Mark Dion: American Fine Arts/Aldrich Museum. (Reviews: New York/Ridgefield, CT)
Schwendener, Martha, Artforum International
Mark Dion, like Broodthaers or Beuys, is an artist with an idiosyncratic formal lexicon. But instead of mussels or felt, Dion's materials are taxidermied members of the "R-select species," varieties of trees living and dead, and the systems and accoutrements of natural science.
Two shows running concurrently, at American Fine Arts in New York and at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, offered in-depth looks at Dion's work from the mid-'80s to the present. At the gallery, the collaborative aspect of Dion's work was stressed, while the show at the Aldrich was a retrospective. Both demonstrated how Dion's notions of history and archaeology (or history as archaeology) have evolved into wide-ranging investigations into natural history, the relationship between animals, humans, and environments, and the Western systems of classification that overlay it all.
Dion's interest in this Foucauldian archaeology was visible in the earliest work on view, a video installation at AFA titled Artful History: A Restoration Comedy Installation, 1986. Featuring the artist, who was working at the time as a conservator, this project attempted to show how paintings are refigured in the restorer's studio, then sold as untouched "historical" works. In the video, Dion declares the whole practice to be "like an archaeological discovery" in which treasures and histories can be found under the top layer of paint ("one artwork discovered under another"). Restoration served as a springboard for Dion to other investigations.
Natural history and the natural history museum followed quickly. Tropical Rainforest Preserves, 1989/2003, a terrarium-like structure stocked with tropical flora, referred to the loss and destruction that came with exploration and colonization. With Library for the Birds of Connecticut, 2003, at the Aldrich, an upright dead tree, its branches laden with books, brought up ideas of history, nature, and systems of classification. Trees are, of course, the favored metaphor for genealogies, both scientific and art historical (think of Ad Reinhardt's 1946 cartoon How to Look at Modern Art in America or Dion's own multiple-diagram drawings).
Dion's beloved "R-select species"--living things that thrive in disturbed habitats (climbing vines, seagulls, rats, and various bottom-feeding fish)--also made several appearances. …