Blithe Spirits

Why have some of the most important women in the art world dressed up as fictitious Victorian explorers? Jane Burton talked to the curators who have been put on display
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THE FEMALE curators of Britain's major cultural institutions do not generally wield rifles, hammers, secateurs and pickaxes as they go about their work, though in the cut and thrust of the Nineties art world they might like to. Nor are they given to trussing themselves up in corsetry and crinolines. Yet the women in these photographs, posing as 19th-century pioneers of science, embonpoint gamely arranged in period costume, are all movers and shakers in the field of contemporary art.

The curators were coaxed out of their galleries and into the frame by the American artist Mark Dion and his girlfriend and collaborator, the artist and fashion designer Morgan Puett. Their photographs form the principal element of an intriguing, lottery-funded installation called "The Ladies' Field Club of York", which opened this weekend at the National Railway Museum in York. The idea was to invent a series of characters, female amateur naturalists from the turn of the century, each with a different specialism, and imagine them setting out on a field trip together. Constructed inside an original 1890s teak carriage at the railway museum, the installation is partly a recreation of a travelling laboratory, partly a photographic fiction. Though styled according to the conventions of Victorian studio portraiture, right down to the last detail, none of these redoubtable ladies ever existed. Allegories of science in action, the sepia-tinted dioramas are a triumph of illusion; they strike a balance between realism and caricature.

At its simplest level, the project is a homage to the unsung heroines of early scientific discovery, nameless women whose contributions to research largely went unrecognised (this tribute is somewhat double-edged, to judge from the accou-trements of certain of these ladies - that 12- bore and the elaborate feathered hat belonging to "Ornithology", for example). It is also Dion and Puett's tongue-in-cheek homage to the unsung heroines of the British art world. "It so happens that Mark Dion has worked quite a bit in Britain," says Gilda Williams, commissioning editor at Phaidon, who, pictured reclining coyly amidst seashells, is immortalised as the conchologist Arabella Bell. "I think he has this sense of a strong group of women who have helped him. He calls us angels - though we're not of course." The "angels" in this pantheon are the sort to sprout jet-packs in place of wings.

It's an impressive line-up: the curators, Lisa Corrin from London's Serpentine Gallery, Victoria Pomeroy from the Tate in Liverpool, Iwona Blaswick and Frances Morris from the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art, together with Sandra Percival, Director of the Public Art Development Trust, and Elizabeth- Anne MacGregor, Director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. (The lone male among these influential ranks, Andrew Cross, who curated the project for the railway museum, is relegated to the humble role of station porter.) The feminist message is wholly intended, as Morgan Puett explains: "We felt it had to be the matriarchy of the art world. It's a common understanding that the art world is run by men, but when you dig around you find these dynamic women doing fantastic things."

The subjects all seem to have enjoyed the transformation process. "One of the things I like most about it is the performance aspect" says Lisa Corrin, who appears as a rather unnerving anthropologist, Mrs Herbert Fowler. "As a curator, I found this intriguing - what would it mean to become part of the art work? The other thing that interested me was the way in which the different women were characterised. Mark has always been extremely adept at playing with archetypes. He is also very meticulous in the way he styles these projects, the time he spends on the detail. He creates an incredible sense of reality even when he is playing with the past."

"It was quite extraordinary," agrees Iwona Blaswick (who appears as "Miss Amelia West, Botany", resplendent in her artificial Arcadian bower). "It was very exciting to step into the fake world that they had created. And it was amazing how the costumes changed the way you moved and your posture. It was as if one had suddenly been given a direct experience of what it was to live in the 19th century." As she points out, her decision to pose for the photograph was, in a sense, just an extension of the increasingly common practice in the last few years of curators getting involved with commissioning, and then helping to realise, so-called site-specific works - in effect becoming co-producers with artists.

In the case of Mark Dion, the exchange has a particular resonance, since the process of curating - collecting and organising objects, whether in the realms of art or science - has become a subject he returns to again and again in his work. He is fascinated by the principles of taxonomy, the systems of classification by which people have sought to bring order to the world. In addressing these taxonomies he sets out to blur the lines, undermining our acquired ideological certainties. An example is a work he made in 1996, called "A Tale of Two Seas ... ", a collaboration with the German artist and curator Stephan Dillemuth. Together they embarked on a journey to the frozen shores of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. As they travelled, they picked up an eclectic mix of souvenirs, soil, dead birds, fishing nets, tourist tat, all manner of man-made and natural detritus found along the route. At the end, they gathered it all together, catalogued it, and presented it neatly on wooden shelves as their own eccentric mini-museum, a cabinet of curiosities in which visual rhyme took over from dusty reason.

"The Ladies' Field Club of York" cleverly conflates art and science, the present and the past, in another attempt to poke holes in received wisdom. "Even though we are approaching the next century we are still bound by aspects of 19th-century science that insist on studying things in divisions such as lepidoptery and ornithology," argues Dion. "There is no such thing as conchology any more, and that's one interesting step forward. But the idea that nature can be sliced up and pigeonholed in this way is something that still holds sway. We were also interested in this idea of thinking of the curator as a person who has to order this world that they see. Art museums also have a taxonomy - Impressionism, Surrealism. People are constantly fitted into groups and I think it's still the case. Young British Art encompasses an incredible diversity of practices and agendas, but labelling makes it consumable. That's one of the things we're trying to get at - the rigidity of classification."

There is a poetic absurdity to Dion's work that saves it from what might otherwise be dry polemic. This is a man who, in 1990, filled a wheelbarrow with fluffy toy animals, satirising the way in which environmental movements consistently focus on the more photogenic species - tigers, whales, pandas - in an effort to raise funds for their protection. He called it "Survival of the Cutest".

As for the fictional feminists of "The Ladies' Field Club of York", where better to show them than in the National Railway Museum? As Dion says: "The people who patronise the museum are largely men who are fanatical about details like the paintwork on the engines. Anything that smacks of fantasy or fiction or inaccuracy is really excluded there. We wanted to create something that was wilfully a fantasy and really went against the grain. I think what was especially important was to emphasise the feminist side, to kind of aggravate the situation. We knew we were going to annoy them so we wanted to annoy them well."

`The Ladies' Field Club of York' will be on display at the National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York (01904 621 261), until September

Captions: Far left: `Mrs E N Todter, Lepidoptery', played by Frances Morris, Curator, Tate Gallery of Modern Art, London. `I was pretty game actually ... I took it all terribly seriously and did exactly as I was told'

Left: `Miss Amelia West, Botany', played by Iwona Blaswick, Curator, Tate Gallery of Modern Art, London. `The heat, the discomfort, the fact that you're completely restrained in those corsets - it was a kind of fantastic history lesson'

Right, top: `Henrietta Swanson, Ornithology', played by Victoria Pomeroy, Exhibitions Curator, Tate Gallery, Liverpool

Right, middle: `Arabella Bell, Conchology', played by Gilda Williams, Commissioning Editor, Phaidon Press

Right, bottom: `Miss Mary Buckmore, Palaeontology', played by Sandra Percival, Director, Public Art Development Trust, London

`Edith Huntington, Geology', played by Elizabeth-Anne MacGregor, Director, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. `The idea that my character was striding around the country dressed like that, hitting rocks, increased my admiration for Victorian women enormously'