Mocking Its Own Habitat

In 2006, Mark Dion was commissioned to create an installation for the new Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle.  He installed the “Neukom Vivarium”. He moved a large, fallen hemlock tree from the surrounding area, placed it in the park and built a hi-tech greenhouse-type structure around it. The structure has a watering system, controls temperature and humidity and even the wavelength of the light reaching the tree. Over time this has created a ‘garden’ surrounding the tree – a growth of ferns, moss and other plants over and around the tree reproducing some of the characteristics of the temperate rain forest from which the tree came.

Inside the Neukom Vivarium

Inside the Neukom Vivarium

To me, the Neukom Vivarium is a microcosm our society’s everyday behavior.  As we continue to destroy our natural world, we maintain the illusion of nature by appropriating parts of the natural world and converting them into objects – fetish objects for our amusement.  We change them and then “manage” them at great expense, all the while pretending that they represent “Nature”.  And we call these places National Parks, Wildlife Reserves, City Parks, Gardens – whatever.

The Olympic Sculpture Park itself is one such example of our pathetic attempts at creating the illusion of nature.  Here is how The Seattle Times park guide describes it: “The sculpture park has been planted to form a variety of habitats stretching from Western Avenue to the water. You’ll stroll through archetypal Northwest landscapes, including a grove of quaking aspen, a coniferous forest and meadows of native grasses and wildflowers.”  Yeah, right! Sitting within the park, the Neukom Vivarium acts as a mockery of the park itself and its ludicrous pretentions of re-creating – in a sanitized, sterile, “civilized” way – the ‘habitats’ that the city has, by its very existence, destroyed.

See for yourself just how ‘natural’ is the sculpture park.

Aerial view of the Olympic Scultpture Park and its 'habitats'

Aerial view of the Olympic Scultpture Park and its 'habitats'

The Neukom Vivarium also illustrates to me another of our endless fallacies – that we can replace natural services through technology. The complexity and expense of the technology that maintains life in the Vivarium shows how expensive, difficult and unsustainable it is to try to replace with human technology that which nature does as a matter of course. We don’t worry about the lack of drinking water because we think we can make more of it.  We don’t worry about the depleted fish stocks because we think we can replace them with fish farms.

Here is how Mark Dion describes his Vivarium:

I think that one of the important things about this work is that it’s really not an intensely positive, back-to-nature kind of experience. In some ways, this project is an abomination. We’re taking a tree that is an ecosystem—a dead tree, but a living system—and we are re-contextualizing it and taking it to another site. We’re putting it in a sort of Sleeping Beauty coffin, a greenhouse we’re building around it. And we’re pumping it up with a life support system—an incredibly complex system of air, humidity, water, and soil enhancement—to keep it going. All those things are substituting what nature does—emphasizing how, once that’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult, expensive, and technological to approximate that system—to take this tree and to build the next generation of forests on it. So this piece is in some way perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system it’s virtually impossible to get it back. In a sense we’re building a failure.

Watch this short video clip featuring Mark Dion.


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