Mark Dion

Born 1961, New Bedford, Massachusetts

N.Y. State Bureau of Tropical Conservation, by Mark Dion, 1992
Mark Dion, N.Y. State Bureau of Tropical Conservation, 1992  

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. 

Two installations by Mark Dion. On left: "The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division)," 1992; on right: "N.Y. State Bureau of Tropical Conservation," 1992. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Two installations by Mark Dion. On left: The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division), 1992; on right: N.Y. State Bureau of Tropical Conservation, 1992. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

An impeccably organized collection of office furniture, storage containers, implements for writing and measuring, maps, and books, The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division) was initially installed and performed in 1992 as one of three works in Dion's exhibition at American Fine Arts in New York City. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, Dion collected and documented the fish on offer at the markets in the Chinatown neighborhood adjacent to SoHo, where the gallery was situated. His performance also included the stabilization of the fish for storage in the containers and cabinets that would ultimately constitute the work. Also included in the 1992 show was N.Y. State Bureau of Tropical Conservation, which was similarly structured as an office-cum-laboratory in which Dion received and organized materials sent to him from the Orinoco Basin in Venezuela.

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.

—Corrina Peipon

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citation for this page
"Mark Dion." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​artists/​mark-dion/​.