July 13, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 19

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    Three artists present a different view of our natural world

    Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    [Meter of Meadow]“Ecologies: Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Dan Peterman,” an exhibition currently on view at the Smart Museum of Art, presents Chicago audiences with an opportunity to encounter new installations by three internationally renowned American artists working in the tradition of ecologically conscious art.

    The three artists have conceived projects that transform the building and grounds of the museum into a space where viewers can explore the connections among scientific practices, visual representation and the systems of knowledge that mediate our experiences with the natural world. Marking the first time the Smart Museum has commissioned installation works for display in its galleries, “Ecologies” reflects the museum’s continued emphasis on high-quality, intellectually focused exhibitions.

    Smart Museum Associate Curator Stephanie Smith, who worked with the artists and museum staff to organize the exhibition, said Dion, Fend and Peterman follow several generations of contemporary American artists who have incorporated ecological concerns into their work. “Like their predecessors and peers, they address issues that are of crucial importance to contemporary society, and they do so with intelligence, wit and passion,” she explained. “Their projects for the current show explore the ecologies of particular sites in order to set various ethical, scientific and ecological issues into play for the viewer.”

    In a special laboratory set up within the Smart Museum’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Gallery, Dion’s project, “Roundup: An Entomological Endeavor for the Smart Museum of Art,” presents the results of a self-reflexive examination of the museum space. Several days prior to the opening, the artist and a small group of volunteers combed the museum building to gather examples of the living organisms that co-exist with visitors and staff. During the first several days of the exhibition, Dion and University microscopist Allan Lesage analyzed and photographed the specimens, and the laboratory equipment and resulting images remain on view as an installation piece.

    The project ties into Dion’s long-standing interests in exploring the ways ideas about natural history are visualized and circulate in society. The project can be understood as a critique of the conventions that govern both museum display and scientific investigation.

    By demonstrating that even a supposedly pristine museum space comprises a habitat for living creatures, “Roundup” serves as a reminder to its viewers that nature is not something that simply exists elsewhere.

    Fend’s work, “China Basin Plans: The River Dragon Breathes Fires,” which incorporates a giant terrain model of the Yangtze River system from the Himalayas to the Pacific Ocean, focuses on four salt-water basins that affect the river. Fend uses the display to propose alternate plans involving earth works and other structures he believes could be put in place to mitigate the potential damage of the controversial Three Gorges Dam, currently under construction in China.

    The project demonstrates his commitment to collaborating with other artists, architects, scientists and scholars to bring their creative energies to bear on serious environmental issues.

    Fend hopes the work will spark discussion and action among policy-makers, corporations and individuals. In a statement concerning “China Basin Plans,” he asks, “can an artist speak on or initiate action for the engineering of a river with structures by which the river makes more river, and the valley makes more valley?”

    Peterman’s project, “Excerpts from the Universal Lab,” highlights some of the ways the activity of scientific research can leave physical traces, be memorialized or disappear from the memory of an institution.

    The installation will present fragments of the “universal lab,” a private, unofficial, off-campus laboratory comprised largely of scientific instruments discarded by the University. Now defunct, the lab once functioned as an alternative research site in Chicago for a number of amateur and professional scientific projects.

    On a circular stage in the museum’s Gray Gallery, Peterman and volunteer assistants will periodically arrange and examine its components, using the museum’s registration procedures to inventory them.

    Peterman’s installation activates several distinct spaces at the Smart Museum. A solar-powered vehicle, adapted from its former life as a University utility truck, sits in the Museum’s Vera and A.D. Elden Sculpture Garden in visual dialogue with a video document of Peterman’s visits with the vehicle to a number of campus sites.

    Peterman, who received his M.F.A. from the University’s Midway Studios program in 1986, currently works in a building on the border of the Hyde Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods. Like the founders of the universal lab, he has long been involved in finding resourceful ways to reuse materials and to create spaces in which he and others can work.

    “Points of Contact,” a series of three discussions held in conjunction with the artists’ gallery projects, will take place throughout the summer. Artists, scholars, arts professionals, students and others will meet for seminar-style lunchtime discussions to address some of the questions each project raises.

    “Ecologies: Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Dan Peterman,” will continue through Aug. 27. The Smart Museum is at 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. For more information about the exhibition or to make reservations for “Points of Contact,” please call Penka Bergman at (773) 702-0176.