Mark Dion, “Landfill” (1999-2000) mixed media. On view now at ICA, Boston’s “Misadventures of a 21st Century Naturalist.”
Seated inside the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, audience members stared through a thin curtain onto a blurry construction scene above the Boston seaport. For a conversation about expanding critical engagement in art and environmentalism, the backdrop felt tinged with wry irony, and I chuckled, though I can’t say that anyone else did.
The symposium, titled “Artifacts of the Future.” was hosted in conjunction with the opening of Mark Dion’s retrospective exhibition, “Misadventures of a 21st Century Naturalist,” curated by Ruth Erikson.
The daylong panel discussion,held between a carefully selected group of artists and curators,discussed the complex relationship between our global landscapes, our questionable past, and the ominous future of our ecosystem. It’s 2017; these kinds of discussions should be passé, but they are more crucial now than ever before.
The morning began with Dion and Erikson, closing the chapter on a conversation that was held the night before at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Dion’s hometown. Erikson had selected a few feature pieces from Dion’s retrospective to further discuss in what she called a “warm up for the day.”
The screen flashed to display “On Tropical Nature” (1991),” a piece that Dion dubbed his “first mature piece of work.” Arranged on a desk were a series of tins, vials, and jars juxtaposed with lifeless branches, bark, and beetles behind glass. It looked as though the desk was removed from a dusty office in Venezuela and placed into the stark white of the museum walls without shifting a single, meticulously positioned butterfly wing.
Mark Dion’s “On Tropical Nature” (1991) on view at the ICA, Boston.
Inspired by the tedious processes of collecting, researching, and recording, Dion was commissioned by an alternative art space in Caracas, Venezuela to create an installation. In the remote jungles of the Orinoco River Basin, he spent three weeks traveling by foot, canoes, and riverboats collecting small pieces of the forest along the way. Every week, Dion would compile his findings into boxes, all of which would be sent back to the museum. With no special instructions – just notes, maps, tools, and various materials – the museum staff was tasked with making sense of how to arrange the collection. It became a quasi-performative piece as both parties trusted the process of the other. Dion acknowledged that, indeed, reconstructing the performative nature of process often gets lost in a static exhibition, hence creating an “invisible performer” paradigm.
“On Tropical Nature (1991)” represents the conception of a role that Dion created for himself as the critical scientist, researcher, and explorer, but also as a performer. He is continuously far more concerned with the role of epistemology in the museum space than either the specimens or the artwork themselves. Dion seems to reside in the curious space where human processing and natural phenomena overlap.
Shifting from conversation about specific works, Dion and Erikson discussed the paradoxical function of preservation in the museum setting. The fascination that researchers and their audiences possess seems to come from a subdued acknowledgment that this planet is truly ephemeral., “History isn’t something that happened to someone long ago,” Dion observed. “It’s happening right now.”
Laurie Palmer, an artist, writer and professor from Santa Cruz, redirected the conversation to a discussion about the complexity of privatization in the natural world. The balance between human/non human and life/not life is not a balance at all, she proposed, but rather a unique exploitation of the precious resources our earth has allotted to us. Her most recent book, “In the Aura of a Hole,” features 18 chapters aptly named after the mineral extraction site she visited (or rather attempted to visit). Palmer, though soft-spoken and humorous, seems like the kind of woman who would climb inside a mine or stand in front of a bulldozer to prove a point.
When Cecilia Vicuña stepped to the podium, she smiled and giggled sweetly while giving a wave to Mark Dion. “ I am an invisible being, spiritually connected to the indigenous people,” she whispered starkly into the microphone.
Vicuña is a Chilean artist concerned with the relationship between memory, preservation, and future. Her work is interdisciplinary as she explores her heritage through the art of performance, poetry, song, literature, and film. With long strands of thread, water, and earth, Vicuña creates powerful pieces that truly thread the needle through political, environmental, and sociological aesthetics.
Cecilia Vicuñas “Quipu Mentral” (2006) at El Plomo Glacier, Chile.
Other panelists included Juan Williams Chavez, Lize Mogel, and Lenka Clayton. Together, they illuminated the importance of art as a means of engagement with communities. Conscious of the differences in their practices, each artist seemed to qualify their engagement. “I’ve been told that my work is pedagogical, even didactic,” stated Mogel. Yet I would argue that their work does not reside in stark contradiction to the romanticism and poeticism of other environmental artists. Pedagogy, in the case of activism, does not need to be regarded with disdain.
As the conversations came to a close, audience members were left wondering where to turn next. Stuck in the wake of environmental destruction while savoring the moments of beauty around us, it is evident that conversation, engagement, and art-making might not be enough.
We’re living in the depths of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. An actualization of heinous acts committed long ago and still perpetuated today. We all have voices, even the birds, the mountains, and the water that flows between them. Listen.