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Mark Dion brings early 20th-century celebrity art and science team back to life at the Drawing Center

An exhibition offers a fresh look at the work of the Department of Tropical Research

by Victoria Stapley-Brown  |  13 April 2017
Mark Dion brings early 20th-century celebrity art and science team back to life at the Drawing Center
Mark Dion's installation The Department of Tropical Research—Jungle Station (2017)
The Department of Tropical Research (DTR)—a group of artists and scientists who went on field expeditions to research rain forest and marine ecosystems in South America and the Caribbean from the 1910s to 60s—has been brought back to life at the Drawing Center in a new exhibition that opened today, 13 April. Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Exhibitions (until 16 July) was organised by the artist Mark Dion—who has also created new work for the show—along with the historian and anthropologist Katherine McLeod and Madeleine Thompson, an archivist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

Dion dubs the DTR “the Neil deGrasse Tyson’s of their time”. They were celebrity scientists when they were active, and wrote about their adventures in popular magazines like Vanity Fair and the Atlantic, and National Geographic published DTR artist drawings. Visitors are introduced to the group—which was led by the biologist William Beebe, a scientist at the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society)—upon arrival through a large display cabinet filled with ephemera. Large, flat drawers can be opened to reveal objects like snapshots of the fun-loving (and hard-drinking) group partying in fancy dress in the jungle and popular books that the DTR wrote about their explorations, translated into several languages. Nearby, a salon-style hanging of other photographs of the group shows them in action, with shots like the artist Isabel Cooper with a small monkey lying on her forearm in Kartabo, British Guiana (now Guyana). Maps, expedition logs, supply lists and other records of the DTR’s journeys are displayed throughout the gallery space.

The exhibition is also a chance to see 60 watercolour, gouache and pencil drawings made by artists of the DTR, such as Cooper and Helen Damrosch Tee-Van, which have been tucked away for decades in the archives of the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx. Spread across two walls, the colourful and deliciously detailed works are meticulous records of flora and fauna, often bordering on the fantastical. But their scientific merit does not preclude a sense of playfulness that can be seen in works such as George Swanson’s watercolour and pencil drawing Leaf-like Mantis, made in Venezuela in 1942, in which various views of the creature are labelled with ballet positions in French and “Le Lac des cygnes” (Swan Lake) is scribbled on the bottom.

  • Else Bostelmann, saber-toothed Viper fish (Chauliodus sloanei) chasing ocean sunfish (Mola mola) larva, Bermuda, 1934, watercolour on paper
  • Else Bostelmann, Bathysphaera intacta Circling the Bathysphere, Bermuda, 1934, watercolour on paper
  • Helen Damrosch Tee-Van, Long-spined Giant Squid, Bermuda, 1929, watercolour on paper
  • Else Bostelmann, Blue and Orange Nudibranch, Bermuda, 1931, watercolour on paper
    11 ¼ x 14 ¼ inches (28.5 x 36 cm)
  • Isabel Cooper, Three-toed sloth, Kartabo, Guyana, 1922, watercolour on paper
  • Isabel Cooper, Margay tigrina vigens, Kartabo, Guyana, 1922, watercolour on paper
  • Helen Damrosch Tee-Van, Crypturellus variegatus tail display, Guyana, 1922, watercolour on paper
  • George Swanson, Bug Family on Acalypha Leaf, Caripito, Venezuela, 1942, watercolour on paper
  • George Swanson, Liana with Air Plants, Rancho Grande, Venezuela, 1945, watercolour on paper
Else Bostelmann’s watercolours of bioluminescent deep-sea creatures on dark paper (with titles like Big Bad Wolves of an Abyssal Chamber of Horrors) are particularly fascinating. She drew them from the observations of Beebe and Otis Baron, who in 1934 descended into the ocean in a metal bubble, 3,000 feet off Bermuda—the deepest humans had ever dived at the time. (The pair described what they were seeing in real time through a telephone line to the ship above.) One watercolour, Bathysphaera intacta Circling the Bathysphere (1934) shows Beebe’s face peering through a porthole as two large, red fish swim around it.

Though Dion calls the watercolour drawings “the real stars of the show”, he has also created two engaging works for the exhibition: large installations, positioned side-by-side, that reimagine the group’s laboratories aboard a research ship and in the jungle (The Department of Tropical Research—Jungle Station and The Department of Tropical Research—Oceanographic Laboratory, 2017)—where artists and scientists, women and men, worked side-by-side. Most of the objects in the installations—such as period furnishings, lamps and scientific equipment—belong to the artist. “I’m my own prop house,” he says.

Dion made some of the objects himself, such as a bell jar covering a microscope, which he blew at the Rhode Island School of Design’s glass-making workshop—and he has even “locally-sourced” some of the specimens, such as fish he bought in Chinatown and preserved in alcohol. Like the activities of the DTR, Dion’s work is an example of the fusion of art and science.


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