in Frieze | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

The Macabre Museum

Mark Dion

in Frieze | 02 JAN 97

The first tree is a stump, a multiple amputee. Torn from the ground, its delicate branches have been severed, then reapplied as prosthetic limbs. Authentically natural, it has been entirely remade; incapable of standing on its own, it is propped up by a brace. It smells of dying bark, an odour reminiscent of camping trips and autumn walks, of Christmas trees left too long in someone's living room. It's the smell of natural death, a death that is, we are told, part of the order of things. Books - scholarly and popular nature studies, animal rights tracts, the nature writing of Thoreau, Emerson and Poe - weigh down the tree's branches. Ornithological illustrations and reproductions of bird paintings line its trunk; empty bird-cages hang from other limbs. The tree, barely able to support this load, may collapse at the slightest provocation.

The second tree is slathered in tar. Dark, shiny and sinister, it reeks of another, unnatural death. A gruesome menagerie hangs from its branches: a stuffed cat and squirrel, a rat, a starling, a bullfrog, a couple of snakes. Tarred and feathered, their carcasses are shrunken, twisted, barely recognisable in a sheen of liquefied petrifaction - preserved, perhaps, yet destroyed at the same time. Together, they are a death row of the unwanted. Marauders of human society, carriers of filth and plague, these varmints will have the last laugh. They are the so-called 'R' species, animals who will not only survive, but will benefit from humanity's destruction of the planet. They are the carpetbaggers of ruined ecosystems: 'By no means limited to the cities, these highly opportunistic species have colonised all areas of human habitation... Responsible for many extinctions already, [they] may continue to proliferate and dominate the biological world of the future'. 1

The European starling (Sternus vulgaris) is the profiteer of one man's hare-brained scheme. Eugene Scheifflin, a 19th-century New York industrialist, was enamoured of both ornithology and Elizabethan drama. Determined to transplant every species of bird mentioned by Shakespeare to the New World, Scheifflin discovered a brief reference to the starling in Henry IV. In March 1890, he released 40 pairs of starlings into Central Park; the following year he released 40 more. Scheifflin's bizarre intervention forever altered the North American ecosystem. Within five years the hearty birds had colonised New York City; in ten years they had settled throughout the North-East. 50 years later the starling inhabited all of North America, including Alaska. A menace, it disturbed crops and invaded habitats, driving some native birds, including the bluebird, close to extinction. The starling holds a prominent place in Mark Dion's lynching gallery. Its wings spread in humiliation, it is pilloried for its ecological indifference, its assault on the planet's biodiversity. Yet who is to blame for the starling's transgressions, the bird or its human benefactor?

The trees posit a terrible symmetry: Tree of Knowledge, laden with fictions of 'legitimate' and popular scientific knowledge; and Tree of Death, token of ecological decline, of deforestation and oil spills. Where the first tree, Library for the Birds of New York (19??), allegorises the human drive to represent and control nature, Tar and Feathers (19??) explores the potentially dire consequences of this impulse, consequences for which we often fail to take responsibility. While the first tree is absurd (a library for birds who could care less about ornithology), the second mines the macabre. The cat, pendulous on its branch; the snakes, coiled, desiccated; the tarry stench... The simple truth is, I can't stand looking at it.

In an early article on Dion, Miwon Kwon noted a structure of contradiction underlying the artist's work: a tendency to denaturalise ideologies of nature in scientific, popular and ecological representations that exposes both the destructive and tonic effects of these practices. Rather than condemning them, Dion's work marks the complicated, at times contradictory effects of human intervention in the natural world. 3 Selections from the Endangered Species List (The Vertebrata of Commander McBrag - Taxonomist) (1989), a project by Dion and William Schefferine, demonstrated this approach at an early point in Dion's career. A recreation of a 19th-century naturalist's study, it included a Colonial-style desk and taxonomical charts culled from old Encyclopaedias referring to Linnaeus, founder of orthodox taxonomy, as well as the field researcher's tools: a butterfly net, collection box and a sack of field guides. (To this date only one and a half million species have been catalogued out of an estimated several million). However, the artist also incorporated items alluding to extinction: a dead cactus; a statuette of a dinosaur; a photograph of Martha, the last Carrier Pigeon; and an extinguished candle. File cards filled the desk's cubby holes, each bearing information on a species at risk - above, a mounted deer head recited a recording of the Endangered Species list. In short, the academic task of taxonomy - the naming of animals as they are discovered - was contrasted with that of environmentalism, which records the names of species as they disappear.

