art
 and 
context
Dion’s Circuit
January 2016

Mark Dion’s modus operandi deserves attention. At the not to be overlooked level he fulfils the condition for most successful international artists which is membership of prestigious galleries in Germany and New York. Then there is his project work negotiated with and through institutions. The project is specific to a locality and the deal, desirable for both Dion and the institution, is in the ‘fieldwork’, that important component to his identity formation which engages places and people not normally associated with art—extending participation in what is still, nominally, artwork. It is the combination of all three levels, prestige gallery, institution, and outreach, which makes Dion’s position unusual, though there is more to his unusualness to the field of art than just that. Following a residency in Limerick Dion’s current project is on display at the Cultural Resource Centre at Ormston House in Limerick. Typically, the centre is not a mainstream venue but some of the work towards the exhibition was completed through a Production Residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The exhibition, Against The Current, features a reproduced salmon several times larger than life perched atop a plinth with a bed of trinkets and ornaments; a reproduction of a dissected eel in a display cabinet; four drawings and a print. It is a minimal display which begs the question about the intent of the research that went before it.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the sculpture, The Salmon of Knowledge Returns. The copy is resplendent in representing the salmon’s natural state in grand scale while the assortment of found objects below is paltry compared to the supreme creature. As discarded objects the bric-a-brac has lost the significance of personal history and the overall presentation has an adopted neutrality. The drawings articulate the plan for the two three-dimensional works rather than play with affect. Dion has acknowledged his penchant for Victorian Natural History Museums with their classifications of nature and their glass cabinet display. The cabinet is replicated here in the other three-dimensional work, Against The Current. Behind the glass is a copy of an eel of about life-size which is dissected in several sections to represent engineering changes made to the course of the River Shannon, as explained in the Gallery’s information sheet. It is a representation which may have acquired greater significance since the opening of the exhibition: The Shannon has flooded, catastrophically so, and if the floods of 2009 had begun to fade from memory, the recent rains have refocused attention on human contribution to climate change. While concern has focused on consequences for the people living in the Shannon basin, the fish for their part have had longer and more calamitous experience of environmental changes made by humans. Since early in his career Dion’s interest is in the natural environment and how we deal with it. Although he has been related to the ecology movement his installations do not make explicit cause and effect connections or make overt political or ethical statement. Such pointed discussion is left perhaps to those who attend Dion’s exhibitions and his lectures. Important to Dion’s position is the network effect circulating around the institutions and the workers who assist in the research and in the construction of the exhibitions. Dion’s acknowledgement list is extensive.

By this criteria Dion seems the model contemporary artist. He is constantly on the move with his projects in America and Europe which involve accessing both international and local networks. Each project can be completed only with the considerable assistance of institutions, their employees, interns, and volunteers. If this range of participation appears a democratic way of working (leaving aside the demarcation issue between paid and unpaid work) it is done under the Mark Dion brand. Dion recognized at an early stage that the project in itself is not enough, that there is a need within the art business to establish coherence and identity under the name of the artist. Or rather he is one of the few to acknowledge so publically. In an interview with Miwon Kwon back in 1997 he spoke of a difficulty created by the particularity of individual projects and their trans-national dispersal; that their attachment to a locality means a lack of continuity of practice in the mind of the general audience.[1] If his work avoids the art tourism typical of many international artists, he wants to provide lineage especially through his talks and lectures which track his projects, relating one to another. With he himself as the single link we end up with the Mark Dion brand which is conventionally artist/author centred.

For all the recent hype about participation and networking the individual artist remains the locus of art practice and discourse. In another respect though Dion is pushing against the field of contemporary art. Where much of his gallery production from the 1990s has a notional resemblance to the standard installation, this has diminished with the years. Perhaps he has taken his cues from his projects outside the gallery. He has created observation posts for wildlife and, from the other perspective, he has created what seems to be improved living conditions for captive animals and birds. He has also helped create libraries; overall these environments for humans invariably invite quiet study and reflection, not functionality. This is similarly the case in his installation at Ormston House Gallery which is a long way from the effects employed in much installation art. Yet to make, without irony, an exact replica of a salmon the centrepiece is unusual, however outsize. Dion makes the curiosity cabinet occasion to revisit the natural world through the fulcrum of art.

 

Mark Dion: Against The Current is at Ormston House Gallery, Limerick City from 20 November 2015 – 13 February 2016.

Notes:

[1] Lisa Graziose Corrin et al, 1997, Mark Dion, London: Phaidon, pp. 25-26.