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Exhibition Review A challenging spectacle

Mark Dion’s imaginative installations at the Whitechapel Gallery explore our often fraught and changing relationships with the natural world, says CHRISTINE LINDEY

Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World
Whitechapel Gallery, London

IT'S rare to be met by birdsong in an art exhibition, but New Yorker Mark Dion’s installation The Library for the Birds does just that. Beautiful white, orange and grey zebra finches tweet and chatter convivially on the branches of a dead apple tree in a capacious aviary well stocked with seeds, fruit and water.

Individual birds suddenly swoop off in graceful elliptical flights or dart busily here and there for no apparent reason. They seem oblivious to the books or objects such as catapults and shotgun shells shelved on the tree’s branches and tucked at its base, yet these are potentially useful to bird survival, since they relate to the human pursuit of birds, whether benign or predatory.

Watching these delightful finches recalls the preciousness of nature, yet the hunters’ weapons and the birds’ captivity are also a reminder that humans kill or exploit birds. Human inability to truly know the meanings of the birds’ chatter and actions mirrors their incomprehension of the significance of the books and weapons which, Dion says, demonstrates that humans cannot wholly understand the natural world.

The richly layered meanings in his work, and their expression through classification systems and craftsmanship, stem from his extensive research into social and cultural history, science and ecology.

The installation The Hunting Blinds and Hunting Standards exposes hunting as an activity of privilege and combats killing for pleasure. Four structures and their furnishings characterise the blinds in which hunters hide, each evoking a different aspect of hunting. Here are the historical aristocrat who indulged in the “sport of kings,” the scholar-hunter — complicit but distanced from killing — the glutton whose relish of blood sports is rewarded by lavish feasts of game and the uninhabited, ruined hide denoting hunting’s increasing outdatedness.

Art exhibitions often end with impersonal, uncomfortable spaces for reading about their subjects and Dion criticises this practice with The Naturalist’s Study, a cosy room like a Victorian parlour, for the public to browse in at leisure. The maroons, browns and golds of dark woods and sensuous upholstery are surrounded by a richly pictorial wallpaper overhung with framed, black-and-white photographs.

But discovering that all the animals depicted on the wallpaper are already extinct jolts us out of these lulling comforts. The photographs show tableaux vivants of stuffed bears against invented backdrops, as displayed in traditional natural history museums.

Several show tall bears on their hind legs, ferocious teeth barred — animals to be feared and protected from — whereas nowadays bears are mostly seen as endearing, endangered species in need of our protection.

In Thames Dig, Dion links the Tate’s Millbank and Bankside sites in mock archaeological digs by teenage and pensioner volunteers from each community. Digging shallowly in the river’s mudflats to avoid disturbing their fragile ecologies, they cleaned and classified their finds.

Be they credit cards, ancient clay pipes or crockery fragments, these mundane objects are resonant of past and present lives. Cleaned and classified like rare historical artefacts, they are displayed in a beautifully crafted wooden cabinet, worthy of those in 19th century museums. But, unlike these, the public is invited to slide out the drawers to disclose their secrets.

The exhibition’s final installation The Wonder Workshop is the most captivating. In a darkened room, small disparate objects glow eerily from glass shelves. Most are creatures — scary, marvellous, amazing and amusing — whether hybrid, imaginary, extinct or extant.

They mingle with man-made objects but all are unified by their scale and by being carved by craftspeople in white epoxy resin coated in fluorescent paint. Based on 17th century engravings of objects in a Wunderkammer (“room of wonders”), the objects were returned to the three-dimensional by contemporary craftspeople. This is a magical spectacle in which to linger and wonder.

A century ago, artists began to free themselves from the limitations of sculpture and painting. Using found objects, sound, words or their own bodies they expanded their means of expression.

Yet these works remained little-known outside specialist circles until becoming absorbed into critical orthodoxy in the 1980s. This proved to be a mixed blessing as a plethora of mindlessly superficial installations requiring neither skill, intellect nor feeling infested galleries with scatterings of unrelated objects.

But, just as oil paintings can be awful or wonderful, so can installations. To a modern public jaded by image overload, their content can seem more directly seductive or absorbing. Dion’s installations fulfil his intention of encouraging visitors to browse and slow down by giving us is a lot to look at.

He engages with serious issues about which he raises awkward questions and has the humility to admit that he cannot fully provide answers.

A thought-provoking exhibition.

Runs until May 13, box office: whitechapelgallery.org

 

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