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Mark Dion is
In Wild Air

Mark Dion is an American conceptual artist best known for his use of scientific presentations in his installations.

Dion earned a BFA in 1986 from the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, and was also awarded an honorary doctorate in 2003. Presently, Dion lives and works in New York with his wife, the artist Dana Sherwood. Dion is currently a mentor at Columbia University in New York and co-director of Mildred's Lane, a visual art education and residency program in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania.

Dion is the subject of monographs published by Phaidon and Yale Press, as well as a documentary on the PBS series, art:21. In 2012, Dion's work was included in dOCUMENTA 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in Kassel, Germany, and has also been exhibited at MoMA PS1 in New York, Guggenheim Bilbao, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Tate Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Perhaps his best-known work is the Neukom Vivarium, an installation in Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, WA. The artist has also completed other public commissions which include Den, a site-specific installation for the National Tourist Routes in Norway (2012), An Archaeology of Knowledge for Johns Hopkins University (2012), and Ship in a Bottle for Port of Los Angeles Waterfront (2011).

Dion has received 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).


The Academy

I am keenly curious about the culture of the Academy, more specifically that of the absurd Academy described by the 18th-century surgeon, linguist, ethnographer, and explorer Captain Lemuel Gulliver. During his travels, Gulliver was given an extensive tour of the Grand Academy of Lagado, also known as The Academy of Projectors. This deeply flawed institution — generously funded by Laputa's despotic king — is where academicians and scientists (known as Projectors) employ themselves in a wide range of concerns from agriculture to astronomy, engineering to philosophy. Despite decades of unconventional research, no knowledge of value has yet been achieved. Unfortunately, like many universities of the time (and quite a few still), the Academy of Lagado is characterized as being exclusive and deeply misogynistic with a distrust and contempt for the poor.

However, it is in the department of linguistics that Gulliver encounters three professors employed in the improvement of language, one of whose extraordinary ideas captivate any sculptor or collector of things. This particular Professor has concocted an extraordinary theory. Believing the act of speech to be physiologically unhealthy and imprecise he proposes the abolition of talking in favor of a communication method much truer. He proposed that "since words are only names for things, it would more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on". So short conversations could necessitate having a mere pocketful of things, while more lengthy and sustained exchanges may require a number of servants caring heavy loads of objects in large sacks.

This notion of communicating with objects rather than words was the inspiration my collaborators and I needed to come up with the title for our exhibition in Dresden: The Academy of Things. Any sculptor, invested in the notion that things themselves speak, would have to find the proposal delightful.


Dr Benton Quest

My lifelong interest in the culture of scientific endeavours arises from childhood encounters with figures like Dr. Benton Quest. One of the most elastic and brilliant minds of mid-century America, Dr. Quest's fields of expertise included archaeology, marine biology, linguistics, phenomenology, engineering, ethnography and it seems virtually all other fields in the scientific arena. He loosely worked for the government of the United States of America and was considered too valuable a resource to be left unprotected. Thus he and his two children (one child adopted, the other with his late wife) were supplied with a highly competent bodyguard. One of The West's most visible Cold War inventors and public intellectuals, Quest was cast from the same mold as other great adventurers such as the Belgian journalist Tin Tin. Today it is hard not to be critical of the colonial attitudes and Cold War worldview of such figures, and it is important that they are considered and assessed from our progressive post-colonial context. However, with his expansive cerebral practice, globe-trotting propensity, frequent encounters with unseen nature, and investigations into the paranormal and cryptozoological, Dr Quest was, for me, the model scientist/adventurer, and my entry point into the worlds of William Beebe, Sylvia Earle, Jaques Cousteau and others who so greatly inspired my work.


Tropical Rainforests

Across the terrestrial world, in the band between the Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer, we find tropical rainforests. While consisting of an ever-shrinking 5% of the earth's surface they contain over half of the world's biodiversity — in fact up to 80% of terrestrial diversity. They also support amazing cultural diversity, being the home for some of the last subsistence hunter-gatherer societies.

