Hidden Treasures: Exploring the Work of Artist-in-Residence Mark Dion

Dion headshot

Mark Dion does not believe in untouchable art. His work welcomes curious observers, from small pieces hidden behind ornate doors to scrapbooks ready for perusal to huge spaces full of cabinets, drawers and even live birds.

The 2016 Ruffin Distinguished Artist-in-Residence’s new exhibition at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Gallery blurs boundaries between art, archaeology and history for a decidedly playful take on a natural history museum. His approach is inspired by the “cabinet of curiosities” – a tradition of displaying artifacts gathered worldwide, popularized during the Renaissance.

“Our understanding and relationship with the natural world shifts dramatically, and you can chart that shift by examining how we have materialized exhibitions,” Dion said. “Like a historian, I am looking back and using images, displays and sculptures to understand how we’ve changed our notion of the natural world.”

This semester, Dion is teaching a course, “The University as a Cabinet of Curiosities,” comparing higher education to the cabinet of curiosities. Students visit UVA collections, exploring well-known collections at The Fralin Museum of Art or the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and lesser-known treasures from archaeology digs, the Wilhelm Moll Rare Book and Medical History Room or Brooks Hall, which formerly housed its own natural history museum.

“The cabinet of curiosities was a gathering of all the things in the world, and the university is a gathering of all the ideas in the world,” Dion said. “They have an inherent relationship.”

UVA Today joined Dion to learn more about his work and exhibition, which opened Feb. 26.