Mark Dion has been creating works that mimic the vitrines and dioramas in natural history museums since the mid-1980s, often as a humorous means of critiquing established ways of gathering, organizing, and sharing knowledge of the world. St. Gallen’s Natural History Museum recently moved out of the late nineteenth-century neoclassical building it had previously shared with the Kunstmuseum. To mark the occasion, the Kunstmuseum invited Dion to stage an exhibition in the vacated space, providing an opportunity for him to show his work in an especially fitting setting. The result is “The Wondrous Museum of Nature,” as is writ large on the entrance wall. Dion has placed twenty of his pieces dating from 1993 to 2016 within the existing exhibition architecture, incorporating a few taxidermied specimens and educational tools that remained after the move.
Opening the show, however, are works that Dion culled from the collections of the two museums, most notably a vulture perched on an artificial tree stump and, nearby, two stunning eighteenth-century paintings by Philipp Ferdinand de Hamilton portraying curling, frayed trompe-l’oeil canvases painted with images of strung-up dead game birds. Echoing the mix of art and science found in a cabinet of curiosities––precursor to the museum––Dion from the outset challenges the traditional purview of a natural history museum, while also highlighting art’s ability to deceive. In keeping with the title, his opening gambits are heavy on affect, offering a beguiling assortment of animals and objects.
The compact survey exhibition that follows contains various works that carry on the Wunderkammer theme, such as The Unruly Collection (2015)––a shelving unit displaying white papier-mâché sculptures of items (a turtle, a piece of coral, an oil lamp) rendered in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century engravings. The Marine Biologist’s Locker (Cousteau’s Cabinet), 1993––the earliest work on view––presents equipment and clothing suggesting belongings of the famous underwater explorer as if they were themselves specimens. There is a dystopian quality to a number of works, particularly those from Dion’s project “The Tar Museum” (2006), which consists of life-size and lifelike sculptures of animals coated in tar to connote the poisonous material’s effects on the environment. Similarly causing wonder and charm to shift toward unease are pieces that portray creatures or their remains lying on carpets of human detritus. Grotto of the Sleeping Bear––Revisited (1998), a cast plaster skeleton of a recumbent bear placed on a bed of leaves strewn with items such as a garden fork and a walking stick, occupies a corner of the venue that was formerly dedicated to Swiss bears. Here and elsewhere in the show, didactic panels that remain from the natural history museum––providing information about the habitats, life cycles, and extinction of animals––take on new significance.
The exhibition culminates in a darkened room with three recent works consisting of groups of fluorescent-painted sculptural objects shown under black light. One of them, The Phantasmal Cabinet (2015), represents a motley collection of creatures, ranging from a squid to a winged dragon to Dürer’s imaginative depiction of a rhinoceros. The reason Dion is able to exhibit in the former home of the Natural History Museum in the first place (the museum decided to relocate to a brand-new contemporary construction with white cube galleries and striking exhibition displays) suggests that certain educational styles of presentation are growing outmoded. This seems to be Dion’s conclusion, too, given these glowing forms that appear suspended in space, weightless and depthless and stripped of context. It is an impressive and unnerving vision of how the natural world might end up as an abstract concept.