Healing Confusion. A visit with Marc Dion
CRITIC’S PICKS FOR VIENNA ART WEEK:
Mark Dion. The Flea Market and other Object Lessons
Science and arbitrariness are commonly regarded as antipodes, as two opposing principles of opening up the world. A closer look, of course, shows that things are a bit more complicated. On the intimate connection between science and arbitrariness, a small passage (canonical since its use by Michel Foucault) in the work of Jorge Luis Borges gives us a clue. In it, the author cites a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” according to which “animals are divided as follows: a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tamed, d) milk pigs e) sirens, etc.” The list concludes with, “(n) animals that look like flies from a distance.” Borges’ taxinomy does not follow any discernible or familiar logic of meaningful ordering or arrangement of objects. Foucault recognized in this “bizarreness of unusual coincidence” the (unacknowledged) primal ground of modern science. In “The Order of Things”, his brilliant “Archaeology of the Human Sciences” inspired by Borges, he argues that all orders of knowledge – however elaborate, comprehensive and conclusive in themselves – are based on ultimately unjustifiable, contingent positings, in a word: on arbitrariness.
The question according to which principles we order things and qualify (or disqualify) them as objects of scientific knowledge leads right to the center of Marc Dion’s artistic practice. For over 30 years, the artist, who was born in 1966 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, has been dealing with the mechanisms of scientific regimes of organization and representation. In doing so, he has time and again actively entered the field himself – with site-specific interventions: natural history museums and collections form the terrain of his art. Under the title “The Flea Market and other Object Lessons,” Georg Kargl Fine Arts is currently showing works by the artist – drawings, assemblages, and an installation – from the last year and a half, along with a small selection of drawings from 2010/11.
The programmatic title (“object lessons”) already suggests it: The exhibition is about learning, i.e. more correctly, about unlearning. Formally, the show follows the tradition of the natural history educational exhibition. Displays, showcases, taxidermy, colonial objects – Dion quotes the entire program of natural history didactics. Attention is focused above all on a series of large-format ink drawings reminiscent of the aesthetics of school maps. With great meticulousness, the inner life of various animals and plants is depicted. However, something seems to have gone wrong with the labeling of the cards: instead of animal and plant names, the names of influential avant-garde artists of the 20th century appear on the pictures. The catchwords of the art discourse have gotten lost in the sign world of biology. The most elementary ordering criterion of modernity has been summarily suspended here: the difference between nature and culture.
In the Baroque era, the difference between culture and nature was not taken very seriously, as is well known, and the Wunderkammer is emblematic of this. Here, natural objects and artifacts were still part of the same ensemble. The assemblages from Dion’s “Collectors” series can be seen as reminiscences of this logic of the curious and the marvelous: bizarre arrangements of stuffed birds and eccentric headgear. They already anticipate some aspects of the titular installation at the back of the gallery, “Flea Market (Homage to Georg Kargl).” The four-part ensemble presents a selection of found objects from Viennese flea markets. Each of the arrangements is an allegory of one of the four elements, fire, water, earth, air.
Orders, Dion reminds us, are always based on contingent agreements. They are not immediately inherent in things; we impress them upon them. In the process, we may often view things themselves only in terms of what they ‘properly’ represent. We classify them without actually studying them. “Flea market and other object lessons” is an invitation to adopt a different attitude towards things, an attitude characteristic of the collector and lover of curiosities: to wonder about them.