For centuries, from Aristotle until about the 19th century, philosophers and religious leaders believed in "The Great Chain of Being." This worldview placed all living things in a chain, from the most simple organisms to the most complex. In the animal kingdom, the chain starts with worms, works its way through bugs, fish, birds, horses, people, etc., and reaches its pinnacle with God.
Among creatures that live on Earth, not in the heavens, humans were at the top. That was the biggest problem with The Great Chain of Being. Eventually, the worldview was used to promote the belief that some people ranked higher than others. Rich higher than poor. Whites higher than nonwhites. It was primarily a Western and Christian worldview, so across the centuries Europeans tended to interpret themselves as superior to all other humans, free to use the lesser ones as they saw fit.
"It's a thoroughly pernicious idea, disastrously hierarchical," said artist Mark Dion. "It was designed by the powers-that-be to justify their hold on power. It justified the domination of nature and of people over other people, and it makes that domination feel God-given, the natural order of things."
Dion is poking fun at The Great Chain of Being in his new exhibit in the MATRIX gallery at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
"I want people to question this model of organization and question all models of classification," Dion said. "They imposed this model on the vast diversity of life ... but nature doesn't order itself. We order ourselves."
Dion, a native of New Bedford, Mass., who went to Hartford Art School and is now based in New York, went through hundreds of artworks in the permanent collection of the Atheneum and chose 125 with depictions of animals, people and deities, all of them links in that old discredited chain. He zeroed in on the creatures and created his own chain by cropping out everything else in the artworks, photographing the details and hanging the images of the creatures in a long row wrapped all around the MATRIX gallery.
The two humans in Dion's chain — Adam and Eve — are surrounded by dozens of creatures of all varieties: one worm, mollusks, gastropods and arthropods, insects, butterflies, fish, birds, rodents, a kangaroo, a goat, a buffalo, deer, a donkey, a horse, a camel, boars, elephants, big and small cats, dogs, monkeys. After humans, Dion's chain enters the mystical world, with depictions of sea monsters, dragons, unicorns, unnatural hybrid animals, minor gods and demons, ghosts, angels, archangels, Satan and God.
A lively little snake taken from an Alexander Calder hooked rug sticks out its long forked tongue. A startled worm, taken from a color etching, gapes out at the viewers. A cute bunny from a 1920s-era earthenware plate sits against a green and yellow background. A sweet white goat from a Marc Chagall oil sits in a tree, and fish from a Picasso lie on a table. A cherub from a 17th-century Dutch artwork flies through a clear blue sky. God himself stares down at humans, as taken from a 15th-century Dutch work.
Dion chose many more of the other creatures than humans, and more birds and butterflies than any other animal. "Undoubtedly in decorative arts, there are many more butterflies than there are flies," he joked.
Patricia Hickson, the Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art, said that the MATRIX exhibit is valuable in itself but also as a motivator. "It engages the collection. I hope it will drive people around the museum," she said. "It makes you want to picture the whole composition. It makes you see things you've never seen before." A card will be available in the gallery to identify the works that Dion used, and to locate the ones that are currently hanging in the galleries.
The rise of science in the 18th century eroded belief in the Great Chain of Being. Darwin's theory of evolution killed it entirely, replacing it with an objective system that recognized the complexity of all living things. "Nature is not judgmental," Dion said. "A worm is as perfectly evolved to do what it does as an eagle is. It's absurd to think that one is better than another."
Still, shades of the Great Chain of Being mind-set continue to surface frequently in the modern world.
"It's one of the skeletons in the closet of Western tradition," Dion said. "It influences us, but we might not remember its origins. It's the origin of the more regressive ways in which we view the world."
MARK DION / MATRIX 173: "THE WADSWORTH ATHENEUM'S GREAT CHAIN OF BEING" will be at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until Jan. 3. thewadsworth.org.