Mark Dion’s Virginia Curiosity Shop
The richest new building on the Grounds will never be home to a single lecture, public performance or athletic event. It is distinguished mostly by its ordinariness, will never bear a donor’s name, and will someday in the not-too-distant future be gone without a single trace. The Virginia Curiosity Shop is a large-scale temporary public artwork on the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds whose plain exterior is contrasted by a visual feast viewed from outside-in –a seemingly haphazard antique shop-style display of incongruous and marvelous items spread across cupboards, shelves, tabletops, pedestals and trunks. There are thousands of objects in all, and the whole thing is reminiscent of the “wunderkammern” of 16th and 17th century Europe that were “designed” to represent the Renaissance worldview. The connective tissue amidst the perceived chaos unveils itself in the form of visual metaphors, symbolic language, and allegories borrowed both from the Judeo-Christian and the classical traditions. Meant to both highlight and disparage the concepts of “ownership” and possession” as they relate to the world of art, Dion’s unique installation provides commentary on the way art has been experienced and collected through the centuries, from the “art for art’s sake” purity of the Medieval era, to the direct connection to wealth and status that emerged during the Renaissance. Like many works in the still life genre, Dion’s Curiosity Shop challenges its viewers to see that the objects within it are more than they appear. Each has its own symbolic meaning and place in an arrangement that is meant to at once dazzle the eyes and challenge its visitors to dig deeper to unwrap interconnected layers of meaning – and even in this case to discover a number of site-specific references to the culture of collecting in Charlottesville and at the University.