Mark Dion is an American conceptual artist that since the 1980s has created spectacular and often fantastical curiosity cabinets, modeled on Wunderkabinetts of the sixteenth century. These installations serve as critiques of institutional power structures, questioning notions of the representation of nature, display, codification, and collecting. A longtime environmentalist, his work acknowledges the repercussions of the human impulse to dominate nature. Dion conducts extensive research in the history of science. His appropriation of institutional methods of gathering, ordering, and exhibiting objects has resulted in his distinctive material vocabulary.
This year, the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in NYC, NY presented “The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels,” a new exhibition by Mark Dion. In one installation, the artist invited viewers to experience the large-scale immersive installation, ” The Library for the Birds of New York,” in which 22 live birds cohabitated with books, ephemera, images and objects related to birds from popular, art historical, scientific, and film sources. Central to the installation was an 11 foot high white oak, that referenced a range of important philosophical and scientific constructs: the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and the evolutionary tree, which served to illuminate the phylogenic system created by man to understand the structure of the biological world. “The Library for the Birds of New York” also included artifacts of capture such as birdcages and traps, referencing hunting for the exotic bird trade. Other imagery was symbolic of death, extinction, and the classification of birds as pests or vermin. These historical categorizations position man atop an implied hierarchy, and are juxtaposed with a subtle insistence that birds possess knowledge outside of the human experience, rendering them fundamentally unknowable by man. The birds are uninterested in these objects; thus underscoring the absurdity of a manmade library for birds, which purports to school them in subjects such as geography, navigation, and the natural world, of which they inherently have full command. Another piece titled “Cabinet of Marine Debris,” where plastic debris was harvested on an expedition to the North Pacific Gyre, off the Alaskan coastline, raising awareness about the plastic pollution on the oceans.
“We are at a moment where we are being tested whether we keep the planet, and I don’t feel we are doing a very good job of it.”-Mark Dion (quoted from the segment in Art21/PBS.
Watch him in the PBS segment Art21: Mark Dion in “Ecology”