Like the two Trees, Selections from the Endangered Species List... suggests that the pursuit of natural knowledge is accomplished at the risk of overpowering nature. In a number of later works, Dion relocated this critique of scientific method per se to its embodiment in actual institutions. Library for the Birds of Antwerp (1993) is the most monumental and beautiful of the artist's trees. Invited to participate in an exhibition in Antwerp, Dion chose to work not only within the confines of the gallery but also in the ornithology wing of the city's natural history museum. Just beyond the vitrine displays of stuffed birds, he mounted a great dead tree in a tub. Loading the tree with ornithology books, bird-cages, and framed portraits of writers and natural scientists, Dion covered the tub's exterior and the walls beneath the vitrines in Delft tiles decorated with 18th and 19th century engraved images of exotic birds. Commissioned for the installation, the tiles depicted some of the very species represented in the vitrines, discovered in Belgian colonies in South America during the previous two centuries. As Dion suggests, the organisation of the museum's ornithological displays developed in tandem with taxonomical procedure and European colonialist expansion. His practice seeks to expose this intersection of scientific method and Belgium's material past as it is still embodied by the museum.

Elsewhere I have discussed Dion's work as an example of a contemporary, 'expanded' institutional critique, a practice that extends the self-reflexive purview of previous institutional analyses (which focused primarily on the art museum and gallery) to explore a broader spectrum of institutions and sites, such as the natural history museum, the zoo, public parks and facilities, as well as the art museum. 3 As explored by Dion, Renée Green, Andrea Fraser, Christian Philipp Müller and others, this strategy posits a mode of intervention in diverse institutions and settings, conceiving the artist's work not simply as the production of objects for display but as a critical practice incorporating different professional roles, including that of artist, teacher, and that of an activist who works on behalf of the environment and other causes. Critical practice, in this sense, does not valorise one kind of work over another, but sees these activities as indissociable and continuous. Hence Dion's Project for the Belize Zoo (1990), a system of signage the artist designed that incorporates multiple representations of a given species within a single frame, in contradistinction to the usual zoo plaques that provide this information in a univocal text. Or his involvement, under the auspices of Sculpture Chicago, as the co-ordinator of a high school ecology group. 4

Seen in this way, Dion is an artist who explores figurations of nature in the museum, in scientific writing and in popular culture in order to reveal their ideological character. Implicit to this understanding of his project is the Productivist model of art, a belief that culture can and must effect positive social change. This model offers a powerful conception of total integration of artistic and social practice, and remains an ideal. Its paradigmatic status for artists engaged in movement politics is unquestionable. Yet the sheer positivity of this approach could not incorporate the potential pitfalls of the often contradictory results of human agency. Does nature always respond positively to even the best of intentions? Or is any effort to organise and control nature - whether that of the 19th-century taxonomist or the postmodern biotechnologist - an imposition of an anthropocentric vision upon the world, a vision that may have ecologically harmful effects?

Of what strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock.

-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (19??)

And what of Dion's trees? The grotesque demonstration that is Tar and Feathers points to another topos of Dion's activity, another Dion. This is a Dion who explores the extremes of the pursuit of natural knowledge; whose concern is the alchemist or hack as much as the credentialled researcher; a Dion as fascinated by Arcimbaldo as by Audubon, by Mary Shelley as well as Cuvier; a surrealist or humorous Dion who combines terms in metaphorically absurd relations; a Dion who does not shirk from disaster, from the macabre, from the deathly; a Dion who explores the blurry distinction between the animal and the human, between the natural and the unnatural.

