Mark Dion, The Wonder Workshop, 2015 (detail), dark oak cabinets, epoxy resin, paint, 124 magic sculpt objects, installation view of Future Histories: Mark Dion and Arseny Zhilyaev at Casa dei Trei Oci, Venice, 2015. Courtesy V-A-C Foundation, Moscow
Mark Dion, The Library for the Birds of London (detail), 2018, mixed media; steel, wood, books, zebra finches, and found objects, installation view of Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018. Photo: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire
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14 Feb - 13 May 2018
Galleries 1, 8 & 9
14 February – 13 May 2018
Explorer, collector, activist and conjuror of theatrical environments American artist Mark Dion (b.1961) has travelled through rainforests and rubbish dumps to reveal the wonder and fragility of life on earth. Dion uses specimens – natural and manmade – to make uncanny representations of these environments. His drawings, sculptures and installations draw on the techniques of scientific enquiry and museum display; and on the telling of natural histories.
We embark on a journey through a sequence of installations created between 2000 and the present. The exhibition begins with The Library for the Birds of London (2018), a new commission continuing a series of aviaries Dion has created since 1993. The roomy sanctuary is a temporary home to 22 zebra finches, which are well-known for being social creatures. Visitors are invited into the aviary, which has an apple tree at its centre, referencing the tree of life. Over 600 books devoted to ornithology, environmentalism, literature and the natural sciences surround the birds. A scholar’s study invites us to unravel intricate drawings and models; while the Bureau for the Centre of the Study for Surrealism and its Legacy displays the strange magic of obsolete things. The muddy banks of the Thames have also yielded their treasures for poetic display in a gigantic cabinet; while The Wonder Workshop displays the ghosts of animals and instruments, many of them extinct and obsolescent. Each immersive environment is also a habitat, evoking the characters that observe, conserve or exploit the natural world.
★★★★ Evening Standard
★★★★ Time Out
Mark Dion was born in 1961 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, US and lives in New York with his wife and frequent collaborator Dana Sherwood. He studied at the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford, Connecticut (1981-82), which awarded him a BFA in 1986 and an honorary doctorate in 2002. From 1983 to 1984 he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and then completed the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program (1984-85). He is an Honorary Fellow of Falmouth University, UK (2014) and has an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (Ph.D.) from The Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia (2015). Dion has received numerous awards, including the ninth annual Larry Aldrich Foundation Award (2001); The Joan Mitchell Foundation Award (2007) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Lucida Art Award (2008). He has had major exhibitions at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2017); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris (2016); Natural History Museum, London (2007); Miami Art Museum, Miami (2006); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2004); Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut (2003) and Tate Gallery, London (1999). For over two decades Dion has worked in the public realm in a wide range of scales, from architecture projects to print interventions in newspapers. Some of his most recent large-scale public projects include David Fairchild’s Laboratory, a permanent installation commissioned for The Kampong, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Coconut Grove, FL (2016); Den, a permanent installation commissioned for the Norway National Tourist Route (2012) and Neukom Vivarium, a permanent outdoor installation and learning lab for the Olympic Sculpture Park commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum (2006); Dion has also produced large-scale permanent commissions for Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany and the Montevideo Biennale in Uruguay (both 2012). His work is held in the collections of Centre George Pompidou, Paris; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; The New York Public Library, New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Museum of Modern Art, New York and Tate, London. Dion is co-director of Mildred’s Lane, an innovative visual art education and residency program in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania.
‘The Library for the Birds of London is principally a work about empathy and identification. I see the birds as individuals, rather than carbon-copy automatons, and find that the more time I spend with them, the more their unique personalities and quirks emerge. I want the viewer to not only identify with the birds as animals with a similar sensory experience but also appreciate how dramatically different they are from us.’ Mark Dion
What kind of birds are in the installation?
The birds are zebra finches, a species native to Australia with a longstanding history of domestication. They have been raised in the UK by professional breeders and experienced animal handlers who supply film and theatrical productions. Zebra finches are socially monogamous and well habituated to humans. The male finch is an expert singer who uses song to mate, to stake out territory and in parental care. They are very good at incorporating sounds from their environment into their repertoire.
Where do the finches sleep?
They rest on the branches, shelves and nesting boxes hanging from the tree and the aviary.
How are the finches cared for?
To safeguard the birds we have worked with the RSPCA; the aviary is designed to offer everything that the birds need to thrive. Trained staff members monitor the birds at all times. Zebra finches eat seed; every day they are provided with seeds and fresh water bowls for drinking and bathing. The aviary undergoes a thorough weekly cleaning.
What happens if a finch gets sick?
A local veterinarian is on call. The animal handlers inspect the condition of the birds on a regular basis and are available 24 hours a day for emergencies.
Is photography allowed?
Yes, but visitors are kindly requested to not use a flash.
Are children allowed in the installation?
Yes, with adult supervision.
What will happen to the finches after the exhibition?
They will be returned to a large aviary where they will continue to live and breed. Their average life cycle is between 2 and 5 years in the wild, rising to 9 years in captivity.
Thu 15 Feb 2018, 7pm
Join the artist Mark Dion and Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick to discuss his work.
Sat 24 Feb 2018, 3pm
If birds could offer advice on human problems, what would they say? With artists Marcus Coates and Feral Practice.
Sat 3 Mar 2018, 3pm
Artists Robert Williams, Kate Briggs and Jane Topping explore ideas of the alchemical,to discover its mysteries and cultural intersections.
Sat 10 Mar 2018, 6pm
Explore the significance of natural substances in the history of witchcraft, from taxidermy to dried plants.
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