Mark Dion’s Macabre Treasury

Mark Dion, Mandrillus Sphinx, 2012. Wood, glass, plastic, tar, metal, ceramic, paper, cork, ribbon, and string. Overall installed dimensions: 175.3 x 67.3 x 128.3 cm. Private Collection, Paris. Photo Jean Vong. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

When Obama, in his inaugural address, pledges to act on global warming in his second term, it might be a little too late as Mark Dion’s recent exhibition at Het Domein, in the Netherlands, seeks to emphasise. “Increasingly, my work has become macabre and laced with dusky pessimism,” Dion wrote in manuscript from back in 2001. “Early on I believed that ecological calamity could be averted by awareness. If people knew about issues like the loss of biodiversity or global warming, they would act so as to halt the problem. (…) Now, I just don’t believe that it will all work out. Not that there will be a single great catastrophe, but rather the world will slowly become less biological diverse, more impoverished, an uglier, less remarkable place to live.”

The American artist is playing a pioneering role with his work, which focuses on ecological issues and our perception of nature. Dion’s work examines the ways in which dominant ideologies and public institutions like museums shape our understanding of history, the ways we accumulate knowledge, and how we regard the natural world. Appropriating archaeological and other scientific methods of collecting, ordering, and exhibiting objects, Dion creates works that question the distinctions between “objective” (“rational”) scientific methods and “subjective” (“irrational”) influences.

The artist’s spectacular and often fantastical curiosity cabinets, modelled on Wunderkabinetts of the sixteenth century, are notable for their atypical orderings of objects and specimens. By locating the roots of environmental politics and public policy in the construction of knowledge about nature, Mark Dion questions the authoritative role of the scientific voice in contemporary society.

The Macabre Treasury is Mark Dion’s first solo museum exhibition in the Netherlands in fifteen years. Partly for this reason, the exhibition at Het Domein has the character of a concise retrospective with an emphasis on works created in the last ten years. For The Macabre Treasury, Dion  transformed Museum Het Domein’s contemporary art wing into a giant Wunderkabinett. Dion’s macabre treasure chamber will thus include amongst others Departments of Zoology and Archaeology, a Bureau of Museums and the Culture of Collections, a Hunting Salon, a Cinematheque and a Cabinet of Mystery. As part of the exhibition of his own work, the artist will present a selection of objects from Museum Het Domein’s historical collection and from other local museums and archives. The objects vary from local archaeological finds to an eleventh-century tree-trunk coffin with a female skeleton. As is the case with all of Dion’s presentations, the exhibition in Het Domein can be considered an attempt to restore something of our earlier notion of the universal museum with its hybrid combinations of different disciplines and fields of knowledge. Newly inciting the curiosity of the museumgoer is just as essential. The artist once proclaimed that museums should be restored to their roles as “powder kegs of the imagination.”

Mark Dion
The Macabre Treasury
Museum Het Domein
Until May 5, 2013

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