A ubiquitous topos of science fiction and Hollywood film, the unnatural is a subject of much recent American artistic practice. Jean Fontcuberta's images of altered flora and fauna; Alexis Rockman's painterly fantasies; Brian D'Amato's mounted butterflies; Laura Stein's altered cactuses; Lawrence Beck's pictures of fake flowers; Zoe Leonard's photos of developmental 'mishaps' on display in anthropological collections (such as her Bearded Lady); and Daniel Faust's photographs of wax museums all mine this theme. The unnatural, as Roland Barthes has observed, is that which exceeds accepted systems of knowledge and taxonomies of nature. The 16th-century Wunderkammer, a prototype of the modern museum, reserved a special place for the bizarre. In the cabinet of curiosities the visitor came upon 'strange objects: accidents of nature, effigies of dwarfs, of giants, of hirsute men and women', or even (we read in another source) a wolf 'stuffed, clothed, bearded and masked' to resemble a deceased burgomaster, who according to local legend enjoyed a posthumous existence as a werewolf. 5 Presenting the monster as 'a wonder, a marvel', a blurring of the 'separation of realms', the Wunderkammer explores the epistemology of the freak show, where the exception to the rule defines the normative. The project of taxonomy is itself a ferreting out of difference, a containment of the bizarre under the rubric of natural order. In the Wunderkammer the monstrous emerges as the end point of knowledge, its limit, the gruesome outcome of the violent attempt to know. 'All knowledge is linked to a classifying order', Barthes writes. 'To aggrandise or simply to change knowledge is to experiment, by certain audacious operations, upon what subverts the classification we are accustomed to'.

The attempt to 'change' knowledge, to subvert the order of things, is the subject of Dion's Frankenstein in the age of Biotechnology (1991). Presented at the Christian Nagel Gallery in Cologne, Dion's installation was conceived, like the two Trees, in terms of a structure of opposition. On one side of the room Dion installed reminders of an archaic relationship to nature, a relationship of physical contact and proximity: farming tools (rakes, flower pots), a boar's head and furs (spoils of the hunt), stirrups and a rocking horse (equestrian motifs). Primitive methods of husbandry and biotechnology were represented by a beer barrel (for fermentation) and a churn used for separating milk from cream. A reproduction of a still life by the 19th-century German-American painter Severin Roesen, and empty frames suspended on the wall thematised the archetypally 'immediate' encounter of the figurative artist and the natural world. On the other side of the room was a mock laboratory of today's biotechnician: a shiny white desk and stool; countless beakers, Petri dishes and flasks filled with coloured liquids, including shades of violet (an allusion to Cologne's historical role in the biotechnical revolution, where the genetic alteration of Viol herbs in the 19th century caused an uproar); syringes, tweezers and forceps; rubber gloves; plastic bags for biohazardous waste; an anatomical chart of the brain; a human skull. A pig's heart and brains floated in a picking jar. Nearby, a line of rubber tubing descended into a glass tank filled with a murky fluid. Buried deep in the tank, and barely discernible, was the fleshy outline of a human arm.

Biotechnology extends the realm of the man-made into the building blocks of life, further blurring the distinction between the natural and the factitious. According to Andrew Ross, 'Biology's capacity to synthesise and alter molecules has threatened to shatter the conceptual picture of nature as immutable... The new picture of nature as more malleable, less fixed, is one in which nature can be presented as a realm of freedom and improvement'. 6 The farmer's and the painter's phenomenologically 'direct' encounter with the world gives way to a view of nature as abstract and changeable. Sponsored by the state, by universities and industry, biotechnology (the word was coined in the 70s) is touted as humankind's latest saviour, initiating a conceptual shift from germ theory to a genetic paradigm of disease, and promising to end world hunger.

