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Artists Past & Present:

Mark Dion - the Tate Thames Dig Project  

Mark Dion,
Tate Thames Dig

The Tate Gallery, 1999.

Mark Dion

Featured in: Artists Who Collect

Mark Dion conducts large-scale projects in which he questions the role of specialists—from archeologists to ethnologists, from historians to art curators. He questions the classification systems placed on objects by professionals and institutions and invites viewers of his work to be an active audience. For example, Dion’s Tate Thames Dig was a public project in London involving historical sites past and present, including the Tate Museum, Globe Theatre, and Bankside Power Station. This project consisted of three phases: the archeological dig phase, the cleaning and classifying stage, and the final display in what Dion terms his “Cabinets of Curiosities.” Dion, with a crew of assistants in protective clothing, combed the muddy banks of the Thames for objects. The detritus was then carefully cleaned by Dion and crew—now in lab coats—and carefully labeled and specified. Dion’s team collected large quantities of items, including clay pipes, decorated shards of pottery, oyster shells, and plastic toys.

The exhibition organized these objects according to location in a large mahogany cabinet, alongside photographs of the beachcombers and tidal flow charts, classifying them loosely according to type (such as bones, glassware, pottery, metal objects), in seemingly unhistorical and largely unexplained arrangements: antique items were shown alongside contemporary items, ephemera and detritus were next to objects of value. At all stages, the artist and his assistants took on the role of actors in a form of public theatre, inviting all onlookers to question their own ideas about archaeology, scientific classification, relationships, and knowledge of the past.

Much like museums’ dilemma labels, Dion's artwork questions both past belief systems and the perceived objectivity of museum displays. Dion is committed to an ongoing investigation of the relevance and morality of institutions that serve as interpreters and caretakers of the histories of science and culture.

“Museums of history are one of the most essential sites for any investigation into how a dominant cultural group constructs and demonstrates its truth about nature,” says Dion, “My work is not really about nature, but rather it is a consideration of ideas of nature.”
University of California, San Diego, Art and Humanities

Comprehension Questions for Mark Dion:

  1. Describe Tate Thames Dig.
  2. What is Mark Dion questioning with this project?
  3. How do institutions give meaning to objects?




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