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EXHIBITION

Mark Dion: Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy At the Manchester Museum, Oxford Road, Manchester, until autumn 2006

When Yoshio Taniguchi's new Museum of Modern Art in New York opened last November, one of its first shows was by American artist Mark Dion, presenting the results of an excavation he had made on the site during the building's construction. It followed a similar project he undertook for the Tate, which has turned into one of its most popular exhibits: the finds from his digs at Bankside and Millbank housed in a multi-drawered cabinet, sorted, labelled and classified in unexpected ways.

Dion migrates between the art gallery, the museum and actual sites in a continual questioning of museology - though the results are often funnier than that sounds.

He treats the Enlightenment ambition to order the world with humour as well as scepticism, putting things in pigeonholes as obsessively as any hidebound curator, but with a different logic.

At the heart of his work is the thought that systems are always provisional: what once made sense was a misunderstanding.

So this long-term installation at the Manchester Museum neatly encapsulates Dion's practice - it makes blatant how close to surreality the 'order' of museums can be.

Created from the museum's reserve collections, from things that don't make the cut at present, the 'Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy' is a painstaking recreation of an old museum office - quasi-domestic in character, with its armchairs by the fire.

There are display cases crammed with Egyptian fi gurines, stuffed birds, botanical specimens, a bizarre miscellany of natural and man-made things - and the phone, fan and filing cabinets of the museum employee, whose scarf and jacket are on the coat stand in the corner.

The drawers of one small cabinet in the installation are labelled 'mathematical objects', 'primitive objects', interpreted objects', 'irrational objects' and 'incorporated objects'.

Others open to reveal faded labels: 'Domestic Bygones lent By F Ollerenshaw Esq, Wilmslow', 'Wooden Forks Used In Cannibal Feasts'.

The bookshelves include Yorkshire Type Ammonites, Doubt and Certainty in Science, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The wallpaper has a Rorschach blot pattern, as if any glimpse of order will always be subjective.

A print of The Sphinx hangs over the desk.

With so much accumulated detail, Dion's installation is absorbing to explore (and a closed drawer is always magnetic). But he isn't just dealing with the practice of institutions - his subversive take on the museum is a challenge to ingrained habits of thought and what people notice and value. Freed from the categories to which they're usually confined, objects present themselves anew. John Cage wanted 'to wake people up to the world around them', and Dion is doing the same.

Mark Dion's accompanying book, full of surprising things and beautifully designed, has just been published by Book Works, priced at £15 (www. bookworks. org. uk)

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