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Mark Dion’s Systema Metropolis


On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the birth of the father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, The Natural History Museum in London is now devoting an entire special exhibition to his contribution in understanding the natural world. They called upon amateur scientist and fine artist Mark Dion to conceive of an interpretation of Linneaus that would be relevant to the present day city of London.

“Artist Mark Dion examines how humans make order out of chaos by collecting and classifying organisms. He creates intriguing art installations from wildlife samples collected at sites across London. They reveal the rich variety of life that surrounds us in one of the world’s most vibrant cities.”

The exhibit comprises an introduction to Linnaeus and four purpose built labs, each resituated from the four London Urban environments where Dion and his scientist teams investigated and categorized found objects and species.

A. Site one: A40 motorway, from St Paul’s Cathedral in the City, to Northolt in northwest London

(Electric collecting car, molecular sequencing field lab in background)

Dion’s team drove the entire length of London’s A40 motorway in an electric car with a screen of sticky fly-tape attached to the roof and butterfly nets protruding from the windows. By simply passing the vehicle through the urban air, it caught insects and other airborne life. The collected specimens were preserved in alcohol and were subjected to DNA analysis at the Museum.

Unlike the whole and undamaged specimens from the other urban laboratories, what was left after highway-speed insect impacts was often just goo. So Dion used molecular genetic sequencers for the classification of the salvaged matter. From this evidence they found a host of species, including two that had never before been recorded in Britain; one a wasp, another a beetle.

With reference to the necessity of using sequencers to identify the partial gooey samples picked up from the electric car, Dion spoke on the tension between traditional taxonomies of morphology and new molecular genetic techniques. It’s a contentious issue in a natural history museum where the adoption of such molecular-based technology would potentially obsolesce the esoteric expertise of the paleontologists, zoologists and botanists there. Yet the human-based classifications and molecular genetic technology match up about 99% of the time. There are differences though: the molecular sequencers need only a sample rather than the whole specimen., and they’re also incredibly expensive.

Humans are far more efficient in classifying whole specimens from previous experience. And curiously in Dion’s project, one of the molecular testers actually misclassified a fly as having the DNA of a grain of rice. Humans are far more efficient in classifying whole specimens from previous experience. And curiously in Dion’s project, one of the molecular testers actually misclassified a fly as having the DNA of a grain of rice.

(Molecular sequencing laboratory rebuilt in gallery)

What is so poignant about the car as a roaming species collection device is that sensor-enabled artwork such as that of Natalie Jeremijenko predominantly monitor environmental conditions against time and geographical location. Here Dion uses the motorized vehicle as a collector of life and the life that the vehicle itself termninated. Rather than the air-life being washed or wiped away in windshield-washer fluid or car-wash sprays and solutions, the car can guage what cohabits our air, not just the hazards and particulate we produce and live amongst.

B. Site two: The River Thames at Kingsnorth Power Station

(Kingsnorth Power Sation on the River Thames)

Near the estuary of the Kingsnorth 1940MW power plant, Dion looked into cultural biodiversity by collecting and analyzing detritus from the plant’s intake filters. What emerged from the filters was every kind of consumable object as well as the expected myriad of plants and animal specimens, from floating rubber ducks and sports balls to a menagerie of plastic bottle caps and a host of urban flotsam and waste. They also found the second seahorse to ever be recorded in the London area.

Dion described that the collection of the material and then its catologuing was as if aliens came and removed everything from the river and organized the matter by shape and colour but with no rigorous sense of classification. The field laboratory now situated in the gallery is a haunting tubular and opaque self-contained structure with samples laid out by crude similarity. In one section there are bottle caps arranged by colour. And in another, something of a geneology of rubber balls presumably lost in the course of street games, swept into sewers and into the Thames.

(Classified Objects in the resituated Thames field laboratory)

C. Site three: Brompton, East Finchley and Highgate Cemeteries

(Scientist taking cemetery insect sample)

Dion’s team collected samples from the stone surfaces and surrounding areas of three famous Victorian graves: suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), evolutionary theorist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) and philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883). All the organisms collected were preserved in alcohol and taken to the Museum to be identified and classified.
(Rebuilt Victorian era examination area)

D. Site FOUR: Olympic Park development

As London will host the 2012 Olympic Games Dion’s team used the future site of the games as an urban laboratory. They carefully removed two sections of earth which they brought to the Museum to be examined. The two sections showed the marked difference in species variety between a sample of playing-field grass, which had two species of plant, and the natural grass that would grow unabated in the area, which had 25 species.

(background: two species planted sample. foreground: 25 species wild sample)


In animating Linneaus’s world, Dion borrowed objects from the Linnean society in London, an academic research organization, whose collection of Linneaus’s specimens and tools is stored in a bomb shelter and rarely lent out. He also brought his own specimen collection tools and other objects from the Chalmers-Hunt collection of historical entomology gear.

The originator of our common taxonomical system, Linneaus’s specimens were all type specimens. At the introduction of Dion’s work on Linneaus, a case holds three open books with the rather provocative type specimens of tobacco, coffee and marijuana. The images in the books highlight the evolution of taxonometric visual description, starting from a storybook like format with pressed leaves emerging out of childishly painted flower pots and rolling hills, comically creating the visual effect of everyday plants as botanical giants happily classified and thereby civilized into the visual rhetoric of agriculture and domestic gardening.

Due to Linneaus’s poverty, he was forced to use single half sheets with the specimens meticulously laid out scientifically, hence marking the end of the romanticization of narrative collections of botanical specimens and the beginning of a scientifically scrupulous and eminently logical system of understanding the complex familiarized networks of the ecologies that surround us.In an increasingly globalized art market Dion’s fascinations and expertise are patently western. His work plays with the occidental scientific and natural historical traditions and rhetoric – he has trained for many years from that angle – and perspectives of natural history from other countries are too complicated to take on. It would be hard to get a handle on other traditions and he worries about globalizing his own work in an art market that he has seen cave to a market function rather than a critical stance to our society.

Dion’s artistry is an interesting example within the contemporary art-world where the arguments for a return to craft and technique are pitched against proposals af greater conceptual abstractions of the artistic subject. While his work is conceptual in the sense that it is a construction of ideas and experiences, he is one of the only artists currently exhibiting a conceptual rigour and mastery over a specific and relatively esoteric body of knowledge that endows his work with a true intellectual craftsmanship.

Dion’s work has incredible value because it reintroduces the immediacy of regionality that we all experience as our first wondrous interface with the natural world – of the backyard, swimming pool, corners of the school room etc. But that first encounter with the natural world eventually dissolves in a world where we are trained to consider science and the natural as a phenomena only to be experienced in a nature that exists in as “elsewhere.” As geographically differentiated regions from the civilized arenas in which we live our daily lives. Dion’s is an interesting methodology that reinjects our childlike awe into a mixture of rigorous scientific observation and a storytelling that is as imaginative as our search for understanding the natural world has historically been and should continue to be.

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