Two of the largest works in Mark Dion’s Microcosmographia feature witty, thoughtful representations of dead animals. Each has its fair share of scientific references, as do all of the pieces in this engaging solo exhibition.
A mole, like a giant cuddly toy, hangs limply from a rope. A couple of similarly oversized synthetic beetles scuttle across its soft, furry back. This monstrous Wind in the Willows tragedy is a homage to 19th-century entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, whose speciality was the intelligence of insects and whose methods apparently included studying them at work on putrid flesh.
The Ichthyosaur (‘fish-lizard’ in Greek) was a prehistoric aquatic reptile from the same period as the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Dion’s version resembles an elongated dolphin. The creature is beached on its side at the centre of a sandy, shellladen tableau, its split gut disgorging a hoard of framed photos, books, instruments and equipment. The vivid spillage suggests the jumbled aspirations and limitations of our attempts to record and understand natural science and history.
Sound gloomy? It’s not. The American-born Dion has too much serious fun with the living world to allow room for deadly, downbeat symbolism. In his work, art and science meet, presided over by a combination of meticulousness and a detached, ironic sense of humour that at times approaches the ridiculous but just as often sidles towards the poetic.
Dion’s fondness for gear and costume is evident in the faceless but otherwise fully-equipped mannequin fronting ‘Round Up—An Entomological Endeavour for the Smart Museum of Art’. The piece is a result of a search for any insects, mites and other arthropods dwelling in the museum’s exhibition spaces, offices and storage vaults. Dion found 128, each rendered as part of a backdrop of enlarged photographs. The dummy, who comes complete with magnifying glass, jars, test-tubes, torch, butterfly net and the like, is a stand-in for the artist himself.
Even better are Dion and J Morgan Puett’s old-style studio portraits of seven fictitious female Victorian naturalists, plus their porter. The subjects are embodied by various unidentified art-world critics, curators and directors. The pictures are beautifully detailed, from clothing and settings to the ladies’ names (Edith, Henrietta, Amelia, etc) and doughty expressions.
Dion’s show is parenthesised at one end by a corridor of simple, tongue-in-cheek pencil drawings and project proposals, and at the other by ‘The Secret Garden Biological Field Unit’. The latter is a small, functioning laboratory stashed in a garden round the back of the gallery. The public is invited to enter and snoop around, peeking in the specimen-filled drawers and soaking up the atmosphere. (Note the mugs, cups and corkscrew hanging from a shelf.) This sweet, neat little building is indicative of Dion’s genuinely playful interests.
Donald Hutera is a London-based arts writer