The Birds of Antwerp
Since the early 1990s, Mark Dion has examined the ways in which dominant ideologies and public institutions shape our understanding of history, knowledge, and the natural world. Appropriating archaeological and other scientific methods of collecting, ordering, and exhibiting objects, the artist creates works that address distinctions between objective scientific methods and subjective influences. By locating the roots of environmental politics and public policy in the construction of knowledge about nature, Dion questions the authoritative role of the scientific voice in contemporary society.
Born in Massachusetts in 1961, Dion currently lives in New York City. He received a BFA and an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford School of Art, Connecticut in 1986 and 2003, respectively. He also studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1982-84, and participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program from 1984-85. He has received numerous awards, including the ninth annual Larry Aldrich Foundation Award (2001) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Lucida Art Award (2008).
Throughout the past two decades, his work has been the subject of major exhibitions worldwide. Notable solo exhibitions include The Macabre Treasury at Museum Het Domein in Sittard, The Netherlands, (2013), Oceanomania: Souvenirs of Mysterious Seas at Musée Océanographique de Monaco and Nouveau Musée National de Monaco / Villa Paloma in Monaco (2011), The Marvelous Museum: A Mark Dion Project at Oakland Museum of California (2010-11), Systema Metropolis at Natural History Museum, London (2007), The South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit at Miami Art Museum (2006), Rescue Archaeology, a project for the Museum of Modern Art (2004), and his renowned Tate Thames Dig at the Tate Gallery in London (1999).
In 2012, his work was included in dOCUMENTA 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in Kassel, Germany, and has also been exhibited at MoMA PS1 in New York, Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota, Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck in Remagen, Germany, and Kunsthaus Graz in Austria.
The artist has also completed numerous public commissions during his career, which include Den, a site-specific installation for the National Tourist Routes in Norway (2012), An Archaeology of Knowledge for John Hopkins University (2012), and Ship in a Bottle for Port of Los Angeles Waterfront (2011).
His work can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Tate Gallery, London, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany, Harvard University Art Museums in Massachusetts, and the Israel Museum of Art in Jerusalem, among others.
Presently, he is a mentor at Columbia University in New York and co-director of Mildred’s Land, an innovative visual art education and residency program in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife, the artist Dana Sherwood in New York City and works worldwide.
In 2009, when Mark Dion created his sculpture Monument to the Birds of Puffin Island, he contracted with a taxidermist to provide him with rats. This piece was one of his macabre sculptures, highlighting the grotesque. Unlike traditional taxidermy that aims to present idealized examples of species in a moment of poised stillness, the animals here do not look alive at all. Mark Dion’s rats are definitely dead, not idealized. They appear like common criminals, disposed of through tarring, lynching, and public humiliation. They are corpses. A dozen dead rats, black and gooey, with dried tar covering their bodies, hang by their necks from a small tree. For a piece like this, Dion works with a taxidermist he knows well, because many others refuse to work with non-game animals, domestic pets, or vermin.
Monument to the Birds of Puffin Island is a recent work in a long series by Dion that employ taxidermied animals to comment on issues of extinction. The sculpture refers to an actual historical occurrence that resulted in the destruction of birds on Puffin Island off the coast of Wales. In the late nineteenth century, British ships stopped there and accidentally introduced rats from the ships onto the island, where they multiplied and eventually destroyed the eggs and nests of a large colony of puffins, almost wiping out that species presence there.
While the rats appear to be the culprit in Monument, Dion also suggests the impact humans have in altering ecologies and destroying populations, even unwittingly. Puffin Island in some ways acts as a synecdoche for how humans are unknowingly contributing to the disappearance of thousands of species today. Dion’s work shares fascinating echoes with the use of animals bodies to create sculptures from a hundred years ago.
What might be called “modern” taxidermy arose alongside concerns about species extinction in the late nineteenth century. Taxidermy, in fact, participated directly in efforts to raise awareness about threats to species. Life-like specimens made from animal skins, horns, antlers, etc., mounted onto clay forms would give urban audiences a close-up view of magnificent creatures that were in need of protection in the United States and in Africa at that time. In a paradoxical way, its practitioners—most of whom were naturalists—though well intentioned, were also among those (along with sports and commercial hunters and expansion of human settlement, bringing destruction of habitat) that caused the decline of animal populations.
