Wildlife on One was never like this. A giant mole slouches in mid-air, strung up with an ‘undertaker’ beetle on its back; the skeleton of a brown bear slumbers by an alarm clock; and what appears to be Flipper’s ancient ancestor lies marooned on a beach, its guts spilling out old scientific instruments. Yes, US artist Mark Dion could be Damien Hirst with a natural history degree.
For all his eye-popping installations, however, there is little that is schlocky or showy about his work. Dion does have a genuine research background, and hypothesises how ideas about the natural world are socially contingent. ‘The more a notion of nature is touted as free of culture,’ he argues, ‘the more likely it is to be a successful product of it.’
Besides his fantastical homages to Victorian ‘gentlemen scientists’ (and like-minded female enthusiasts), Microcosmographia includes Dion’s preparatory sketches, displayed against surrealist wallpaper he designed. A real touch of the David Attenboroughs comes from The Secret Garden Biological Field Unit, a South London Gallery commission, that surveys the plants and insects in the gallery’s backlot using traditional methods. It’s worthy of an expedition as much as a visit. Pack your pith helmet and butterfly net.
Mark Dion: Microcosmographia: 9 September to 30 October, The South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5. Tel: 020 7703 6120