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The 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological classification, has inspired commemorative exhibitions around the world. But few are likely to achieve as successful a synthesis of historical scholarship with contemporary art and science as Mark Dion’s show at the Natural History Museum.
Dion, an American installation artist who has been playing for 20 years with the relationship between culture and nature, was a great choice for this commission. He collects scientific antiques and some of his own possessions feature in the opening section of Systema metropolis, a lively view of Linnaeus as a collector and classifier of plants and animals. Although he lived and died in Sweden, most of his scientific specimens ended up with the Linnean Society of London – sold off by his impoverished widow to a wealthy English botanist.
The society’s premises in Burlington House, Piccadilly, are not spacious enough to mount a big public display, so it has lent some of Linnaeus’s precious pressed plants, associated notebooks and his extraordinary tall, thin herbarium cabinet to the Natural History Museum show. After this historical introduction, installations created by Dion with the museum’s scientists show the diversity of wildlife in contemporary London. Plants and animals appear alive and dead – preserved, pickled, photographed – alongside artistic mock-ups of the labs in which they are studied and classified.
Dion focused on some of the dirtiest parts of London. He drove an electric car west from St Paul’s Cathedral along the A40, the road with the worst air quality in the capital, and used DNA analysis to identify 20 species of flying insects from their remains splattered on the vehicle. He took two patches of turf from a polluted site in east London that will be part of the 2012 Olympic Park – and has grown luxuriant arrays of greenery under sunlamps.
Within a semi-transparent plastic polytunnel, Dion displays a haul of creatures trapped in the water intake filters at Kingsnorth power station on the Thames estuary. Inside glass bottles are fish ranging from a seahorse to a baby leopard shark. Alongside these natural wonders is a colourful array of human detritus collected at the same site, from drink cans to plastic ducks.
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