In the 1880s, William Temple Hornaday, the lead taxidermist for the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, championed the conservation of American bison as a patriotic campaign, shortly after the government had engaged in efforts to exterminate the herds as a way of moving Native Americans onto reservations. In 1886, with only three hundred bison left in the United States, Hornaday embarked on a hunting expedition to Montana, killing at least sixteen of the remaining bison, including a huge bull that would later be displayed at the Smithsonian in a habitat group and become the model for the buffalo nickel. Only by killing and preserving these threatened species, Hornaday’s thinking went, would Americans appreciate the beasts and act to preserve those remaining.
Similarly, Carl Akeley, the chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, further developed the “habitat group” for a new form of display in natural history museums: the diorama. A glass-fronted space, like window displays in the modern department store, dioramas showed animals in a theater-like setting that represented their natural habitat. “From 1890 to 1940, dioramas were the primary way American museums educated the public about the ecological interdependence of species and habitats,” notes Melissa Milgrom in her account of the history and contemporary practice of taxidermy.
Carl Akeley’s hunting safaris to Africa from the late nineteenth century into the 1920s, prompted by concerns about loss of big game animals, aimed to collect prime examples of the animals before they might disappear. His creation of the mountain gorilla family diorama and the herd of African elephants remain centerpieces of the museum’s African Hall of today.
Like the conservationists of the late 19th century, Mark Dion uses taxidermy to draw attention to issues of extinction in our times. As scientists have warned, we are living in the sixth era of mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. They estimate that 30,000 species disappeared last year. The extinction rate could escalate dramatically with climate change altering ecosystems so rapidly that many animals, insects, birds, and plants would not be able to quickly adapt. As an artist who has consistently critically questioned our conceptions of nature, Dion has made issues of extinction and loss of biological diversity central to his work since the 1980s. Taxidermy has been a powerful means for this vein of his work.
The artist’s interest in these issues may have arisen from his youth in a small town just outside of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Growing up, he witnessed the decline of the commercial fishing industry in that area. Even before that, New Bedford had been a center of American whaling until fear of losing those species prompted the passage of laws from the mid-1940s onward limiting and then banning commercial whaling. Dion understood from a close perspective the intertwining of economics and species depletion. His early experiences were expanded and confirmed in his travels and field studies in biologically sensitive areas such as Central and South America.
After art school at the University of Hartford and participation in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program/Studio, Dion emerged in the New York art world of the mid-to-late 1980s with work addressing threatened animal species and our sometimes confused and conflicted responses and tactics. His 1990 sculpture with William Scheffernine, Survival of the Cutest(Who Gets on the Ark? ) part of their installation Wheel Barrows for Progress, employed stuffed animal toys loaded onto a wheel barrow to comment on the tendency of environmentalists to focus on photogenic animals that pull people’s heart strings rather than to push for the preservation of whole ecosystems that would save less glamorous species than elephants and panda bears.
The first of a consistent and varied use of taxidermy in Dion’s work appeared in Extinction Series: Black Rhino Head (1989). Borrowing a taxidermied rhinoceros head, he placed it nestled in wood chips inside a large, open shipping crate. Arranged with other stacked, wooden crates bearing images of Africa, the piece commented on the trafficking of rare animals between Africa as a colonized continent and its former imperial capitals. Dion comments that the work examined “how the current loss of biological diversity through extinction could be seen as a protracted effect of colonialism, the Cold War, and “Band-Aid” development schemes.”
Whether viewers grasp the artist’s wider network of references, the piece, nonetheless, packs a strong punch. Discovered only by peeking into the crate, the animal head appears as an abject object, not a strong, vigorous hunter’s foe or formidable prey. Rather than hanging on a wall, the traditional trophy mount that implies the full animal body, this head is simply decapitated. The fiction of life-like taxidermy is de-stabilized, and the fiction is impossible to sustain. To realize that this animal is now extinct, as the title indicates, victim of human desire for money, rarity, or exoticism, seems an unalterable crime. The crate becomes a casket for one of “nature’s ghosts.”
