Mark Dion is an artist who pretends, in his art, to be a scientist. The result is always fascinating, often gorgeous, as you will see in "Troubleshooting," an exhibition of his work at University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum.
As both an artist and an environmentalist, he inhabits the narrow sliver in which objectivity overlaps with perception, where we think something is true or real because it looks as if it should be. In his invented scenarios, cosmology, the scientific study of the universe, becomes an art form. Fortunately for us, Dion packages this thesis with a combination of sly wit and disarming straightforwardness.
Consider his Mobile Ranger Library — Komodo National Park. It looks like a push cart, fitted with wheels, a heavy-duty coupling device for hauling it around and sliding windows with an "open for business" look. Painted turquoise with white trim, it also resembles a charming little playhouse.
Komodo National Park is a very real place that spreads across several Indonesian islands. It's home to the Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard. The park is also a World Heritage site, and the waters around it teem with marine life. The park attracts tourists from around the world, but the islanders who live there, including the park rangers, are still very poor.
The mobile library he created in 2007 was a literal resource Dion conceived for those rangers after he spent time there and was impressed by their commitment to the park's well-being and appalled by their lack of resources. He kitted it out with an impressive selection of relevant books and packed drawers with supplies: equipment for collecting and preserving specimens, first-aid items, fishing and snorkeling gear, even games and sets of cards for their off hours. It's meticulously arranged. (Dion could definitely have a side career as a space organizer.)
So, some may ask: Why is this art?
I regret that we still occasionally have this conversation after seeing so much fine conceptual art in the region over the years. But you will, I hope, understand and appreciate individual works when you view them in the context of the entire exhibition.
Though diverse, it has a strong and simple narrative thread in which Dion illustrates various ways that humans interact with nature.
In a group of works titled Travels of William Bartram Reconsidered, he looks at environmentalism from the viewpoint of Bartram, an important 18th century naturalist who traveled extensively through the southeastern United States, including Florida. In one work in the group, Dion fills a cabinet made of glass-lined panels with postcards he has sent to staff members of Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia. It was founded by John Bartram, William's father, and is the oldest botanical garden in the country. Dion had been commissioned by the garden to create an exhibition. Part of it became these postcards he illustrated and wrote during his travels researching those of William Bartram.
The postcards emulate the botanical sketches made by botanists in the field with an illustration of something along with precise identification notations. Except these are mundane things, not exciting discoveries. (Except for maybe the "unidentified tick embedded in the belt line of Mark Dion while he was at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.") Other specimens he collected include a "bottle of Rosemary and Heather Conditioning Shampoo from the Georgia Center Hotel, Oct. 22 2008."
The series includes a cabinet filled with alligator memorabilia in response to Bartram's famous and frightening encounters with the Florida reptile. But for the 21st century Reconsideration, the animal that once elicited responses of fear and awe is interpreted in ceramic tchotchkes, jiggers, University of Florida logo stuff and silly postcards. They mirror our complicated relationship with the animal that, forced into closer proximity with us, eats our dogs and fuels our wrath even as it flourishes as a mascot for one of our state universities.
Dion is best at creating these versions of cabinets of curiosities. In them, even household staples are imbued with a sense of purpose in their roles as part of some important insight or discovery.
Here, the discoveries are philosophical, presented in the traditions of physical exploration. We're taken along on Dion's journey of moral enlightenment that connects the garbage scavenged by rats and raccoons on city sidewalks (in a very literal and visceral installation complete with taxidermied animals) to a collection of early 20th century photographs (the only works not created by Dion himself) of the first Orchid Thieves — poachers who stripped the Everglades of rare flowers and plants for commercial sale, which became some of the inspiration for Marjory Stoneman Douglas' lifelong quest to protect the area. There are utopian drawings (The Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit, a vehicle built like a seagull — think the environmentalists' Oscar Mayer Wienermobile) and quotidian photographs of deer seen in woods.
Dion gets our attention by amusing us, then slides in the sobering backbone of repercussions and responsibilities. If it's a form of bait-and-switch, I'll yield to its motives anytime.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.