Detail from The Wonder Workshop (2015) by Mark Dion
American conceptual artist Mark Dion has long been fascinated with how we understand, categorise and collect from the natural world around us. Through his drawings, sculpture and installations Dion explores how we tell stories about the natural world and challenges the narratives that fill many of our museums and scientific institutions. Where do we draw the line between scientific fact and human feeling? The current retrospective of his work Theatre of the Natural World at the Whitechapel Gallery features a glow-in-the-dark wunderkammer, live zebra finches flying around an enormous human-sized birdcage, and a cabinet filled with curiosities excavated from the banks of the Thames.
Dion seeks to reinvigorate the curiosity and wonder of the viewer, turning our expectations on their head and encouraging us to question and explore the world around us in new and wonderful ways. The Whitechapel show promises to thrill the inner collector in all of us, but what is it about collecting the natural world that so fascinates Mark Dion?
JANE SIMPKISS: What is it about cabinets of curiosity that you find so fascinating as an artist?
MARK DION: I guess it depends on what you mean when you say ‘cabinet of curiosity’. It is a rather sloppy and unspecific term, which I try not to use. I prefer to use the term ‘Wunderkammer’ because when I think about this phenomenon, I am referring to 16th and 17th-century European collections. The term ‘cabinet of curiosity’ seems to be a catch-all term, which can mean any visually striking collection. Home decorating stores have cabinet of curiosity collections, and everyone who collects salt and pepper shakers uses the term. I am keen to discipline the term a bit, to be more specific.
What I find exciting about the wunderkammer tradition is how remarkably different these collections were. They were idiosyncratic cosmological arrangements of natural and artificial objects before there were scientific or disciplinary categories.
Why is the cabinet of curiosity relevant today?
Perhaps there is a way to move forward in museum display by looking backwards to wunderkammen. These pre-Enlightenment collections are exciting models of interactivity, discourse, heterogeneous collection profiles. While traditional didactic models of display discredit the role of wonder and curiosity, preferring rather the passive reception of information, I think curiosity and wonder can activate the critical viewer. I am all for making collections which motivate the viewer to be something other than a passive consumer of information. In a science museum or natural history museum, viewers are not only given answers, but they are told the questions. Art museums tend to encourage a more critical approach to the material, but the questions they ask may not be as profound as those of the natural history or science institutions.
How important is the idea of heritage in your work?
Not important at all. I am an artist, not a historic preservationist, scientist or historian. Even if I identify with the notion of heritage as a person, it does not have a role in my artwork. I do think my work engages with the history of science more than it does science in general.
To what extent do you see your work as being connected to the original purpose of the cabinet of curiosity?
It is difficult to say what the purpose of Wunderkammen was. That is one of the most exciting aspects of these collections; their exact purpose is obscure and multivariate. Were they proto-science or magic based? Were they colonial or religious or based in diplomacy, commerce and pomp? Were they like museums, laboratories, decorations, or art installations? Not knowing exactly how they functioned is part of my interest. We know a great deal about how the exhibitions of The Crystal Palace were intended to function and what their goal and ideology was. However, it is not so easy to make the same claim for the wunderkammen.
Your work combines natural history and art. Many people would see these two things as being distinct from each other, why is it important to you that they be combined?
They are distinct but have for a long time been productively aligned. Art has been a tool for the inquiry into nature and continues to be. Natural sciences have been the source of inspiration in art from Audubon, North and Ruskin to Smithson, Graves and Hirst. For me science is my cosmology. It is the best tool set I have found to explain the phenomena of life and consciousness. So perhaps representing biological science or rather the history of natural history is not so far removed from artists of the renaissance repressing their cosmology as it came to them from Christian theology.
By putting a cabinet of curiosity in a museum setting, visitors may not be able to take out and handle the objects as they may have done with cabinets of curiosity in the past. Is this a problem?
There was an intimacy about early collections, not just renaissance collections, but 19th-century ones as well, which we perhaps lose in the 20th-century. Part of that is doubtlessly due to the rigours of museum attendance and its being so high. I think many early collections were very discursive. In the engravings, you often see people with pointers as though they are explaining the objects and making connections for the viewers. The protocol of not touching things in the museum seems to come much later. In the 19th-century, there are many cabinets which feature drawers which are meant to be opened and explored. I, of course, try to enact this in my cabinet pieces, however, these works often no longer belong to me. If the owner, be that museum or individual, does not want the public to open the drawers, there is little I can do about that.
Library for the Birds of London (2018) by Mark Dion (Photographs by Jane Simpkiss)
Why have you decided to use live animals in some of your work, such as in ‘ Library for the Birds of London’?
Live animals are complex to work with and the use of them opens up all sorts of moral and material complications. Library for the Birds of London is a work about identification, empathy and encounters. I want viewers to be confronted with animals which clearly share much of their sensory experience and yet are radically different. We can see that the birds see and hear; that sound is as important to them as it is to us, and yet there is not really much chance at communication and exchange. They are in their world (which is a built one in our world) and we are in our own. Yet if one spends enough time in the aviary it does not take long to understand that the birds are more rich and different then one might expect. Soon the viewer can experience the birds as individuals - some are bold, some shy, some bullies some picked on, some solitary others only thrive in the group. The work unveils itself over time and experience with the birds.
Do you collect anything yourself outside of your artistic practice?
I collect for my dear friends, who collect postcards and doll dresses, velvet boxes, paintings of dogs, doll house furniture, papier-mâché zoo animals, pin cushions, invalid cups, vintage photography, engravings and a great many other things.
I myself collect wooden mallets, oil cans, natural history books and prints, photos from people's trips to the zoo, postcards of natural history museum displays, finales, ceramic birds, observer books and golden guides to nature; but I am always challenged in the finance department, so I do not buy anything too expensive. I mostly collect things for my artwork. Sometimes I feel including something I am very attached to in an artwork is a way of keeping it part of me, without having to hold on to it in a material sense.