Topical Rainforests are not like the African Savannah, Alaskan Tundra, or coral reefs, where the spectacle of animal life is highly visible in all its glory. You have to work hard to find animals in the rainforest, you have to slow down and refocus. The jungle is all about the small things — the invertebrates, the plants; those things that really run the earth. The dramatic interaction of living things must be appreciated and approached at a smaller scale, which does not mean it lacks awe. I have been to the arctic ice cap, the Alps, deserts, coastal marshes, frozen tundra, and coral reefs, but nothing has filled me with awe like those laboratories of evolution: the tropical rainforests. If the sublime is about a sense of greatness beyond comprehension, one in which the self is subsumed by the vastness of the aesthetic, intellectual and metaphysical experience, I can not imagine a better embodiment of this notion than the tropical forests. The more one discovers about the forest the more rich, impressive and mysterious it becomes. The science of tropical ecology and ethnography, far from diminishing the jungle's romantic appeal, only assist in motivating one's love and attachment for the complexity of this amazing biome.

Of course, Tropical Rainforests are disappearing at a shocking rate. The timber industries, mining, ranching, and agriculture (particularly for soy and palm oil) are of course the causes. Many of the Asian rainforests are already gone. If you have never experienced a tropical rainforest, I urge you to find a way to get yourself there. My first encounters with tropical forests, in southern Mexico, changed my life forever.


A Cabinet

Plankton Nets, Eye Droppers, Microscope Slides, Spreading Boards, Various Gauges of Rope and String, Spotting Scope, Wooden Mallet, Calipers, Trowels, Snake Hooks, Minnow Trap, Insect Boxes, Field Vests, Plant Presses, Flow Meter, Aerial Nets, Shot Gun, Range Finders, Marking Flags, Loppers, Various Specimen Jars, Microscope, Clam Baskets, Sample Bags, Larva Pans, Forceps, Culture Dishes, Fish Tanks (2 gallon, 5 gallon, 10 gallon 20 gallon), Rubber Gloves, Teasing Needles, Mushroom Knife, Measuring Tapes, Marking Paints, Hand Lens, Aquatic Dip-nets, Mattock, UV Lights, Dissection Kits, Enamel Pans, Collecting Vials, Soil Sieves, Shovels, Sweep Nets, Thermometers, Field Note Books, Loops, Ethyl Alcohol, Beakers, Key Books, Rock Hammer, Trail Cameras, Caution Tape, Relaxing Dishes, Beating Sheets, Banding Tool, Aquatic Drift Net, Microphone, Folding Animal Traps, Pruners, Blotter Paper, Evaporation Dishes, Pruning Saws, Lever Action Remington, Dissection Scope, Tally Meters, Swiss Army Knife, Marking Tapes, Litter Reducers, Micron Pens, Graduated Cylinders, Pampel's Solution, Cotton, Gaff, First Aid Kit, Tripods, Shovels, Scalpels, Insect Pins, Survey Stakes, Flash Lights, Petri Dishes, Relaxing Fluid, Syringes, Aspirators, Gum Arabic, Pit Fall Traps, Naphthalene, Mist Net, Crimper, Pick, Tarpaulins, Cages, Flasks, Laboratory Coats, Casting Net, Clam Rakes, Altimeter, Masks, Snorkels, Fins, Rain Gauges, Strobe, Pruners, Killing Jars, Blow Gun, Pinning Blocks, Rakes, Storage Boxes, Scale Sticks, Whisk Brushes, Compass, Jawbone Extractor, Peterson's Solution, Grafting Knife, Watches, Seine Nets, Audio Recorders, Buckets, Hoes, Tongs, Test Tubes, Axes, Tents, Entrenchment Tools, Bat Monitor, Sampling Dredge, Bunsen Burners, Mercury Vapor Light, Jumbo Forceps, Animal Control Poles, Benthic Sampler, Lepidoptera Triangles, Folding Saws, Barometer, Silica Gel, Display Vials, Isopropyl Alcohol, Folding Magnifiers, Secchi Disk, Larval Samplers, Night Vision Devices, Chlorocresol, Berlese Funnels, PH Papers, Balance Scale, Field Collecting Bags, Binoculars, Ethyl Acetate, GPS, Sherman Traps, Clipboards, Incremental Borers, Moisture Meter, Forester Hoe, Grappling Hook, Hip Waders, Thinning Shears, Sod Lifter, Soil Sampling Tubes, Provenience Squares, Funnels, Water Sampler, Telescoping Aquatic Nets, Animal Handling Gloves, Sorting Trays, Sweep Nets.



