Mark Dion: Enter the Birdcage

Everyone is talking about Mark Dion. His “Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has been deemed one of the country’s  “10 exhibitions you must see this fall.” Even the ticket seller at the museum told me, unbidden, that Dion was a must-not-miss. 

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He is an artist, an explorer, and an environmentalist. He loves large and gorgeous cabinets that he builds himself. Then he artfully arranges, on and in them, his treasures, often literally unearthed from his own excavations. For New Bedford Cabinet, he mined a waterfront site of an old 19th century bar that had burned down. He found plenty—tools, bottles, ceramics, now displayed as both art and history. 

His pieces are colorful, thoughtful, some the epitome of order, others as jumbled as your own eternal mess in the basement. None of them, however, surpassed The Library for the Birds of Massachusetts. It is a large steel mesh birdcage, filled with a makeshift tree and hundreds of books about birds and nature. Live zebras finches and canaries make it their home. No need to stand outside looking in; you are invited to enter. When I asked if the birds were happy to be part of an art installation, the docent said yes, and as if proof of it,  “they’re nesting.” And so they were. Once I was inside, a finch gave me a curious eye as it ripped strips of paper from the pages of books about, well, birds, then disappeared into its small nest to continue on with the day’s construction. 

Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist will be on view at the ICA in Boston until January 1, 2018.


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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge

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