Remember explorer Henry Morton Stanley? In 1871, after a months-long search, he found another missing explorer in a remote village in present-day Tanzania, and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
David Livingstone died of malaria less than two years later, but Stanley went on to lead more expeditions in Africa. He became an agent for King Leopold II of Belgium, who tasked him with bringing trade and Christianity to the African Congo.
Or that’s how the Belgians framed the project for PR reasons. They colonized the region and plundered its natural resources. From 1879 to 1884, Stanley spearheaded infrastructure projects and convinced local leaders to sign over their land.
The entire enterprise was a disaster. War, disease, and starvation killed a significant portion of the population. It was the inspiration for “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad’s indictment of colonialism.
Conceptual artist Mark Dion, who has a deep, 30-year survey up at the Institute of Contemporary Art, has spent his career examining the hegemony that propelled explorers and colonizers. His installations — big-hearted, methodical, and sometimes angry — tease apart how Westerners have come to dominate, view, and study nature.
“Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist,” organized by curator Ruth Erickson, goes further back in history than Stanley and Livingstone. “The Classical Mind (Scala Naturae and Cosmic Cabinet)” satirizes Aristotle’s classification of living things, known as the “Great Chain of Being.”
Dion depicts the hierarchical system as a staircase. A bust of Aristotle reigns at the top. A taxidermy cat and goose perch just below. Tools sit on the bottom step: a wheel, an alarm clock. It’s all a bit ridiculous, which is Dion’s point: Placing humans at the top of a ladder misapprehends the intrinsic importance of everything else and gives people license to conquer.
A dark room beneath the staircase invites visitors to view the wonder of a star-swept sky, gently guiding us to recall our smallness. To Dion’s credit, his work is rarely a simple condemnation of what the theories, policies, and pursuits that have kept humans in charge have wrought. He often toggles to awe.
Many of his installations echo Wunderkammers, Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosities and the progenitors of modern-day museums. Museum collections are exhaustively codified, but Dion assembles stuff using his own classification systems. Sometimes it’s by color or material. Label an object using a hoary hierarchy, and it’s harder to see. Take the label off, and air starts to circulate around it.
He also appropriates scientific methodology, leading archeological digs (“New Bedford Cabinet” displays glass shards and pock-marked buoys he found in his hometown in 2001) and gathering specimens. For his project “Travels of William Bartram — Reconsidered,” Dion followed the trail of a naturalist who explored the southeastern United States in the 1770s. “Large Cabinet” displays man-made 21st-century arcana he discovered, alongside the acorns and seashells.
These pieces revel in the delights of exploring and collecting, and they register their costs. Bartram didn’t pilfer land like Stanley did, but his foray began to clear a path that led to the disruption of a peaceful habitat, indigenous peoples’ eviction, a plantation economy, and slave labor. To make that point, Dion packs his “Large Cabinet” artifacts in cotton.
Zebra finches and canaries sing and nest in “The Library for the Birds of New York/The Library for the Birds of Massachusetts,” a mammoth birdcage. They live in an old tree surrounded, absurdly, by piles of books the birds might find useful if they could read. But birds don’t care about our rubrics. Their presence here releases us, momentarily, from the cage of meaning that is a museum.
Yet the tree — with all those books, a tree of knowledge — suffers from root rot. If we humans, and our hunger for knowledge and power, are at the root of the earth’s peril and our own extinction, I thought, well, nature will continue: Maybe the birds will be OK.
Nope. These birds are bred in captivity. They could not survive without us. What a tangle we have made.
Dion unleashes his fury in “Killers Killed,” in which several tarred taxidermy animals are lynched on a tarred tree. Tar’s production destroys natural habitats in the Southern hemisphere, often to pave roads in the North. Its stink might be that of King Leopold’s ghost.
The animals represent invasive species — the gray squirrel, the Norway rat. We hang them out to dry for introducing disease and driving out other populations, and we do not recognize that they came with us. We, not they, are the perpetrators of destruction.
That all sounds bleak. It’s easy to pillory Western society for a catalogue of wrongs that may be impossible to rectify. But Dion then goes on to again remind us of our smallness in an intimate, quietly sublime work called “Memory Box.” It’s no antidote to “divide and conquer,” but it is another way of thinking.
Step inside. It’s a shed with a table where you can set your things down, and shelves stacked with boxes — little jewelry boxes, cookie tins, metal boxes, cardboard ones. Visitors are invited to browse. Inside, you’ll find all kinds of treasures: a toy baby carriage, a glass eye, old photographs.
It’s a lovely endnote. Like much of Dion’s work, “Memory Box” flies in the face of museum rules. Go ahead and touch the art. Now, instead of asking us to live vicariously through his explorations, the artist offers us our own. Even better, these forays make no threat to habitats and resources; they don’t undermine the sovereignty of other peoples. They are adventures within.
MARK DION: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Dec. 31. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.