Mark Dion

The Life of a Dead Tree

Jill Glessing
Museum of Contemporary Art,(MOCA),Toronto May 24–July 28, 2019
Mark Dion The Life of a Dead Tree,, installation view, MOCA, Toronto, 2019.
Photo : Tom Arban Photography Inc., courtesy of the artist & Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles
Museum of Contemporary Art,(MOCA),Toronto May 24–July 28, 2019
[En anglais]

The idea of museum as morgue isn’t new. Interventions by scholars, Indigenous Peoples, and artists critique the museum for sequestering stolen cultural objects and displaying them as artefacts. Natural history museums extract organisms from complex ecosystems and present them as specimens within Enlightenment-inspired classification systems. But when Mark Dion engages those same processes — as when he recently arranged for a diseased and deceased tree to be dragged from its forest resting place and laid out in MOCA — he creates hybrid spaces that conflate museum, laboratory, classroom, and institutional critique.

Dion’s site-specific commission, The Life of a Dead Tree, follows terrain previously tread in earlier installations. For The Library for the Birds of London (2018), a giant birdcage-like structure was furnished with ornithological books and artefacts, along with live birds that defecated upon them. More closely linked to the MOCA project is Neukom Vivarium (Seattle, 2006), for which Dion installed a giant old-growth tree inside a specially designed life-support greenhouse to educate visitors about the abundant life that ancestral trees birth long after their death. The western hemlock in Neukom Vivarium died of natural causes, but the white ash interred at MOCA passed prematurely, incapacitated by the emerald ash borer, one of the invasive insects currently laying waste to North American forests. If Dion’s hemlock project was designed to alert audiences to the verdant wealth of natural ecosystems and inspire their protection, the MOCA installation intones a more sombre message — the earth’s fragile ecosystems are veering toward collapse, and humans and their invasive cargo are the cause.

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This article also appears in the issue 97 - Appropriation

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