Mark Dion is a multidisciplinary artist born in 1961 in New Bedford Massachusetts. Dion studied at Hartford Art School of the University of Hartford Connecticut with a BFA and later returned for an honorary doctorate in 2002. From 1983 to 1984 he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and then the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program. He is an Honorary Fellow of Falmouth University in the UK and has an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters Ph.D. from the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia. Adding to his a prestigious education, Dion exhibited at MOMA PS1 in New York, Guggenheim Bilbao, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Tate Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art etc. (Bonakdar) Considering his many accomplishments, it is fair to say that Dion has made a great contribution to contemporary art culture.
Dion blurs the boundaries between archeology art and history. Part of Dion’s methodology is to incorporate fieldwork excavation and cultivation into his work. (Hansen) This creative methodology has led Dion to many parts of the world, gathering both animal and plant specimens. Dion also collects historical objects from collections that have been long forgotten. Much of his work is large in scale; however, he also makes a fair amount of small works. Dion intends to engage the viewer in a way that changes our perception of the natural world and our relationship/influence on it. Dion states, “Like a historian, I am looking back and using images, displays and sculptures to understand how we’ve changed our notion on the natural world.”(Newman) A recurring theme in how Dion structures his work is by exploring and examining how we organize spaces and the objects within those spaces.
Dion’s work touches on humanity’s treatment of the natural environment, which includes the natural flora and fauna in such environments. Some of his work has a very serious tone to it and other work is quite humorous, employing irony and improvisation. “When you are dealing with environmental issues, there is little good news on the horizon,” Dion said. “It is important to think about how to continue to have that conversation without being too grim. Humor is really that tool that we have, to help us bear some of the more difficult things we are talking about.”(Newman)
The work also evokes critical analysis of many public institutions. Dion believes that these institutions shape the way we understand and interact with the natural world. It is important to open up a critical discussion that challenges our perception and conventions. Dion believes that it is the artist’s job to go against the grain of popular culture.(Bonakdar) The work appropriates many forms of scientific methods found in Archeology, Ecology and museum curation. Dion then fuses the methods together creating contemporary artworks that blur the lines between the rational and irrational.(Bonakdar) Dion wants the viewer to question the distinction between what is objective and what is subjective. Dion believes that it is crucial to question the authoritarian roll of the scientific community and its voice in society. (Art21) For the vitality of the collective, it is important to pay close attention. It is a necessity to and have a critical discourse on pseudo science, Ideologies and personal/social agendas that shape the spread of information.
Dion often collaborates with Zoos, Aquariums and Natural History Museums and city projects. These collaborations give him an insight to the institutions inner workings, thus providing more of an informed understanding of their function. (ICA Boston) A good example and a personal favorite is Dion’s Neukom Vivarium project. This project was collaboration with the city of Seattle, the Seattle Art Museum as well as many other supporters. Dion located a gigantic hemlock tree was uprooted and toppled over into a ravine in a small area of old growth, 45 miles outside of Seattle. Fortunately, a watershed area protected the tree and as a result the damage from rot was miniscule.(Art21) Now that Dion located the perfect tree, with a great deal of help, the Hemlock was permanently installed in Seattle’s Olympic Sculptural Park. The Hemlock is housed in a climate-controlled vivarium replicating the trees natural environment. When Dion was asked what it meant to take the tree out of its natural setting and place it into the context of a gallery setting? He replied with, “I think that one of the important things about this work is that it’s really not an intensely positive, back-to-nature kind of experience. In some ways, this project is an abomination. We’re taking a tree that is an ecosystem-a dead tree, but a living system-and we are re-contextualizing it and taking it to another site. We’re putting it in a sort of Sleeping Beauty coffin, a greenhouse we’re building around it. And we’re pumping it up with a life support system- an incredibly complex system of air, humidity, water, and soil enhancement- to keep it going. All those things are substituting what nature does, emphasizing how, once that’s gone, its incredibly difficult, expensive, and technological to approximate that system- to take this tree and to build the next generation of forests on it. So, this piece is in some ways perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system, it’s virtually impossible to get it back. In a sense, we’re building a failure.” (ART21)
Like many of his projects, The Neukom Vivarium piece is a perfect example of Dion working from the scientific method. Some find it interesting that he would put so much effort into a project that could be destined for failure. Dion commits to the idea of an experimental model of art making. There is an inherit success in failure, for in failure we prove or disprove things.(Art21) The work is not about the tree even though it is the centerpiece of the project. Dion wishes for the viewer to contemplate nature as a process. A transition from decay to rebirth, one promoting a complex bio-diversity that thrives off the trees inevitable demise. As in much of Dion’s work, he wants you to acknowledge or increase your awareness to the mysteriousness of nature. And as a result, promoting a sense of wonder into the vast diversity and complexity within a natural system.