Mark Dion: Tree of Life, new public art installations in Belgium and Germany

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Mark Dion: Tree of Life, new public art installations in Belgium and Germany
Mark Dion, The Witch Cottage, Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany, 2022. Photo by Mark Dion.

HASSELT.- Mark Dion’s Tree of Life is the first permanent artwork developed for the public art project “Art on the Meuse”. The American artist created a tree sculpture featuring animals and objects that refer to the surrounding landscape of Herbricht. His Tree of Life is like a journey through the past, present and future of the Meuse Valley. The creative power of nature is the central theme.

The artwork is as symbolic as its location. Residents are moving out of Herbricht, a small village in Lanaken frequently beset by flooding, and no one else is taking their place. While the village is dying out, the majestic Meuse river remains. On a small hill near the water, galloway cattle and konik horses seek refuge at high tide. “That image of the river receding after a flood was a great source of inspiration for me. After the flood, the trees were still standing, full of grasses, plastics and strange objects,” Mark Dion explains. “It made me reflect on the landscape over time. The river has been flowing here for thousands of years and will keep on flowing for thousands of years after us. Time flows through a landscape like water flows through a river.”

On this hill on the banks of the Meuse Dion's Tree of Life stands six meters high. The Meuse was once a sea, then later an ice plain and now we know it as a rain river. That circle of life is reflected in this sculptural installation. The branches of the tree hold sixteen objects and animals, all related to the ecology, mythology or history of this place, and each of them tells a part of the story. The Mosasaurus or mesh lizard existed here 75 million years ago, and the woolly mammoth roamed the land in 10,000 B.C. The Meuse Valley is currently home to animals and insects such as the earthworm, the beaver, the green frog, the blue heron and the stag beetle. The buck with the silver chalice refers to the eighteenth-century legend of the Buckriders, a local gang of robbers.

Witch Cottage: Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany

Commissioned for the sculpture park of the Museum Morsbroich, this large-scale installation shows Mark Dion’s idea of a witch’s cottage: a folly in the tradition of the kind of eccentric ornamental buildings found primarily in the landscaped gardens of the English nobility. The cottage is understood as architecture, sculpture and at the same time as a showcase whose interior can be viewed from the outside. The rich materiality of the installation inside the cottage is intended to draw portrait of a naturopathic witch from the Rhineland, suggesting the inhabitant’s occupation and identity through the items arranged within.

In 2015, Mark Dion started to explore the idea of the “genius loci” or protective spirit of Morsbroich Castle in 2015, inviting the Friends of the Museum to help him to find suitable furnishings and other objects that would define the physical space of this character. A curious collection of things has been growing in the museum, the arrangement of which stimulated further hunting and collecting by the artist and the museum and aroused curiosity among the museum’s visitors. What kind of witch might it be who would move into the completed cottage? What role could this woman have played in Morsbroich in the 18th or 19th century? The whimsical fantasies that were born of this collaborative energy have now been constructed and installed in a small building inthe ever-evolving space of the Morsbroich’s sculpture park.

As a folly, the structure of the witch's house has no practical function, but rather a communicative role. It exists to pose puzzles, to be interpreted, and to stimulate conversation. No longer dismissed as a mere nobleman's quirk, the format of the folly acquires a new relevance and power when presented as art in a public space. Mark Dion challenges us all to question our own image of what we identify as a witch, shaped by fairy tales and popular “knowledge,” which frequently is rooted in ignorance and superstition. More indirectly, the presence of this witch's cottage can also suggest that we consider the place and the role of the increasing number of women who today may identify with the character of the witch, rather than seeing her as a malevolent figure.

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