearing witness and mourning. After all, mourning is a legitimate mode of thinking.”

Need to Know: Our Plundered Planet, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Parnell Square, Dublin 1 will run until September 1; www.hughlane.ie.

Penny McCormick

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