This show begins with an arresting tableau: an aviary containing an apple tree, bolted together, and adorned with books and bric-a-brac, and 22 live, tweeting, zebra finches. There is a lot of bird poo. We can go inside and share the space with the creatures. The key message seems to be how indifferent the birds are to the ‘library’ (books gathered locally by the gallery staff) as a metaphor for our inability to understand the natural world.
The room also contains four large structures simulating ‘hides’ used by hunters and observers in the wild. On the walls, there are medieval style standards featuring fictitious crests which celebrate the violence of hunting. The hides are characterised by types of hunter (Dandy-Rococo and The Glutton) and represent traditions becoming out-moded (The Ruin) – a lost way of life. One of these hides (or ‘blinds’) literally holds up a mirror to us. Another is too high to see properly and is vertigo-inducing, perhaps symbolising the precarity of man’s perceived dominance over nature.
Upstairs, the artist has recreated a study which may belong to a Victorian naturalist, featuring drawings (all in blue and red crayon – see the explanation below), specimens and wonders of the world or of our imaginations. A series of simple drawings of Dead Trees, made in tar, is opposite a row of black and white photographs of taxidermied polar bears, presaging their imminent extinction. The wallpaper repeats a pattern of extinct animals. The room is warm and welcoming at first but soon starts to feel small and claustrophobic. Dion says, “Artists must resist nostalgia… When we reference the past it is not to evoke ‘the good old days’. Our relation to the past is historical, not mythical.” We are encouraged to browse through the books which have prominent Mark Dion branding but do help to provide a wider context for his work.
Next, we experience the frustration of not being able to enter the Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy, 2005. This has a 1920s feel and is stuffed with curiosities and, I expect, ideas that I wouldn’t be able to fathom. The wallpaper has a Rorschach motif and monograms, from famous Surrealists apparently.
The next room houses a large museum-style storage cabinet with drawers displaying items found around Bankside before the construction of the Tate Modern complex. There are also photos of the team involved in the work (in black and white – why?)
The final room is a modern simulation of the Wunderkammer depicted in 17th C engravings, full of crude sculptures coated with luminescent paint and displayed in darkness to give a ghostly but modern effect. Dion describes these creations as “testament to the abstraction, destruction and metamorphosis that human beings enact on the natural world.”
This show is a mish-mash of Dion’s work over the two decades and as such has had to weave together some disparate elements. It is very evocative – we have a strong sense of the muddy banks of the Thames and the camaraderie of the volunteers, as well as life inside the hunting hides. I was left with a feeling, though, that there are almost too many ideas to take in and the connections are not always obvious, making the journey a bit bumpy. The installations don’t quite fit right within the space and where there is emptiness, it seems wasted.
Dion’s obsession is clear and the sheer depth of research is remarkable so all the work feels very authentic. He says he wants to slow us down and that there are rewards for those who are careful and attentive. It certainly is thought-provoking, causing unease for the viewer, even where the art is playful or absurd. Dion says we should not get hung up on what is or isn’t art: be critical, bring yourself to this theatre. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out. He encourages us to be detectives at a crime scene.
- Trees. The tree of life; of knowledge; of evolution – phylogenetic; of societal, philosophical and spiritual hierarchies. Visual metaphors.
- Use of the word ‘theatre‘ in the title – a stage for various actors. Could also be alluding to a medical theatre? Is Dion a conjurer? We become part of the performance eg only four people being allowed into the aviary, entering the Dandy-Rococo hide to observe the rest of the gallery room.
- The overlap – or at least connections – and exclusions between science and art. Lots of grey areas between objectivity and subjectivity. Dion explores the nature of science and art institutions as well as natural history and the history of ideas. He revels in the complexity and glory of the natural world but also emphasises how our fascinations and interactions are destructive and irreversible. Sometimes, he seems to be saying, it is hard to identify where observation and conservation become exploitation.
- It is human nature to hunt, collect, observe, taxonomise, create classifications and order, finding meanings and connections and also ultimately to dominate, subjugate and objectify. The link between knowledge and violence (Victorian colonialism).
- Collaboration. Dion works closely in consultation with local authorities, historians, ecologists and volunteers to mobilise excavations and scavenger hunts resulting in a huge treasure haul of found objects, historical artefacts, curiosities and bits of plastic crap. Equity of presentation. He is relinquishing some control and allowing for human error and for quirks to be introduced. He acknowledges the team and gives them wall space.
- Orphaned collections. How museums and galleries (and all of us) decide what is worth preserving and what can fall into obsolescence and obscurity. ‘Relegated to oblivion’. How to accord ‘value and significance’.
- The Uncanny. We are never quite sure what is real and what is not. What is right and what is not. How far we can interact with the natural world without destroying it?
- The red and blue pencil drawings. I found this to be intriguing and have luckily now discovered the ‘meaning’ here:
These drawings are created using an “accountant’s pencil,” which are blue on one side (for additions) and red on the other (for losses). The pencil has become a staple of Dion’s work, at first just for sketching out sculptures and installations, but over time the drawings have evolved into artworks themselves. The accountant’s pencil allows Dion “to differentiate aspects of the drawing, be that foreground and background, details and generalities, even different responsibilities for myself and my assistants.”
For further research and consideration
- The meaning and implications of nostalgia. How does it impact what we do, or don’t do, today? How is it weaponised and politicised?
- The use of tar as a medium for the dead tree drawings. Tar is caused by ‘destructive distillation’ – the breakdown of organic matter and has some associations with pollution (hence the pigeon skeleton in tar next to these drawings, although why a pigeon and not a seabird – a more traditional association?). Tar is also used to preserve wood and make things waterproof and as a traditional topical medicine.
- What makes it ‘bathetic‘ (per the review in The Standard)
- Robert Smithson – why does Dion reference his weight?
- Hiroshi Sugimoto (referenced in the Guardian review as doing some of this much better).
- Comparisons with Joan Fontcuberta.
- Comparisons with Robert Zhao Renhui.
- Comparisons with Batia Suter.
- Speculative Realism. Never heard of it. What the hell is it?
Key takeaways for my practice
- The sheer eclecticism of show; mixed-media adds a richness and diversity and is very appealing and inspirational. ‘Fragments and miscellany’. The World in a Box. “The Incomplete Writings of …”
- Fascinating emphasis on connections and intersections. The surrealist approach of putting things together that would not normally exist side by side.
- The creation of immersive habitats to explore multiple, complex ideas.
- Including more drawings to show context and evolution of work and ideas.
- Playing with scale (worked really well in the Wunderkammer room).