Spotlight on Ecology: Mark Dion

Mark Dion, <i>Library for the Birds of Massachusetts</i>, 2005. Steel, maple tree, plywoood, books, and mixed media, 20 x 18 x 20 feet. Installation view: Becoming Animal, at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA.

Mark Dion was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1961. He received a BFA (1986) and an honorary doctorate (2003) from the University of Hartford School of Art, Connecticut. Dion’s work examines the ways in which dominant ideologies and public institutions shape our understanding of history, knowledge, and the natural world. The job of the artist, he says, is to go against the grain of dominant culture, to challenge perception and convention. 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, modeled on Wunderkabinetts of the 16th Century, exalt 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. He has received numerous awards, including the ninth annual Larry Aldrich Foundation Award (2001). He has had major exhibitions at the Miami Art Museum (2006); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2004); Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut (2003); and Tate Gallery, London (1999). Neukom Vivarium (2006), a permanent outdoor installation and learning lab for the Olympic Sculpture Park, was commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum. Dion lives and works in New York.

Mark Dion, <i>Neukom Vivarium</i>, 2006. Mixed-media installation, greenhouse structure: 80 feet long. Installation view at Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle. Gift of Sally and William Neukom, American Express Company, Seattle Garden Club, Mark Torrance Foundation, and Committee of 33, T2004.101. Photo by Paul McCapia, courtesy the Seattle Art Museum.

Watch a clip from Dion’s Art:21 segment:

About the role of the artist, Dion says,

“My idea of art isn’t necessarily something that provides answers or is decorative or affirmative. I like Goya. I enjoy the still-life tradition, and hunting painting, and things toward the dark side that tend to have a more critical function. That’s what I see as the job of contemporary artists: to function as critical foils to dominant culture. My job as an artist isn’t to satisfy the public. That’s not what I do. I don’t necessarily make people happy. I think the job of the artist is to go against the grain of dominant culture, to challenge perception, prejudice, and convention…I think it’s really important that artists have an agitational function in culture. No one else seems to.”

(taken from the companion book Art in the Twenty-First Century 4, p. 78).

Mark Dion, <i>Polar Bear and Toucans (From Amazonas to Svalbard)</i>, 1991. Mixed media, 91 x 44 x 29 1/2 inches.

Read more about his work and watch additional clips on his Art:21 webpage here.

Have you experienced Dion’s work in person, or did you have an opportunity to view his segment in one of the hundreds of Art21 Access ’07 events that have been taking place all month? Share your thoughts on Mark Dion by leaving a comment below.


  1. Mary Jo Aagerstoun says:

    I attended the sneak preview of ARt 21’s “Ecology” segment at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. What struck me most about the film, was the strong strain of nostalgia, with all the melancholy that implies. There is a lot of fear-mongering going on right now in the public arena about all kinds of things. And I think the “mirror” Dion was referring to artists holding up, in these cases, deploys nostalgia as a sort of spiritual “comfort food.” It is hard to know where to go in this fear-ridden time. In many ways, if the predictions are true, that global warming is a juggernaut which cannot be stopped by puny human effort, then looking back, remembering, yearning for times that may never have existed, or fanciful recreations of times past is understandably attractive to the mirror holders. Like putting a green filter over the mirror. It may also be that those artists who seem to be struggling to create a “greener” future by engaging art with science in bioremediating ways may in some ways be invoking nostalgia as well. I think, however, that what ecoartists are doing has something in their practice that the artists we saw in the film do not…namely, their work inspires hope in viewers, and encourages agency, especially because in the best cases, community is integrally involved in creating the work. This was the one thing that was not present in any of the works presented in the film. What we saw, in the cases where there were others working with the artist, was not community involvement, but the deployment by the artist of people with certain skills needed to do the work to make the art. Sort of human “brushes” if you will, or art-machines.

    I hope at some point Art 21 will REALLY take on the well-established Ecoart movement worldwide and do it justice. Invoking the term “Ecology” as the title for this segment was not only misleading, but disrespectful of the hundreds of ecoartists from Iceland to Oregon, India to Miami who are engaging their artistic creativity with direct bioremediation and activism at a time when we need to engage all forms of knowledge to save our planet, including especially art.

  2. alan labudde says:

    couldn’t you have just made a stereo drawing of the rats in a tree? i don’t believe I’ll donate my body to Art.
    Nor even to be plasticized…I’m sorry I went to that “anatomical” exhibit which wasn’t Dions by the way.

    Strange Days, Strange Fruit

    were the white rats actually orange and then bleached white before tarring?

Leave a Comment