Slip into Wonderland in a museum of marvels

by Yoko Haruhara

The Koishikawa Annex of Tokyo University Museum is currently hosting an eye-catching exhibition, “Microcosmographia: Mark Dion’s Chamber of Curiosities.” The brainchild of New York-based contemporary artist Mark Dion, the show runs until March 2.

Dion is a rare bird in the art world, drawing his inspiration from science, ecology, botany and natural history. With the collaboration of Tokyo University students, Dion selected more than 1,000 specimens from the University Museum, including stuffed birds, fossils, animal bones and mineral samples.

These items, rescued from store-room oblivion, have been sorted into eight categories of Dion’s own devising: the Realm of Water, the Terrestrial Realm, the Underworld, the Realm of Air, Humankind, Reason and Measure, the Gigantic and the Miniature. Each room of the exhibition is devoted to one of these categories.

Many of the items on display have been held by the university for most of its 120-year history. For Dion, though, the neglect they suffered for much of that time is part of what makes them interesting. “I didn’t even wipe off the dust covering the objects, because it’s all a part of their natural history,” he says.

The artist’s approach to his materials is an expression of his philosophy: Just as the ecology movement stresses the importance of recycling, so Dion has reused the university’s forgotten items. The “art” lies not in the creation but in the arrangement of the objects, the interconnectedness thus created breathing new life into them.

Discarding conventional approaches to museum displays, Dion hopes that his exhibit will provoke viewers’ curiosity about the objects on show and challenge them to assume the role of explorers. “A museum should provoke questions, not spoon-feed answers and experiences,” he says.

Standing in the entrance of the exhibition space, the visitor is like Alice newly arrived in a Wonderland of scientific apparatus. In Dion’s kingdom, various choices lie before you.

Entering the Gigantic room, you find specimens that include the bones of elephants and hippos as well as large plastic models of human organs used in the study of anatomy. This space is connected to the Miniature room, which displays a myriad of small objects including an incense container, a 5-cm-long monkey skeleton and computer microchips. The effect of all these over- and under-size objects is to distort the viewer’s perception. Just like Alice, one has the sensation of shrinking and growing — an illusion that is completed by the trompe l’oeil effect of a tiny door in the wall of the Miniature room.

In addition to arranging items in each of the exhibition spaces, the artist has added his own artwork to the displays. For example, among the various fossils showing in the Underworld room are several plastic models of a hamburger, a hotdog, and French fries, a fossilized gray in color. It is a simple, playful statement on how contemporary culture will, in turn, take its place in history.

Elsewhere, Dion has altered some of the exhibits, like the stuffed birds in the Realm of Air, which he has smeared with coal tar in a clear reference to the environmental pollution that threatens some species’ fates.

Dion’s fascination with the relationship between human beings and the natural world, and his attraction to ecology and botany are perfectly matched by the setting for this exhibition. Unique among Tokyo’s university museums, the Koishikawa Annex is situated in a botanical garden. It occupies the northwest quadrant of the beautiful 161,588 sq.-meter Koishikawa Botanical Garden, Japan’s oldest, established in 1684 as a herbal garden for Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

The building that now houses the museum was constructed in 1876 as the Medical College, which was later incorporated into Tokyo University. A two-story building, the college was constructed in the European style fashionable at the time.

The building still retains some of its graceful original features, including an intricate, five-sided entry porch and a clock tower surmounting the roof. Designated an important cultural property, the building was renovated last year and opened to the public.

The surrounding garden contains 4,000 species of plants, and is also home to numerous wild waterfowl and rabbits. When the bustle of the city gets too much, escape to the Koishikawa museum and slip down a rabbit hole into Mark Dion’s wonderland.