This is by far the most difficult category for me to contemplate and discourse upon, for it forces me to examine my own melancholy since my thoughts of late are quite dark. By this, I do not mean clinical melancholia, manifest in deep depression, vegetive demeanour, and inertia, but rather a kind of melancholy brought on by pessimism. Throughout my career as an artist who works on issues of the culture and representation of nature, I have become increasingly doubtful that the kind of positive changes the world needs to make to protect wild things and wild places are going to happen. If you care about forests and coral reefs and biodiversity, there is little to no good news on the horizon, and the cavalry does not seem anywhere to be found. I think of much of my work these days as an act of mourning.

At one point, early in my artistic life, I became convinced that environmental issues were really information problems. I believed that if people knew the damage our way of life caused to the natural world, we would change. I believed that people would opt for environmental sanity over ecological suicide. My early work tended to be quite informational and didactic since I was literally attempting a kind of sculptural, educational, documentary practice.

After a while, it became apparent that access to knowledge wasn't the problem. Ecological knowledge was readily available. The main issues were questions of political will, ideology, capitalism, and psychology. It is hard to say that people don't know about the crisis in biodiversity because the information is everywhere.

For me, it is clear that we will continue our disregard for other living things and the degradation of the environment, to suicidal extremes. The world will slowly become a less diverse, less beautiful, less interesting place. This leads me to a perspective of pessimism. However, pessimism is not cynicism, nor is it fatalism. I would love to be proven wrong.

Dark conclusions and complex positions which end in melancholy or ambivalence are difficult to articulate in various forms of culture. You cannot express these sentiments in politics, in activism, perhaps even in journalism. Art and literature are excellent places to express complexity, paradox, uncertainty, ambivalence, and hopelessness. The role of the artist as witness can be as valuable as the artist as catalyst. I also believe that mourning is a legitimate function of art.


56 Works

A List of 56 works of art and literature that make life bearable (sorry, no music or film, far too personal) —

1. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

2. Joseph Cornell, Soap Bubble Set

3. Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard et Pecuchet and Dictionary of Received Ideas

4. Louise Nevelson, Sky Cathedral

5. Frans Snyders, Concert of Birds

6. Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum

7. Henry Walter Bates, Naturalist on the River Amazon

8. Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours

9. Andrea Palladio, Teatro Olimpico

10. The Golden Guides

11. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty

12. Jan Brueghel the Younger, Allegory of the Senses

13. Martha Rosler, Secrets from the Street: No Disclosure

14. David Teniers the Younger, Witches Sabbath

15. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber

16. Louise Bourgeois, Late Works

17. Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

18. The work of Kara Walker

19. David Wilson and Colleagues, The Museum of Jurassic Technology

20. Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

21. William Bradford, Sealers Crushed by Icebergs

22. Marcel Broodthaers, Musee d'Art Moderne, Department des Aigles — (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles)

23. Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot

24. Han Haacke, Rhinewater Purification Plant

25. Jan van Kessel, Allegories of the Continents

26. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Big Fish Eat Little Fish

27. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

28. Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover

29. Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me

30. John James Audubon, Birds of America

31. Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

32. The Ruins of Tikal

33. Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

34. Art of The New York Zoological Society's Department of Tropical Research

35. Man Ray, The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse

36. Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare

37. American Museum of Natural History dioramas

38. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne

39. J. G. Ballard, Crash, The Drowned World, and The Crystal World

40. Francisco Goya, The Black Paintings

41. Karl Bodmer, The American Gouaches

42. Elihu Vedder, Lair of the Sea Serpent

43. Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

44. Animal mummies

45. Anna Hyatt Huntington, Memorial to "those seamen whose only graves are on the ocean floor.”

46. A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book

47. Mike Nelson, A Psychic Vacuum

48. Otobong Nkanga, Alterscape Stories

49. Alexis Rockman, the murals

50. H.G. Wells, The Food of the Gods

51. Marcel Duchamp, La Boite-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase)

52. Rosamond Purcell

53. Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever

54. Nina Katchadourian, Mended Spider Web

55. Frederick Church, View of Cotopaxi

56. David Brooks, A Proverbial Machine in the Garden