Mark Dion: Scientist, Artist, Collector

by Minji Kim

If there were a single personification of the bridge between science and art, it would be Mark Dion. With his oversized black-rimmed glasses and olive green sweater, Dion has the air of an endearing science nerd. While he has a background in chemistry and his oeuvre stems directly from the scientific realm, his medium is art and installation, through which he explores the dynamic push-and-pull between scientific objectivity and subjective selection. In a talk on Thursday, a collaboration between the Office for the Arts, the Visual and Environmental Studies department and the Public Art Program, Dion shared how he challenges institutionalized conventions of museums through his work.

After wryly explaining that "This is a slide," while holding up a tiny projector slide, Dion click through photographs documenting his entire journey as an artist. Dion’s projects range from the smaller, but no less dense curiosity cabinets, to large public art works he has most recently come to as a medium for his witty ideas. No matter the subject—whether it be fish from New York’s Chinatown, London’s urban detritus, or a nurse tree in Seattle—Dion collects and catalogs with the obsessive thoroughness of a taxonomer, while packaging and displaying in a way that makes his work aesthetically enthralling. He even ventures into performance art, as Dion is actually present in many of his installations, acting out the process of taxonomic categorization.

Dion further questions the subjectivity of museum collections through a project in which he traveled through the Amazon rainforest and made a list of every single creature he encountered. He then faxed this list to a natural history museum in Switzerland. If the museum had the animal that was on his list, then they would fill an empty display case with those creatures.

"I was trying to use the mechanism of chance to tease out something about the structure of the institution," Dion said.

On a more humorous level, Dion’s "bureaus," like the Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy in the Manchester Museum, poke fun at the ways in which people collect and classify their findings. The Bureau of Surrealism is a useable office packed with curiosities and vestiges from the Surrealist movement. Wallpapered with designs subtly containing Rorschach tests and monograms from famous Surrealists, the room is a cross between a nostalgic storage room for Surrealist miscellany—mounted heads of peculiar birds and a phone that no one answers—and a quirky, eccentric curator’s office.

"The public can’t enter, but the staff members still use it for their meetings. So they themselves become the Bureau for the Study of Surrealism," explained Dion.

His wit and wry humor are most apparent in such interactive works as a New York biological field station in Madison Square Park, which was modeled after his first Tijuana version. These stations are open platforms for visitors to enter into a space that is designed to help one understand his or her surroundings. Of course, Madison Square Park falls a bit low on the ecological diversity scale, but like its Tijuana counterpart, the station offers visitors a complete Mark Dion field guide to all the various pigeons and squirrels they can find.

Dion has had his works exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and he has also been commissioned for public art projects in Austria and Germany. His interdisciplinary work offers rich fodder for discourse, a witty conversation that continues even in the classroom, as he teaches at Columbia University and is currently embarking on a project with Tufts students.

[Caption: Mark Dion, in action. ]