Skip to main content

Poking Fun and Making Sense: Mark Dion’s Elemental Collections in Crystal Bridges at 10

(from left to right) Mindy Besaw, curator, American art; artist Mark Dion; Larissa Randall, curatorial assistant

Mark Dion is both incredibly talented and delightfully hilarious. I had the privilege of working with him alongside countless Crystal Bridges team members, such as Exhibition Designer Jessi Mueller and Curator Mindy N. Besaw, throughout the past year in support of Dion’s creation of Elemental Collections, found in Crystal Bridges at 10. From sorting through storage racks via Facetime at the University of Arkansas Museum, to swapping drawings of design dreams via email, Mark, our Crystal Bridges team, and the generous lenders across the University of Arkansas continuously made space to have fun while working. Museum collections and theatrical design elements all work in concert with Mark Dion’s exuberant sense of humor to culminate in Elemental Collections.

Dion chats with entomologist Ashley Dowling and Mary Suter, curator of collections, University of Arkansas Museum.
Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

The installation, which is organized into four thematic galleries of air, earth, fire, and water, playfully disrupts any preexisting expectations one might expect for a museum display.

The “air room” features artistic depictions of well-known winged travelers, such as Pegasus and the American eagle, alongside objects that manipulate air, such as gas masks and smoking pipes. A taxidermy passenger pigeon is centrally perched, in the eyeshot of a basswood-carved passenger pigeon sporting a miniature blue crocheted sweater.

Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

Three drawings of root vegetables hang above the doorway as visitors enter the “earth room,” which features several nineteenth- and twentieth-century landscape pictures flanked by two images of a buffalo bull: one eating and one dying. 

Blue light emits from the “water room” inviting viewers to travel beneath the surface of the sea to experience relics of sea life, such as mollusk shells, starfish, and a petrified squid, in new ways.

Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.
Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

Nine handmade, devil-inspired masks peer through a mineshaft-like doorway, engulfing viewers into the final “fire room” full of objects made of either bright paint or dull iron.

It would be impossible to list every material Mark Dion used to create the installation Elemental Collections. By comparison, when we write a label for a painting in the galleries, even if a painter mixed linseed oil, turpentine, and a pigment such as lapis lazuli to create a single brushstroke, we summarize the media neatly as “oil on canvas.” 

Visitors to the “fire room” might recognize that there are eight lithographs on view near Jamie Wyeth’s painting from the Crystal Bridges collection. Some visitors may be able to identify the exact types of rocks we have on loan from the University of Arkansas. However, this is not essential; to identify and label individual objects in Elemental Collections distracts from the work as a whole. Dion painstakingly combined objects and designed each gallery with custom-built walls, artist-designed wallpapers (like the jellyfish seen in the “water room”), and paint colors like “smoldering red” in order to create an immersive experience that sparks curiosity and encourages viewers to make their own unexpected connections.

Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.
Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

Every decision Mark Dion made to include, exclude, hide, or highlight an object was highly calculated yet executed with theatrical whimsy. Mark Dion’s installations typically bring together a dense accumulation of interdisciplinary objects and share a similar philosophical context with historic “cabinets of curiosity” or “wonder cabinets,” as well as with contemporary museum practices. With this practice, Dion calls attention to histories of collecting and considers how museum collections are built over time and often predicated on tangled colonial histories. 

Dion admits, “The wonder cabinet is very much a symptom of the new colonial endeavor in Europe. There is no one wonder cabinet. But, one thing that unites them is that they are very discursive spaces.” 

His thoughtful, consistent integration of humor into each space of Elemental Collections deliberately pokes fun at object collecting as a project while sparking rich conversations. He reveals, “my ideal response from the viewer might be chuckles, and laughs, and gasps of surprise.”

Larissa Randall holds a jar of snake specimen!

Dion’s installation probes important questions for museums and museum visitors alike, such as: What is here? How did it get here? What is missing? What do we continue to preserve and why? I remain appreciative of these questions, which echo the larger thematic framework embraced in the Crystal Bridges at 10 exhibition (closing September 27), and will keep them close as I work to contribute to the next 10 years of Crystal Bridges.

Enjoy our Spotlight Talk with Mark Dion here.