Explorer, collector, activist and conjuror of theatrical environments American artist Mark Dion (b.1961) has travelled through rainforests and rubbish dumps to reveal the wonder and fragility of life on earth. Dion uses specimens – natural and manmade – to make uncanny representations of these environments. His drawings, sculptures and installations draw on the techniques of scientific enquiry and museum display; and on the telling of natural histories. 🌎
We embark on a journey through a sequence of installations created between 2000 and the present. The exhibition begins with The Library for the Birds of London (2018), a new commission continuing a series of aviaries Dion has created since 1993. The roomy sanctuary is a temporary home to 22 zebra finches, which are well-known for being social creatures. Visitors are invited into the aviary, which has an apple tree at its centre, referencing the tree of life. Over 600 books devoted to ornithology, environmentalism, literature and the natural sciences surround the birds. A scholar’s study invites us to unravel intricate drawings and models; while the Bureau for the Centre of the Study for Surrealism and its Legacy displays the strange magic of obsolete things. The muddy banks of the Thames have also yielded their treasures for poetic display in a gigantic cabinet; while The Wonder Workshop displays the ghosts of animals and instruments, many of them extinct and obsolescent. Each immersive environment is also a habitat, evoking the characters that observe, conserve or exploit the natural world.
The surreal beach life of Los Angeles, 1960s counter culture, pop songs and friendships with New York artists, poets and musicians are the well springs of Mary Heilmann’s dazzling abstractions.
Heilmann (b. 1940) takes colour, line and shape on unexpected journeys. Polka dots waft across eye-popping hues corralled within irregular rectangles. The poetry of her works lies in the tension between the rigours of geometry and the contingencies of the human and the organic.
The exhibition begins with paintings based on the square, the grid and architectural details, such as The First Vent (1972). They are juxtaposed with glazed ceramics, hovering between painting and sculpture. A slide show, Her Life (2006), features Heilmann’s paintings and personal photographs set to an eclectic mix of music.
Choreographed across Gallery 8, dynamic canvases represent ‘autobiographical markers’ – painterly haikus of the artist’s life. Their vibrancy is matched by their titles – Bush of Ghosts (1980) or Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012). Heilmann invites the viewer to become immersed in her synaesthetic stories while sitting in her colourful chairs.
Drawn from the collections of Contemporary Art Society member museums across the Midlands in England this display considers the notion of value in relation to fine and applied art and is part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s programme of opening up public and private collections for everyone.
Contemporary Art Society was founded in 1910 to support public museums and galleries across the UK, through acquisitions, gifts, advocacy and advice.