WORDS & IMAGES: DANIELLE COHEN '18
The Tanya Bonakdar Gallery sounds as you’d expect any gallery to sound in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon in March – largely quiet, save for the rustle of papers and a few muted footsteps. Oh, and the occasional chorus of bird chirps.
The chirps, it turns out, resonate from the main attraction of the exhibit, a large, round cage that occupies almost the entire room and holds a white oak tree at its center, its branches radiating out towards the cage’s walls and decorated with various paraphernalia that ranges from yellowing books to hunting apparel to a pair of small silver scissors.
The cage also contains 22 small birds, who go about their business seemingly unperturbed by the gallery’s visitors both circumambulating the cage and entering it to more closely examine its contents. (They’re actually movie birds, which means that they’re available for rent on movie and TV filming sets, so they’re no strangers to the presence of humans.)
As for the other objects in the cage, a large majority of them are books, which are lined up on the branches as they would be on a shelf, hanging from the tree’s limbs on an eclectic collection of wooden platforms, and in a pile on the floor that neatly encircles the trunk of the tree. The books all relate in some respect to birds, nature, or the like, and the other objects in the immersive space all make similar references to human encounters with nature.
Dion alludes to hunting through camouflage jackets and bags full of bullets, and the large net of fruit hanging from a branch references the use of nature for human nourishment. There’s also the inverse of this concept, feeding nature, indicated by a watering can that lies amidst the book pile. Various saws and bolted-together pieces of wood point to the reconfiguring of nature, and finally, Dion demonstrates the human imitation of nature with two rubber snakes that hang from a branch. In a lighthearted instance of wordplay, a badminton birdie appears, which, on a more serious level, plays off the presence of the live birds and points to the way humans define our manufactured products in relation to natural objects.
And Mark Dion’s ingenious creations don’t end with Library for the Birds of New York. Upstairs, a series of smaller yet equally unique and inventive works appear. Cabinet of Marine Debris, a collection of plastic materials collected in an expedition near the Alaskan coastline, is arranged in ROYGBIV order, striking a visually appealing tone while hinting at environmental and political undertones.
In a work called Memory Box, a large shed holds dauntingly clustered shelves of tattered boxes, which visitors are encouraged to rifle through and open. The contents of the boxes are intended to trigger memories, presumably different ones for each individual who happens upon the work. One box that used to hold playing cards now contains a few spools of colored thread. Another opened with a rusted hinge and held little board game pieces; another a small porcelain doll; the list goes on. For me, the threads evoked the strongest memories, specifically those of my time at summer camp and the ensuing obsession I developed with weaving friendship bracelets. (Many Klutz instruction books were bought.) Other artifacts reminded me of my grandparents and their bizarre collection of antique objects.
Mark Dion walks the line between random disarray and obsessive, meticulous organization; even in his most seemingly chaotic moments, he’s careful, precise, and deliberate. The crowded jumble of boxes in Memory Box each hold objects carefully selected and intended to elicit feelings of recollection and nostalgia, while the cluttered Library for the Birds of New York is unified through the theme of humanity intersecting with nature.
Dion’s work comes across especially strong, both in message and in pure aesthetic pleasure, mainly because of the way he directly engages with his viewers. He invites them not only to observe the cage but also to enter it; and not just to enter the shed but to explore its various objects of nostalgia. He sets out to evoke a very specific experience for his viewers, yet he also allows space for this experience to vary between individuals, each work’s appeal filtered through its viewer’s own mind.
And yet through all this, he acknowledges absurdity where it’s present. Library is intentionally silly, if not whimsical, in suggesting that birds would need or even use a library, especially one that contains books detailing their own biology and natural habitat. And the undeniable lightheartedness of installing a large cage of beautiful birds in the midst of Chelsea’s endless collection of intensely highbrow galleries isn’t lost on viewers, either.
After an afternoon spent navigating the complexities of the intersection between nature and man, memory and object, chaos and arrangement, I left the gallery feeling slightly enlightened, as well as dazzled by the sheer depth of each of Dion’s works. In the simplest of terms, his art makes you think. And it doesn’t hurt that it also redefines the relationship between observer and observed in ways rarely employed by contemporary artists. And, after all, isn’t that the point of art – to set the stage for thinking in imaginative, unorthodox ways?
You may disagree. If you want a simpler reason to go, the birds are pretty.