Julian Dodd classifies Mark Dion's bureau of surrealism

May 6, 2005

'Its blend of anal retentiveness and the exotic nicely captures the strangeness of the surrealist world view'


How should we classify animals? Easy. Animals are divided into those that belong to the emperor; embalmed ones; those that are trained; suckling pigs; mermaids; fabulous ones; stray dogs; those included in the present classification; those that tremble as if they were mad; innumerable ones; those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush; others; and those that have just broken a flower vase. And that's it.

Sorry, I've forgotten one final kind: those that, from a long way off, look like flies.

Outlining this system of classification - that of Borges's Chinese encyclopedia - always gets a big laugh. But trying to consider such a conceptual scheme might have a serious point. For it could be thought that pondering alternative methods of classification reveals how illusory it is to suppose that any such system "carves nature at the joints".

Perhaps, as Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski put it, there could indeed be creatives for whom the world contained objects such as "'half a horse and a piece of river', 'my ear and the moon', and other products of a surrealist imagination".

Which brings me to Mark Dion's wry, witty and meticulously observed Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy, on show at the Manchester Museum. Walking into the main exhibition space one finds, tucked away self-deprecatingly on the right, a mockup of a 1920s museum curator's office - but one with a difference. The door (locked) announces that it is the eponymous bureau, and through the windows one sees a room crammed with a confusing array of artefacts collected by the artist from the bowels of the museum: stuffed birds, fake Egyptian relics, a duck-billed platypus, crime novels, conjoined twin hamsters, sporting trophies and even a brown English teapot.

This is Borges's Chinese encyclopedia in three dimensions: an aesthetic artefact that plays with our presumption that the world itself speaks to us with one voice. Indeed, there by the desk - you've guessed it - is a filing cabinet labelled with Borges's list of categories.

Dion's installation is the second in a series run by the museum's Alchemy project, which, according to its website, "engages artistic practice as a form of research that melds aesthetic and intellectual forms of 'knowing'".

That might be pushing it a bit: the bureau itself is not so much a piece of research as an artwork that is illustrative and suggestive of philosophical and cultural ideas. But pointing this out is not to undermine the work's value. Besides prompting us to think about - and chuckle at - the nature of classification, Dion's carefully constructed anachronism also provides us with a glimpse of an outmoded idea of the nature of a museum. The fact that the door to the bureau is locked is important: visitors are supposed to look at the exhibits, not leave their sticky fingerprints over various buttons, pulleys, bells and whistles.

Finally, of course, the piece is about surrealism itself. The bureau's blend of anal retentiveness and the exotic nicely captures the strangeness of the surrealist world-view. Here was a group of people playing with notions of obsolescence and modernity, fantasy and dreamwork while wearing itchy suits and engaging in trainspotterish pseudo-scientific "experimentation" in the laboratory that was their Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes . Dion's work is, in part, a loving recreation of the surrealist's cluttered mindscape.

Julian Dodd is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Manchester University.

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