BOSTON — Misadventures of a 21st Century Naturalist, a Mark Dion mid-career retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, is bookended by two pieces that are both strong entry points to his stated project.
One is domestic — a dinosaur-themed child’s bedroom from April 1994, that feels teleported directly and wholly out of a Toys-‘R’-Us catalog. Colorful and chaotic, but doggedly adherent to the theme, “Toys ‘R’ U.S. (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth)” (1994), does a succinct job of establishing the nature of the conversation here by reminding us of the basic building blocks of our interpretations of the natural world: the framing of its elements we came to as children. Of course, in the 21st century, this framing is laced with commerce.
The other entry point is given through “Memory Box” (2016), a wood and steel shed which museum visitors can enter and explore as thoroughly as they have time to.
The shelves of “Memory Box,” crammed with boxes of all sizes and descriptions, do not disappoint. Any explorer who opens just a box or three will discover something that has the heft, glow, delicateness, or mysterious aura of a treasure of some kind. The entire shed feels like an oracle — ask it a question and it will hand you a beautiful, enigmatic answer in object form.
Though perhaps also a play on the idea of memory palaces, “Memory Box” viscerally brings to the surface one’s impulses to discover, classify, organize, store. In contrast with these two grounding points, shining with the clarity of intention at either end of the exhibition, some of the work in between feels muddier.
There’s no question about Dion’s aesthetic eye and his capacity for the subtle, intuitive kind of taxonomy-making that artists (as opposed to scientists) engage in. Nor can one question his recognition of a good-quality found object and his ability to juxtapose found objects in unsettling ways. But much of the works’ claims of institutional critique feel flat or shallow — a questioning or poking-fun-at more than an attempt to dismantle or undermine authority built on dubious foundations.
Some of the most poignant pieces in the show are the ones where the meta-narrative of the work is the most visible aspect. For example, the show’s two mail-art pieces: “The Package” (2006-11), a series of X-rayed, but never unwrapped objects mailed to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem over the course of five years. And “On Tropical Nature” (1991), representative of Dion’s interactions with the work’s commissioning museum via weekly packages of specimens sent from his outpost in the Amazon rainforest.
Something in this telegraphic communication (across a politically charged distance in one case, and experiential difference in the other) gets at a more primeval thing — an acute sense that much of what we experience here, in this exhibition, in any exhibition, is shorthand for something completely inaccessible.
Other peak moments in the show demonstrate Dion’s ability to create a sense of a character by simply creating a set, as he does in “The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco, Chinatown Division” (1998). We know without knowing that the inhabitant of this workstation is male, is nearsighted, is willing and maybe even eager to get his hands dirty, and is living in the middle of the 20th century rather than now. The perfect, imprecise night sky under the stairs of “The Classical Mind, Scala Naturae and Cosmic Cabinet” (1994/2017), is similarly quaintly disarming.
In “The Library for the Birds of New York/ The Library for the Birds of Massachusetts” (2016/2017), there’s a lovely titillation to being in an (ornate) cage, watching birds treat the things that we see as sacred (books) the way they normally treat the things they surely see as sacred (trees), knowing, while dodging bird shit, that both sacred things, along with the fragrant wood shavings underfoot, all come from the same place.
Additionally, a few pieces stand out as just elegantly, artfully crafted. Dion’s simple, colored pencil drawings, in what the ICA terms the “Time Chamber” room at the center of the exhibition, are sharp offerings of direct access to his thinking and art-making processes. They have a humor to them that is completely unpretentious; or rather, their form undermines the possibility of pretense and just lets you in in a way that no other works here do. They are minor works here, but without them the exhibition would lack an intimacy that it needs in order to feel like a true retrospective.
“Herbarium” (2007-11), a folio of seven politically entangled botanical images, is a small glory of meticulousness.
And “Landfill” (1999-2000), a full-scale diorama of a landfill, is “Herbarium’s” inverse — equally meticulous, but of a wholly different scope and completely different tenor. “Landfill” is not only meticulous, but very tightly so, despite its decomposing subject matter. Every shred of plastic bag seems perfectly placed and preternaturally tangled. It’s interesting that “Memory Box,” though of similar scope, is far looser feeling, almost reveling in disorder. But perhaps it’s true to life: what we leave behind in the natural world is ultimately a fairly orderly record of our movement through time and space, whereas our memories and other thought processes about our place in nature though delicately balanced against one another, are far more haphazard, and in a constant state of rearrangement.