Humanity Collides With Nature In Whitechapel Gallery's Latest Exhibition

Mark Dion, Whitechapel Gallery ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 7 months ago

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Humanity Collides With Nature In Whitechapel Gallery's Latest Exhibition Mark Dion, Whitechapel Gallery 5
A glow in the dark cabinet of curiosities awaits. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery, Photo: Jeff Spicer

We step into an aviary filled with flitting chattering zebra finches. Yet this isn't your typical aviary — at the base of the apple tree is a collection of books about the natural world, which the birds are happily sitting and defecating on. All while they admire a photograph of David Attenborough.

It's easy to forget we're in the Whitechapel Gallery and we've entered the immersive worlds of artist Mark Dion. The tree represents the tree of life and hefty nature books highlight our knowledge of the natural world — yet, despite this knowledge, species are still becoming endangered and extinct around the world.

Spend some time caged with the birds. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery. Photo: Jeff Spicer

It's this uneasy relationship between humanity and nature that forms the core of this show.

There are blinds for hunters, where one observes other visitors through meshed netting that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere when humans are seen as the hunted.

The birds get to literally crap on our knowledge.

On the walls are banners showing items such as a strung up fox, a decapitated boar or a bullet riddled hare — it's like looking at deceased families from a distorted Game of Thrones. The middle banner shows a shotgun another example of the human hunter reigning over everything else.

The exhibition is designed so that each section feels like a new show by itself and this helps you approach each project with fresh eyes.

Results of Dion's Tate Thames dig. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery. Photo: Jeff Spicer

Dion has recreated a fusty backroom of a museum, a wallpaper of extinct species and carried out a dig on the banks near Tate Britain and what was going to be Tate Modern, back in 1999. All the bottle caps, lighters fragments of crockery and shells are carefully arranged in a cabinet where visitors can open drawers and admire what his team found.

This array of cabinets of curiosity finishes with a glow in the dark recreation of artefacts and animal specimens. It's reminiscent of those glow in the dark toys we used to get in cereal boxes — though the strange merman is more nightmarish than nostalgic.

A stuffy museum back room has been recreated for the show. Courtesy Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester. Photo: Paul Cliff

Dion has a fascination with how the natural world is displayed in museums, and he manages to convey this in an accessible manner. It's easy for an exhibition like this to lose an audience by becoming too academic and inward looking, something we're glad to report this never happens.

The exhibition is inspiring, engaging and presents major issues in an accessible way. Dion isn't preaching an environmentalist message to us, rather he's asking us to stop and really think about the thorny issues around humanity's interaction with nature — are we doing enough to preserve species? Is captivity ever justified? And should any kind of hunting be deemed acceptable?

Step inside a hunting blind and spy on fellow visitors. Courtesy Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Vienna. Photo © Adolf Bereuter

We left the gallery with these questions bouncing around our heads. On top of all that we had a great time at this excellent exhibition.

Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World is on at Whitechapel Gallery until 13 May. Tickets are from £12.95 for adults.

Last Updated 21 February 2018