Reflections on care from the CISP Project Group visit to Mark Dion’s exhibition, ‘Theatre for the Natural World’


This post was written in collaboration with Sarah Pennington for the CISP Project Group blog – primarily a reading group based at Goldsmiths. Our reading and discussion has so far had a particular focus on care and on 3rd May 2018 we visited the Whitechapel Gallery to see an exhibition by Mark Dion. Here, we reflect on the exhibition in the context of some of our ongoing discussions in the group.  

Mark Dion is an American artist, born in 1961, whose work aims to provoke and probe at the way humans ‘tell’ the natural world. The aim of this writing is to think with Dion’s exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery, Theatre for the Natural World, through various concepts of care, particularly through the work of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2017). As such, this is not an art review, instead we would like to see this work as being productive in generating ideas through various literatures concerned with care and some of Bellacasa’s subjects, namely, touch and soil. Dion (2018) himself talks about slowing his viewers down and asking them “to look with care” – that a viewer who looks with care gets far more from his work. This reminds us that there is often an emphasis on the visual and cognitive (rather than the sensory or emotional) at art shows in this kind of art institution, where touch is often prohibited in the ‘white cube’ gallery for reasons of conservation, safety, preservation, or in order to care for the objects on display (another text we discussed describes the processes of maintenance and care employed to keep the Mona Lisa legible as an art object, Domínguez Rubio, 2016).

The Aviary

This exhibition differs slightly and attempts at a balance of both touching and looking. There are many spaces in the gallery that we as audience are invited to touch or to enter, for example a hunters hide, and a bird aviary that we can walk into, or in Dion’s library-cum-gallery we can flick through books, and open the drawers of a large cabinet displaying artefacts dug from the banks of the Thames. In other spaces we are prevented from touching – another hide, intricately detailed with bone china and various cuts of meat and wine is kept roped off (though we are told, in a different instance of this exhibition a group of hunters were invited into the gallery to dine on the installations contents) as is the installation of the Bureau for the Centre of the Study for Surrealism, whose door is firmly shut. Even without these exclusionary devices, the artworks themselves often act as lines drawn between the human and more than human. The hide itself is a framework to see nature, a collection of birds are caged, the drawers of Dion’s cabinet contains and frames artefacts, and books and catalogues frame words and pictures. In many ways these frames contradict Dion’s stated aim – the natural gets invited into the gallery (rather than kept away as we might expect) but we are asked to view it as an art object. In this sense ‘nature’ is kept at a set distance determined by the artist or curator. The cabinet of curiosities borrows the same methods of collection and display as we have come to expect from traditions in the curation of anthropology or natural history. In this sense, Dion’s use of these objects and his attempts to play, provoke or activate a given version of nature on the one hand critiques, but on the other, gets stuck in a circular contradiction that reinforces and perpetuates a bifurcation (Whitehead, 1920) of humans and more than humans. We find an example of this in a wallpaper Dion made for the library-cum-gallery space made up of a collection of images of extinct animals. Here we also find a sense of nostalgia, both through the aestheticised version of a ‘library’, and towards a version of nature ‘before’ man – when these animals were not extinct. Having said this, we do find two productive ruptures that we discuss in the following.

Thames dig artefacts

Non-human living animals in the museum or gallery are normally considered pests to be excluded and managed. Conservators are concerned with monitoring and controlling a museum environment, including through processes of identifying and preventing pests, such as insects and rodents, that may cause damage to collections. But the lively twenty-plus Zebra Finches in Dion’s installation of aviary/library – the seed-eating, seed-shitting birds – are indifferent to these archival codes of practice. They are indifferent to us humans. They don’t care that their crap lands on our books – the vestiges of human knowledge – that line the floor of their cage. Whilst the pathways inside the cage created for human visitors are regularly cleaned, judging from the fresh sawdust lining them, the bird shit on the books is left undisturbed. So, given enough ‘care time’, we might wonder whether the microorganisms in the shit could react with the papers (a carbon source, like dry leaves) and make a soil? Could this floor be read as decomposition enacted? Clearly the three-month timeframe of this temporary exhibition is at odds with this pace; but nonetheless, rather than being excluded from the ‘white cube’, these books, birds and shit are a human, animal and mineral ecology, through which we are told part of a story of the pace of soil care.

Another story of soil is told in the work of the Tate Thames Dig (1999). Dion, alongside a group of volunteers, combed the foreshore of the Thames River at low tide in locations near the two Tate gallery sites in London. As the longest archaeological site in London, this shoreline of sands, silts, gravel and clay holds a material history of the human relationship with the river. The jetsam and flotsam that once landed and have since been discovered are a material culture comprised of parts of human and non-human bodies, as well as physical objects made from plastics, metals, glass, wood, thread. Like the speculative soil of books and shit decomposed in the aviary/library, this river soil is also a gathering of human and non-human things.

Removed from the shoreline and the soil, this public hoard of objects from the dig are displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery in a heavy, antique wooden double-sided cabinet; behind glass, in drawers and boxes. Just as in the curation of a cabinet of curiosity, there is no clear museological taxonomy employed here. It seems that the found objects are grouped through random classifications, like ‘teeth’ or ‘round objects’; and we ask, whose classification is this? And, who got to choose? We are shown photographs of the local volunteers who dug the shoreline soil, and a locker that functions as an archive of the equipment required for the digging and sorting; and so it seems that these objects have been collected and displayed through procedures that we recognise as the human ‘acquisition’ of the ‘natural world’. Therefore the story of a soil is a subtle and tenuous one here – over-shadowed by a bulky Victorian collectors cabinet, but still somehow resonant in the surfaces of the specimens that have been tarnished and preserved through their time lodged in the silt.

To conclude, we return to Dion’s own comment, that we as viewers should slow down and “look with care” (2018), but, we are forced to ask, is it enough to look with care? Or even to critique with care? Isn’t looking with care what happens, often, in the art gallery? Instead, we find the promise of touch more productive in using this exhibition to think with care. Speculating on the Thames dig, we imagine not only the process of digging, collecting, cleaning and archiving, but the process of engaging others to dig as a caring practice – offering tools and protective equipment to do so. In this sense, we find a disconnect between what happened elsewhere – on the dig – and the business-as-usual of looking but not touching in the gallery. Looking with care then, is more productive in process, and perhaps necessarily, outside this exhibition.
Dion M (2018) Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World. Available at: (accessed 3 June 2018).

Domínguez Rubio F (2016) On the discrepancy between objects and things: An ecological approach. Journal of Material Culture 21(1): 59–86. DOI: 10.1177/1359183515624128.

Puig de la Bellacasa M (2017) Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Whitehead AN (1920) The Concept of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thames dig costumes
How to collect insects

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