Like today's biotechnician, the young Frankenstein hopes to 'penetrate the secrets of nature' in order to discover life's elixir: 'What glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease...and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!'. Violent death and monstrosity are the rewards for such hubris. The creature's visage is hideously unnatural, inspiring not wonder but horror. Frankenstein's abandonment of his creation provokes a relentless vengeance. Family and friends are murdered one by one; pastoral Geneva becomes a Gothic stage set of terror. Shelley narrates the progressive dissolution of a society's happy relationship with nature. 'Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition', Frankenstein advises, chastened, near the conclusion, a voice of restraint cautioning against the hunger for absolute knowledge.

Dion gives Frankenstein a second chance. In an 'interview' published in a fictional Daily Planet of Superman fame, biotechnology's 'founder' turns his back on his invention. Biotechnology, he suggests, is an 'entrancement' that 'allows us to recreate the natural world in our own image'. Still in its 'infancy', it is not even a proper science, but a 'series of novel techniques' at the service of corporate greed. An adjacent article confirms Frankenstein's fears. Headlined 'New Prospects for Gene-Altered Fish Raise Hope and Alarm', it describes a new strain of goldfish four times normal size, flounder and salmon able to survive in Arctic waters, and other species whose genes have been spliced with those of cattle, chickens and humans. A potential boon to the fish-farming industry, these hearty hybrids, let loose into the ecosystem, would have an unknown ecological impact. 7

His protestation notwithstanding, Dion's Frankenstein distances himself from the science he helped found. Recalling J. Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the atomic bomb who repudiated the military-industrial complex, he offers preachy advice that rings false - 'Do as I say not as I do'. His interlocutor, Clark Kent/Superman, is also an ambivalent figure, a symbol of the 'free press' and military-industrial might protecting a Cold War society from destroying itself. Unlike Shelley's masterpiece, Frankenstein in the Age of Biotechnology does not present a Romantic or biblical view of the pursuit of knowledge leading irrevocably to disaster. On the other hand, nor does it manifest an unalloyed Productivist belief in a positive critical agency. Rather, Dion's work analyses the development of biotechnology within a longer history of human efforts to recreate nature 'in our own image'. The practices of Linnaeus and Schiefflin, Frankenstein and Oppenheimer, of the natural history museum and the biomedical corporation each project an anthropocentric schema onto the natural world. All of these interventions have multiple and contradictory effects. If Dion's work has one lesson it is this: we make nature for ourselves; let us take account of our making. For as he suggests, it is only through such a reckoning that a responsible and effective ecology becomes conceivable.

1. Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman, 'Concrete Jungle', Journal of Contemporary Art 4:1, Spring/Summer 1991, pp. 24 - 33

2. See Miwon Kwon, 'Unnatural Tendencies: Scientific Guises of Mark Dion', Forum International, May-August 1993

3. On the current state of institutional critique, as exemplified by the work of Dion, Renée Green, Christian Philipp Müller, Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson, Tom Burr and Zoe Leonard, see my 'What Happened to the Institutional Critique?', exh. cat., pub. American Fine Arts and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 1993 and 'The Functional Site', in 'Platzwechsel': Ursula Biemann, Tom Burr, Mark Dion, Christian Philipp Müller, pub. Kunsthalle Zürich, 1995, and reprinted in Documents 7, Fall 1996, pp. 20-26

4. On the notion of a critical practice, formulated by Dion with such colleagues as Greg Bordowitz and Andrea Fraser, see 'What Happened to the Institutional Critique?' on Dion's pedagogy. See also Mary Jane Jacob, 'The Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group: Mark Dion and the Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group' in Sculpture Chicago, Culture in Action , pub. Bay Press, Seattle, 1995, pp. 106-113

5. Roland Barthes, 'Arcimbaldo, or Magician and Rhetoriqueur', in The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard, pub. Hill and Wang, New York, 1985, pp. 147-148. (The quotations below are from this source). The 'werewolf' display is discussed in Eileen Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, pub. Routledge, London, 1992, p. 79

6. Andrew Ross, The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life pub. Verso, London, 1994, pp. 248-249

7. 'The question we have to ask is are the risks worth the benefits? Why are we exploiting the benefits of these organisms to satisfy our interests?' Dr. Jane F. Rissler of the National Wildlife Federation, quoted in a handout for Frankenstein in the Age of Biotechnology