Mark Dion makes elaborate sculptural installations, oftentimes including performative elements, through which he investigates how systems of classification, display, exploration, and preservation inform the construction of knowledge, especially where it involves the natural world. More concerned with how knowledge about nature is ideologically driven than with nature itself, Dion explores the ways in which institutions help—and sometimes hinder—our understanding of the natural world and our position within it, questioning the authority of those institutions and their conventions. Along with his interest in the capacity for objects to tell us something about the world, his commitment to the scientific method and connection to the environment form the foundation of his multivalent practice, within which he adopts many of the same conventions that he challenges.
Art restoration and preservation are the subject of Artful History, a Restoration Comedy (1987/2001), a video that Dion made in collaboration with the artist Jason Simon (b. 1961) when they were both attending the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program. Following the opening credits, a series of details from paintings are paraded before the camera: a portrait of a young woman, then one of a young man, a ship at sea, another young woman. A female narrator with an English accent tells the story of an explorer, his betrothed, and another woman he falls in love with in a distant port of call. After we learn that the explorer eventually came to his senses and returned home to his fiancée, the video cuts to a sound stage occupied by a young man seated on a stool and several paintings and segments of paintings suspended from the ceiling and spotlighted in the middle distance. The remaining twenty-odd minutes of Artful History offer an engaging, and unexpectedly frank, look into the business of art restoration, including backroom dealings and restorer shenanigans, such as cutting up paintings and sculptures to make them "better" or removing an element from a painting for one client and then replacing it for another. Each of the images used in the prologue appears in the video as another case study. The use of the word artful in the title of this work is precise: the video illuminates a largely invisible and unregulated aspect of the art world in which the preservation, restoration, and sale of art can involve nefarious doings, and it reveals the cunningly manipulative power of the pairing of image and text in the cinematic context.
In Killers Killed (1994–2007), Dion presents ten taxidermic animals that are either predators or vectors whose reputations for lethal behavior precede them. Covered with tar and hung from a dead tree branch "planted" in a galvanized metal bucket filled with tar, they pay their penance in perpetuity both in the sculpture itself and in our culture: animals such as coyotes and rats are the frequent target of planned mass executions due to their potential threat to public health and safety. Rounded up and killed for a crime no greater than following their natural survival instincts, these animals are like outlaws forced to live on the margins of society.