Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

In Review: Mark Dion - The Theatre of The Natural World

The Whitechapel Gallery, London
14 February 2018  – 13 May 2018


The final room of Mark Dion’s exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery, aptly titled The Wonder Workshop, is the highlight and take-home image of a characteristically detailed and curious examination of our relationship to the natural world.

As one enters The Wonder Workshop, there is a satisfying sense of order about seeing these objects, artefacts and antiquities placed out of their context, reordered monochromatically and uniformly. Presented in a blackened room, in dark cabinets, the only light in the room is generated by the objects themselves which glow fluorescently. The significance of these glowing totems from around the globe is unclear - does it speak to an energy that exists within these objects? Or perhaps the luminosity is a symbol of the soul, signalling the life and spirit in these items - the richness of their history. Another consideration could be that the luminosity of these items is a metaphor for the life we bring into them, through fascination, folklore and study.

Dion is interested in our representation of nature and the history of ideas that surround it. With The Wonder Workshop standing as an exception, the running themes throughout the exhibition are explored in a more literal approach. In the first piece, The Library For The Birds Of London, there are live zebra finches dancing from branch to branch of a large tree enclosed within a tall atrium. Balanced across the heavier branches are old nature books on birds, Dion explained that the books are there for the birds who obviously can’t read them, further adding that if they could read it would definitely be of benefit to the species. The absurdist premise of the work, which is light and initially uplifting in presentation, carries a more ominous undertone in that Dion's point highlights the innocence of the birds who are imprisoned in a piece of art about how they can’t read.

Between these two polar opposites are a myriad of curiosities: treehouse-like forms and installations, a highlight of which is The Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and Its Legacy. The room itself isn’t classically surreal but is - like much of the exhibition - packed with oddities and genuinely looks like it could be a set for a film of the same name. 

There is so much to see in The Theatre of The Natural World, that it feels impossible to do so. However, Dion said recently of his work that the aim is to slow the viewer down and for them to have an ‘interesting time’ - his wager being that the more time you spend the more you will get out of the exhibition. It's a noble aim that is achieved throughout the exhibition with varying degrees of success but very much worth the experience. AG