The zebra finches flash across the aviary in startling bursts above your head. They have red beaks, russet cheeks and those black and white stripes that give them their name. Somewhere down below, among artful arrangements of binoculars, box Brownies and assorted works of literature that dwell upon our feathered friends, there is probably a history of these Australian birds. But nobody’s looking at that. We are all staring at the finches, whose song is like garrulous chit-chat, as if they were discussing us. It is an equal tension between two species in the birdcage.
This is the first and last time you will see a living creature in Mark Dion’s big Whitechapel retrospective. Stuffed, dissected, flayed and displayed as pastiche museum exhibits, or zoological specimens, or spectacles in some fantastical wunderkammer, dead critters have been the American artist’s medium for 30 years. But what fascinates Dion (born 1961) is not the natural world itself so much as our relationship with it, the way we observe, display and conserve it.
Photographs taken in European museums show their tendency to present stuffed polar bears as cuddly toys (except Zurich, for some reason, where their teeth are fiercely exposed). Crocodiles, zebra and tigers appear as wallpaper in some Victorian explorer’s study. Heraldic banners feature all the usual beasts but also the manner of their death – the stag shot through, the leaping hare sprayed with bullets, the boar’s head in a pool of blood.
Dion devises tableaux redolent of some past person or event: the zoologist’s cupboard containing his pith helmet, slides and expedition nets. The naturalist’s study hung with diagrams and drawings that veer from scholarly to far-fetched. Fiction and reality are fused: the coral tree is resin, but the sharks’ teeth dangling from it like Christmas baubles are real. The unicorn’s horn turns out to be that of a narwhal, but in replica – the legend is real, the object is not.
You’ve seen it all before; that’s the trick. Everything you look at appears familiar to the point of cliche: the dodo in its glass dome, the dugong mermaid, the mad evolutionary chart. Dion acts as historian of ideas, examining the ways in which we catalogue our discoveries in nature and arrange our knowledge. A huge, glass-fronted museum cabinet contains items retrieved during a dig on the Thames foreshore at Bankside in 1999. Open the drawers and you will see them arranged according to colour, material, utility, size or even just wondrousness (a voodoo doll, for instance). The taxonomy is random and endless.
That taxonomy is a social construct is the theme of Jorge Luis Borges’s marvellous essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, in which he writes about 14 fictional categories of animals in China – those that belong to the emperor, those painted with a fine camel-hair brush, and so on. Dion’s museum cabinet is pure bathos by comparison, not least because it includes exactly the kind of stuff any mudlark might expect to find on a Sunday, from old bottles to drowned mobile phones.
And here is the first problem with this show. It wants to stay within the limiting confines of reality. The finches are spectacular, to be sure, darting about their business. What’s more, these birds are the avian equivalent of laboratory monkeys, so there is an extra social significance. Only last week, scientists discovered that zebra finches sing in their sleep. But the mundane array of ornithology guides, twitchers’ props and novels that make reference to birds – Paul Gallico’s cat story Jennie, for jocose example – drags down the installation.
Which may, of course, be Dion’s argument: culture is as indifferent as the finches find it, shedding their droppings upon it. Man and nature never fully coincide. How can we love creatures and yet put them in cages? And so on, through the paradoxes.
Every now and again the artist breaks out. There is a frightening skeleton of a bird coated in black tar, as if wearing its own man-made death. The aptly titled Wonder Workshop shows natural curiosities glowing fluorescent in the darkness as if they had no context or past, free of museum culture to be simply and spectacularly themselves. And Dion’s own drawings are spryly epigrammatic, especially a sketch of a large egg with a tiny door labelled “Ornithology Education Centre”.
But the wunderkammer, vitrine and cabinet are old tropes of contemporary art, and so are the anatomy chart and the family tree. Theatrical environments, suggestive of some absent figure, go all the way back to the Kabakovs in the 70s, and have been better done by Ed Kienholz, Mike Nelson and Gregor Schneider to name but three.
The aviary is surrounded by life-size hunting hides. There is one for the glutton, stocked with wine bottles and dishes decorated with mallards and deer; another for the dandy, hung with chandeliers. A third has crashed to the ground, guns and ammunition abandoned as if the animal kingdom had finally bitten back. Variations on a longstanding theme, these walk-in environments invite but then thwart our human response. They are, alas, bafflingly repetitive.
The Hepworth Wakefield has a small but beautifully condensed survey of the British sculptor Anthony McCall’s “solid light” works, past and present. Many artists have worked with light, from Dan Flavin to James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson, but none have so fully explored its sculptural potential. McCall, now 71, effectively decoupled cinema and image in his celebrated 1973 piece Line Describing a Cone, projecting a conical shaft of white light across a pitch-black gallery. Its shape was made visible with a haze machine, like the beam defined by cigarette smoke in an old movie theatre.
His desire to harness light is first apparent in a 1972 photograph showing a slit cut in the blind of his darkened apartment, producing a pencil of midday sun on the opposite wall. He lights fires in square formation across a field at dusk; he releases light through particles of moisture so that fog seems to roll and swirl before your eyes. Twin beams radiate across the gallery with a narrow black channel between them. Walk through this atmospheric no man’s land and it feels like a hidden space between two walls.
There is terrific precision and control to McCall’s work. Films and photographs of early performances look alternately wild and severe, somewhere between phantasmagoric tripping and serial art. His latest works appear more disciplined in their elegant complexity. The beams describe an ellipse that gradually shrinks through slender arcs to a dot, or they draw curvilinear forms on the screen, abstract but associated with eyes, birds in flight or ribbons fluttering in the breeze. Turn away from the screen to face the projector and you find yourself contained in a tunnel of light.
It is a mysterious combination: the beams streaming across the gallery, their surfaces (as it seems) like diaphanous veils, turning clouds or ever-changing weather, balanced against the pure graphic force of the light concentrated on the screen. How frail is this light that makes our world visible, and yet how strong: that is the wonder McCall brings to mind with his works, so simple, poetic and strange.
Star ratings (out of five)
Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World ★★
Anthony McCall: Solid Light Works ★★★