Zian Chen, Translated by Alvin Li


Future Histories: Mark Dion and Arseny Zhilyaev
May 9 - August 23, 2015
Casa dei Tre Oci, Venice

The tourists arrive in droves along the shores, under Venice’s scorching sun. The crowds sway back and forth in waves, making you feel as if even the solid ground were moving. This isn’t your fault––Venice is not built along cardinal directions. Here, you’re presented with an expressionist scene of slanted facades sitting atop narrow, meandering streets, thronged with people and framed by terraced canals. Objects and personage want to jump out of this landscape and come alive. The textures provided by this scene are well suited to be the luxurious backdrop before which hundreds of openings take place during the biennial exhibition. Luckily, you and K decided to meet on a southern outlying island. You set off, boarding a vessel and leaving behind all the noise and incongruity. Seeing this city, this water world, you have a sudden thought––these isles resemble vessels themselves.

“Water can keep boats afloat or sink them.” You meet with K and a conversation concerning the relationship between nature and technique arises. Through the use of this Chinese idiom, he concludes that water is nature and the boat is technique. K likes conversing in the form of shorthand messages. A thousand words seem to have been spoken in this simple phrase; like water, it’s a motive force but its ways remain a mystery.

It’s difficult for you to imagine that on this spec of an island, for the sake of convening a pageant, thousands of artworks––not to mention carpentry and metalworking supplies––will be delivered in a night. People and equipment from near and far, coming here by air or by sea, like the tide washing ashore, filling countless crevices between the reefs… and then, with the closing of the exhibition, ebbing back out to sea. As far as you’re concerned, this is solely the doing of technique, a fetishism developed through technique.

“So, what is natural in Venice?” You’ve spoken of the diverse array of exhibitions taking place above the water on the land of Venice. However, the rarities lying beneath the lagoon, no man owns: they outnumber collectibles on land perhaps by ten or hundred fold. They are nature’s treasures, worthy of countless exhibits.

You’ve taken up interest in the majestic scenario described by K. Your consciousness is ignited by this spirit, like the time when you swam in the waters of Lido. Facing water so tranquil it seems an extension of the still land further beyond, you risk sinking your head beneath unfamiliar waters. There is nothing but unfathomable marine-blue mass that obstructs your vision. Though upon the scene caught up by your mind’s eyes, the exhibitions of great prizes spoken of by K that far outshines any on land would probably reside in the vanishing points under the deep blue mass of fog should you gaze.

Vision does not play the most significant role when it comes to the exhibits that take place underwater. Unlike an exhibit on land, where the totality and minutiae of each work can be appraised from various angles, the underwater spectacle is one veiled by water, set in motion by currents, without a fixed point. Under water, all resides in the domain of the imagination, you must follow closely all object in front of you to witness all possible manifestation of this exhibition.

Things have different destiny underwater, and the events that take place there differ from those on land. In Future Histories, Mark Dion begins a possible story about the wunderkammer from such a vantage point. Dion is one who bounds by nature. His stubborn focus on and passion for nature call to mind his learned predecessor Sir William Hamilton. In fact, Dion’s research on the technique and history of exhibitions is also a research and conjecture on Hamilton’s way of viewing the forms of lives. He imitates the way this English officer gathered, catalogued and stored objects. This learning toward nature and natural history allowed Dion to maintain a more than cursory interest in everything from animals and various marine life to tree bark––so much so that for a period of time people mistook him for an encyclopedia.

“With regards to the encyclopedia, the etymology of the Chinese word for museum (bowu guan) is actually from the archaic term of encyclopedia, bowu zhi, literally the broad spectrum of things” states K. He proceeds to explain how Dion over invested his approval of objects that led others to see him as an encyclopedia, in reference to Latin word realitas: “In order to become a recorder of knowledge, you must first trust things and allow them to become your reality.”

Indeed, Dion did place his attention single mindedly and wholly to natural objects. No one was sure whether the passion came from his endorsement of Hamilton, or if his love for all living things allowed him to see the subtle yet inextricable relationship between the English collector and all living beings.

In the later few years, Dion looked even closer into things came across Hamilton’s life, including his shortcomings: His cargo of rarities that has disappeared in the high seas along with the sunk ship (she is a battle worn decommissioned war vessel). Your train of thought follows Dion to a dip in the bay of Naples, where you can almost see the coral scattered about a container of Greek earthenware. The ruins of a sunken ship, for the time being, have already crowded with reefs spreading across the seafloor. You stop at its corner to observe the rupture in the belly of the vessel and various fish swimming about. At this moment you’re not only seeing how Sir William Hamilton curate his collection, but with a conviction as sure as the underwater air bubbles would rise to the surface, you are attempting to figure out how Hamilton was able to identify each marine life’s disposition and character, and peer into the rule and rhythm of life.

Life’s rhythm and rules: this underwater wunderkammer accepts into its display objects rejected by the terrestrial rules, of which the immortal jellyfish is a memorable example. In your impression, they appear about the size of your thumb. You have not taken notes, but you vaguely remember that somehow they can revert their decaying flesh to the young selves. The clownfish is another of note. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, it is able to change its gender (transgender is the norm in this floating society). Indeed, the world under water has different gender rules than the terrestrial world. When Dion completed his wunderkammer at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, he was brought to close contact with these otherworldly creatures at this royal aquarium that rises from the cliff-side rock. In this phantasmagoric museology of sea lives, one learns that its social order is not merely determined by relative positions in the food chain; it is also determined by the temperature and chemicals in respective water layers they inhabit. Anything, living or otherwise, once fallen from the earthly world of the sea surface, upon entering this blue biologically lush realm of sodium chloride, becomes a marine resident; it gains itself a new life, or a new function of its life. Even Hamilton’s Greek potsherds that cannot be incorporated into the food supplying chain will become part of the reef habitat, providing shelter for fish and crustaceans alike. Here, knowledge runs warm and fluid.

Hamilton wouldn’t know of such things. But why not, even just for a moment, seeing Dion as the Hamilton of today. Yet, Dion’s encyclopedic practice more readily connects Europe-wide wunderkammers into an interactive network of knowledge, in a manner similar to ocean currents conveying various creatures to faraway places. In another vantage, it may be that it is the image of Hamilton return through the flow of time to our vision. Here, Dion’s gesture is indexical. It reminds us that the legacy of wunderkammer provides the possibility that a life world could be shown through just a room, or even in a cabinet.

Underwater, all methods with which we learn about objects and things suddenly become useless. Different types of museum reflect different mode of epistemological approaches between water and land. If the water mode of museology implies a total investment into things to the point where the spectator ceases to be the viewing subject, then the story developed by museums on land are bound to be enlightenment and rationality, something of linear time centered on human technology. In such a terrestrial space governed by perspective, objects are lain horizontal, erected vertical, and sprawled across space. In the man-made regime that we call museums, nature is collected by insulating objects in it from nature herself. Museum studies textbooks will tell you that the technical aspects of the museum reside in the realm of memory, and are the preservation, categorization and objectification of things. Its politics decide who or what is to enter the realm of memory, or be eliminated from it.

You’ve returned from this invisible exhibition under water and recount your imaginary trip to K, like Marco Polo describing the fabulous cities to Kublai Khan. Just then, your earlier conversation regarding technique and nature evidently returns to his mind. K continues by wondering, if you were to extend this story of mnemonic technique upon terra firma to its vanishing point––in other words, moving from the standpoint of enlightenment and Reason to the notion of the museum as a technique of human cognition—then what could we see as the future of nature in the time of museum building spree?

This time, the turn is to K speak of an exhibition concerning the future of nature.