Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World at The Whitechapel Gallery

‘Theatre of the Natural World’ is an absolutely incredible exhibition by Mark Dion at the Whitechapel Gallery. It fully engulfs visitors into a world that Dion has created, throwing them headfirst into the heart of nature, the walls of the gallery overflowing with knowledge and images of the natural world around us.

The exhibition begins with an installation of various structures based on ‘hides’, which are used by hunters in the wild to disguise their presence from their prey and to represent different kinds of hunters. Each of the hide structures, which have been beautifully crafted, has been filled with the accessories of a particular type of hunter, such as The Dandy-Rococo which evokes the European aristocratic history of hunting; a cluttered iron shed illustrated the culinary rewards of hunting’. The Librarian hide offers a more theoretical approach to the messy business of killing with a well-ordered and clean cabin, furnished with maps, binoculars and reading materials; and finally the fallen wreckage of the Ruin exposes a more outdated style of hide.

In the centre of the room, there stands an enormous aviary. The aviary is filled with 22 Zebra Finches, small birds native to Australia. This part of the exhibition has been built according to the advice and consultation of the RSPCA. In the centre of the aviary, sits a huge apple tree that references the tree of life, the biblical tree of knowledge and the evolutionary tree structure adopted by the Victorian naturalists. The tree is surrounded by a library of various books, all relating to birds and wildlife, as well as other various objects that relate to hunting and the pursuit of birds. The birds remain indifferent to these human artefacts, proving that not only is this library for birds absurd but also our inability to truly understand the natural world. Viewers are in fact invited to step inside the giant enclosure, bringing them close to the birds, fully immersing them within this positively beautiful spectacle of an art installation. Although unknown to the viewers inside the enclosure, to the outside world they have too now become caged specimens to be boggled at as they watch the delicate little birds flapping about, singing their sweet songs in a language entirely secret to everyone but themselves.

‘The Naturalist’s Study’ is another room of the gallery that has been transformed into warm and comfortable study for viewers. The walls are covered in a dark purple wallpaper, the lights have been dimmed and plush couches have been laid out for viewers to sit and flick through the various wildlife books that have been laid out on the thick wooden desks. The room is filled with books, but also with various artefacts for viewers to admire, including a “unicorn horn” (a replica Narwhal horn). Viewers will find that the musty smell and the delicate sound of fragile pages turning is deeply relaxing as they sink down in a chair in this intimately crafted study.

Another room explores the findings of the Thames Dig that Mark Dion orchestrated in 1999 with a team of volunteers. Together, they scoured the Thames around Milbank and Bankside, near the Tate Gallery (now the Tate Britain). The room includes a colossal wooden cabinet filled with hundreds upon hundreds of various artefacts found during this dig. The tide at Milbank, the site of a cholera-infested prison in the 19th century can be violent. Its beach has a thick layer of malicious silt and can be quite nasty to those who get too close. The calmer beach at Bankside yielded more historic treasures such as oysters shells and pipes of 17th century pleasure seekers who attended local brothels, and the Globe Theatre. Other items found include various bone fragments, shoe soles, hoards of plastic, dumped electronics, and notes presumably found in bottles, sent adrift by their authors. This part of the exhibition really shows us what is lurking beneath the surface in our very home, in London. It allows viewers the pleasure of discovering these magnificent historic tales, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant each item found has its own unique story to tell.

The exhibition closes by leading viewers through ‘The Wonder Workshop’. The room is filled with sculptural recreations from the ‘Wunderkammer’ (room of wonder), which is filled with 17th century illustrations. The room is brimming with intriguing objects and curiosities, however the room is pitch black, plunging viewers into total darkness. Almost. Suspended from the ceiling are UV backlights that shine onto the many wondrous objects that are shelved around the room, creating a magical atmosphere as viewers secretly admire the spectacle from the shadows.

‘Theatre of the Natural World’ is filled with hundreds of breathtaking and mind-boggling displays and also includes the experience of being enclosed with 22 live Zebra Finches. This exhibition certainly gives cause for reflection not only on nature but man’s way of presenting it and it is impossible to walk away from this exhibition feeling anything less than astounded.

Mark Dion’s ‘Theatre of the Natural World’ is on at The Whitechapel Gallery until 13th May.  More information may be found here.