Dion uses taxidermy in varied ways. In some installation projects, he uses these specimens as found objects, discovered in antique stores or at flea markets. For others, such as his iterations of cabinets of curiosities, he often draws from institutional collections, where taxidermied animals, birds, and fish still reside as historical remnants of earlier practices and research interests. For other work, Dion contracts with taxidermists to create a specific animal in certain poses, not always following the conventions of traditional taxidermy.
As part of his art practice, Dion has thought deeply and systematically about animals and has formulated ideas about his own beliefs and offered possible precepts to guide others in creating art involved with nature. “Some Notes Toward a Manifesto for Artists Working with or about the Living World” was published from his notebooks in the catalogue for the Aldrich Museum’s 2003 exhibition, Mark Dion: Full House. His twenty numbered statements serve as a philosophical guide about art and nature. They balance an actively engaged, involved practice that has him diving into use of animals as medium and as subject with a critical distance that allows for a thoughtful, self-reflexive practice.
“The relationship we have to living organisms is a passionate one,” he writes in the fifth precept, “Our subject rules our lives. We live, breath, and eat our field of investigation. This passion is essential for the production of compelling artwork.” He recognizes, at the same time, that artists must work with a dual perspective, as humans that are part of nature while we are also shaped by cultural ideas about nature—a realization that at once dissolves false divisions between humans and the rest of the natural world and recognizes the force and contingencies of culturally-based concepts of nature.
Acknowledging this complexity, his first precept reads:
“We are not living in a simple age and as artists of the time our work reveals complex contradictions between science and art, between empiricism and the ideal, between nature and technology, and between aesthetic conventions and novel forms of visualization. Our goals vary; while some may wish to dissolve the contradictions in our social relations to the natural world, others may be invested in analyzing or highlighting them.”
Dion’s work with taxidermy intersects with a growing number of contemporary artists working with animal bodies in taxidermied forms including Maurizio Cattlelan, Guy Nelson, Neil Hamon, Marc Sequin, Thomas Grunfeld, Karl Unnasch, Robert Marbury, Carolyn Salas and Adam Parker Smith, Polly Morgan, and Sarina Brewer. These artists comment on many other conceptual issues, some working with a surrealistic bent and others with ideas of fantasy and the marvelous that mythical creatures represent. Some of these artists work as Dion does, using animal bodies as a means to explore our relationships with nature and the threats facing animal species because of human activities. Their work participates in a broader scholarly and popular movement that is rethinking our relationships with animals, an emerging area called “animal studies.”
On a popular level, taxidermy in trophy displays remains strong among sports hunters and fisherman. The form continues to be associated with a desire to connect to wilderness and wildness. Today there is more of an elegiac character to the hunter-prey relationship. No longer are animals as fearsome as in the past, and when some hunt from small planes with high powered rifles, there is little danger and perhaps little sport. Deer and moose heads, bears, including polar bears, ducks, geese, pheasants, and other birds appear in sporting goods stores and in wilderness lodges, in public facilities in state and national parks, and in privately owned restaurants, taverns, and cabins.
But taxidermy is in decline as a didactic tool in the methodology of biological sciences and in natural history museums. Many museums struggle with how to update wildlife dioramas that scientists regard as outdated but that take up a good amount of museum exhibition space.
Yet in contemporary art, taxidermy is growing. Mark Dion’s work demonstrates that the animal body has great presence and power as sculpture and as elements in installations. At a time when humans are rethinking their relationships with animals—as pets, as part of our industrial food system, as key partners in our world ecology, as species that are dependent on human wisdom and action, taxidermy has great possibilities for raising questions, sometimes uneasily, as we stare into the blank eyes of what was once a magnificent living creature. As a familiar sculptural form that carries a rich network of historical values, taxidermy in contemporary art can help us to reflect upon and to reconsider these relationships.