It takes a few minutes for the avian residents of Mark Dion’s “The Library for the Birds of New York” to settle back into their chirping and fluttering after you’ve entered the giant cage and stepped below the strange white oak laden with books. Then you can spy the zebra finches with their honking song like a miniature traffic jam, and yellow canaries lightly whistling, flitting around the space.
A target with a raven rests against the trunk, which has hunting gear, bird skulls in a jar, a photograph of ornithologist Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey, and other found objects. The books in a heap at the base of the tree all relate to birds and nature, while up on the branches are volumes on astronomy, art therapy, urban policy, homicide, even a copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. They’re all connected to our desire for understanding the world, and the cage reflects that human impulse to master it. And the birds, they gradually cover everything with their droppings, and do not care.
The installation at New York’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery is part of Dion’s The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels. (For anyone concerned about the birds’ well-being, they had ample food and water on my visit, and only two to three monitored people were allowed through the protective double doors of the cage at a time.) This “Library” follows similar installations by Dion, such as his 1993 “The Library for the Birds of Antwerp” at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Belgium, and the 2005 “Aviary (Library for the Birds of Massachusetts)” at MASS MoCA.
The exhibition also includes a few standalone pieces commenting on some aspect of collecting, display, and our relationship to nature. Few artists can so beautifully arrange a an assembly of things as Dion, who has long used found objects to interpret his research as a naturalist exploring the world. Among the recovered items is plastic trash with saltwater-subdued colors retrieved from the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” off the coast of Alaska, displayed in the “Cabinet of Marine Debris”
The exhibition suffers a bit from its abundance, as the three pieces displayed in one room on the second floor seem disconnected (although this is a gallery show, so giving each its own room wouldn’t be possible). Along with the marine debris, the “Memory Box” shed invites visitors inside to examine shelves crammed with boxes, which open to reveal small objects like photographs or wishbones, each intended to evoke a personal memory. (I got a long forgotten childhood flashback with the worn box for the bug-building game Cooties.)
There’s also the “Brontosaurus,” a small stern-faced model on a pedestal, with a small door cracked below with cleaning supplies visible. Although the press release states the piece “contrasts the American obsession with pop culture images of dinosaurs with references to the big oil companies,” it felt more like a peak behind the scenes of a natural history museum, where these carefully posed simulacra of nature represent more our desire for knowledge than the animals themselves.
Around the corner is the “Phantom Museum,” with a blacklight-lit curiosity cabinet that’s aesthetically a total contrast to the “The Library for the Birds of New York” downstairs. Names of famed curiosity cabinet-keepers appear above the natural oddities, and seem to be honored with objects from their collections below, such as the rostrum of a sawtooth shark similar to the one in Ole Worm’s 17th-century Museum Wormianum, and an alligator from Ferrante Imperato’s 16th-century Dell’Historia Naturale. They’re joined by playful modern additions like a jackalope, as well as indigenous artifacts.
Eerily illuminated in the dark, they appear like specters. Much like the living birds downstairs, these ghosts are another reminder of the long history of attempting to place our own order on nature, and represent it through our systems. Yet even when caged, a bird still sings, the animal itself beyond and indifferent to our attempts at control.
Mark Dion: The Library for the Birds of New York and Other Marvels continues through April 16 at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).