Mark Dion

Artists Who Collect
Mark Dion, The Tate Thames Dig Project, The Tate Modern, 1999

Mark Dion conducts large-scale projects in which he questions the role of specialists, from archeologists to ethnologists, historians to art curators. He questions the classification systems placed on objects by professionals and institutions and invites the viewers of his work to be an active audience. For example, The Tate Thames Dig Project (1999) was a public project in London involving historical sites past and present, including the Tate Museum, the Globe theatre and the 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 bank of the Thames for objects in the mud. The detritus was then carefully cleaned by Dion and crew—now in lab coats—and 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 of these items was organized according to the location of their discovery in a large mahogany cabinet, alongside photographs of the beachcombers and tidal flow charts. The items were classified loosely according to type (such as bones, glassware, pottery, metal objects), in seemingly unhistorical and largely uninterpreted arrangements. Antique items were shown alongside contemporary items, ephemera and detritus are next to objects of value. At all stages the artist and his assistants were actors in a form of public theatre inviting all onlookers to question their own ideas about archaeology, scientific classification and knowledge of the past.

Much like museum's dilemma labels, Dion's artwork questions past belief systems and the perceived objectivity of museum displays. Mark 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” (quoted from an article from the University of California, San Diego). 



Comprehension Questions:

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