Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman: Journey to Nature’s Underworld will be the first two-person exhibition of these closely allied artists, offering a compelling tour through their celebrated careers and into the shadowy depths of the threatened natural world.
The first two-person exhibition of these celebrated artists, Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman: Journey to Nature’s Underworld will explore their shared allegiances and sustaining friendship over a period of three decades. Maintaining singular stylistic voices, both Dion and Rockman have achieved international prominence for their own distinctive practices, while their creative and intellectual trajectories have evolved in tandem and often intersected. Together they have embarked on tropical expeditions; published dialogues; and co-edited the pioneering 1996 book Concrete Jungle, on anthropogenic ecosystems. Each has probed our strained relationship with the environment and the consequences of reigning ideologies about nature. Dion and Rockman were among the earliest artists to address, and even anticipate, the epic ecological problems we now face. Indeed, their vision has become increasingly urgent in this time of environmental collapse. Uniting some twenty-five sculptures and paintings by both artists along with selected works on paper and a major new collaborative piece, this exhibition will offer an absorbing journey into the depths of the threatened natural world.
Although working in different media, Dion and Rockman engage a number of like approaches and strategies, including intensive research and fieldwork; borrowing scientific methodology and models; and the use of allegory, dark humor, and popular culture tropes. Both artists employ methods of display found in museums of art and natural history, institutions of alleged authority and objectivity, which they slyly subvert in their works. While Dion’s preferred museological modes are taxidermy dioramas and specimen cabinets, Rockman revels in large-scale landscape paintings, densely populated and replete with didactic keys. Like natural history displays and wildlife illustrations, their works are grounded in science and close observation, but presented in a rhetorical, or even theatrical, manner.
The concept of “underworld” in the exhibition’s title encompasses several germane associations, including the mythic abode of the dead, archaeology, the Earth’s subsurface, and elements of criminality or vice. Within the context of Dion’s and Rockman’s oeuvres, the notion also incorporates unconscious beliefs about nature, invisible micro and macro dimensions, and deep denial of our culture’s harmful course. In the past two decades, during which the environmental crisis has escalated, both artists have expressed increasing pessimism and melancholy about our ecological fate. This gloom has not proved stifling, however, and Dion and Rockman continue to hone creative tactics for staging both the wonder and woe of nature’s condition.
The exhibition will beget a voyage of discovery through various pressing subjects, with the artists’ works serving as enticing guides. Beginning with a section evoking the fieldwork of pioneering naturalists and explorers, visitors will encounter field-station tableaux by Dion alongside Rockman’s paintings of fauna and dramatic terrains, often with cross-sectioned views. Ensuing works will address such themes as invasive and endangered species, beleaguered aquatic environments, anthropogenic landscapes, and future scenarios evincing effects of climate change and waning biodiversity. An exhibition highlight will be the debut of a grand sculptural diorama, titled American Landscape, created especially for the tour and marking an unprecedented collaboration between Dion and Rockman. This zoological group portrait, set on a golf course, will feature a cast of scrappy species that, according to the artists, successfully “exploit niches and opportunities generated by a human-transformed landscape” representing “the future global ecosystem.” The exhibition will also include a selection of related drawings and prints by both Dion and Rockman. In addition, participating museums will have the option of developing, along with the artists, an adjunct “Chamber of Wonders” display, conceived as a flexible cabinet of curiosities intended to inspire both awe and concern about the natural world.
The exhibition catalogue will situate the work of Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman within various contexts, including postwar environmental art practice, the history of natural science, biodiversity and biogeography, climate change projections, and environmental justice. In addition to an introduction by Ramljak and a dialogue between Dion and Rockman, the publication will feature essays by diverse authors, including a contribution by critic and activist Lucy Lippard. The catalogue will also include an illustrated chronology of the two artists’ careers, set within an expanded timeline of human-generated environmental changes.
Suzanne Ramljak, an art historian and writer, is Chief Curator at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Ramljak was formerly a curator at the American Federation of Arts, a position she held intermittently since 1995. From 2001 until 2018, she served as editor of Metalsmith magazine, and was formerly editor of Sculpture magazine. Ramljak has worked in the curatorial departments of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Among the exhibitions she has independently curated are, Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art and Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment (both 2018), Case Studies: Art in a Valise (2006), Elie Nadelman: Classical Folk (2001), Romancing the Brain (1999), and Seductive Matter (1995).
Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman: Journey to Nature’s Underworld is organized by the American Federation of Arts. Support for the exhibition has been provided by Elizabeth Belfer and Victoria E. Triplett.