The Tropics of Soho

John Haber
in New York City

Mark Dion: Exploratory Works

Anicka Yi and Eugen Gabritschevsky

The Met has the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and the American Museum of Natural History its special collections. Only the Drawing Center, though, has a department of tropical research. Anicka Yi and Eugen Gabritschevsky might be envious.

Yi has been tracking down remote climates and life forms, on the way to the Guggenheim, but with a long stop in Chinatown. With bacteria, ants, used circuitry, a veneer of science, and a good deal of hype, she asks to take art into the cross-cultural realm of the senses. Both she and the Drawing Center also give space not just to art and science, but also to art and women. Isabel Cooper's Margay Tigrina Vigens Head (photo by Martin Parsekian, Wildlife Conservation Society, 1922)

Do they bring entomology and ornithology to the point of madness as well? Gabritschevsky does, and in 1926, then at the very peak of his career, he reported on "Experiments in Color Changes and Gender." He was not yet describing his art.

Tyger, tyger

Can the Drawing Center make room for a department of tropical research? At least it can for a few months, and its exhibition is an act of the imagination, but the department and the research are real. William Beebe directed it for over thirty years, on behalf of the New York Zoological Society—now the Wildlife Conservation Society. As the Center puts it, he "took the lab into the jungle, rather than the jungle to the lab." And now, more than fifty years after his death, he has taken it to Soho. It has taken in some artifice by Mark Dion along the way.

"Exploratory Works" lays out its history, with maps, documents, and period equipment. As curators, Dion, Katherine McLeod, and Madeleine Thompson bring these and more together in a tall cabinet and a recreation of its field station. They include a film of the research team poised to take their floating laboratory to the rivers and sea—in a bathysphere and along the coast of South America. Most of all, they set out the product of its research, in the form of watercolors of tropical life. The show gains relevance today thanks to global warming and Donald J. Trump, as scientists march for their and the planet's future. It has added punch, too, because women did so much of the drawing.

Some of the names are lost, including both artists and species, but Isabel Cooper helped get things moving when she joined Beebe in 1919. They show the world less as "dog eat dog" than as animal life struts its stuff. A tiger for Cooper, as for William Blake, is burning bright, while ocean sunfish for Else Bostelmann appear to smile or to cower—even as a viper fish swoops in with its saber-toothed jaws. The stomach contents of another deep-sea fish, notoriously larger than the fish itself at rest, seem to be getting along just fine. Plants or invertebrates make an appearance only as a backdrop to the exotic display of color and motion. An insect for George Swanson Carpito may be feeding on a leaf, but the leaf seems to be deepening its pink and purple on behalf of the bug.

Then, too, there is another element of their symbiosis and the ecosystem, in Dion. The field station looks more convincing than many of the drawings, but he has pretty much made it up. It has a full wall where one can linger but not enter. It also has the clutter and quaintness of his Curiosity Shop, again at the intersection of art and science. Like Beebe, he has made art from the space between sea and shore, with his Thames Dig, and has gone deep with his Rescue Archaeology. He has to like a project in which the same individuals served as lead scientists and field artists.

The entire exhibition may have one wondering what counts as science or art. Is the Drawing Center taking on the job of a natural history museum for a change? And is it doing so because that, too, is an aspect of drawing—or because the drawings are so vivid as art? (Cooper took pride in her Japanese brushes and spoke of a "tapestried" lizard.) Or is it doing so because they have become part of an installation by a living artist? One may wonder whether watercolors can do the job of science at all.

Of course, Beebe could not rely on color photography back then, especially in the field. And scientific drawings have a long history, including Leonardo when he had given up painting and Albrecht Dürer when he saw his work as art. Art and science, I have argued, can meet in more than one way. Art can take science as its subject, as with science fiction, or as the tools of its trade, as with color charts and Post-Impressionism. It can aspire to the study of nature, like science, or explore science as itself a mode of representation. The best side of "Exploratory Works" lies, like its title, in the plural.

Bacteria, ants, and women

What do Asian American women have in common with carpenter ants? They both figure in the art of Anicka Yi—and they both smell. If one may trust the artist, in fact, they do not smell half bad. They do not, at any rate, preclude entering Life Is Cheap, although they do present a bit of an obstacle. They are not the first. One enters a Guggenheim Museum tower gallery past a warning about aromas and through two steel gates, to reach a "holding pen," where three canisters emit a scent taken, she swears, from women and ants.

Yi claims to draw on a whole team of "molecular biologists and forensic scientists" to study how "gender, race, and class shape physical perception." And she has a history of dubious appeals to the senses. She appeared in "A Disagreeable Object" at SculptureCenter and in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where she interviewed a "flavor chemist" along the Amazon. Here, too, she boasts of a "biopolitics of the senses," and here, too, it comes across as sentimental and pretentious. She has this year's Hugo Boss Prize, like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tacita Dean, and Emily Jacir before her, and it has not always gone well. As the song goes, "Life is short, and talk is cheap. Don't be making promises that you can't keep."

She is not, fortunately, all talk, and her installation does not end with a cloying smell. She calls that first part Immigrant Caucus, which sounds like Donald J. Trump's worst nightmare in the Senate. Yet it has a visual component as well, in the bareness of the holding pen. The canisters lie in a corner by a third gate, as if left there by mistake. At first I thought she meant that Asian women and ants smell the same—which could explain why Asian cuisine involves neither one as ingredients. I came to appreciate instead the visual threats.

Past the gates, a museum's white cube stands empty, making all the more dramatic the busy displays on facing walls. Ant life and the immigrant experience branch off behind glass, as Force Majeure and Lifestyle Wars. In one, the ants make their way through white tunnels in the shape of a giant circuit diagram. Mirrors above and below multiply its depths to infinity. The tunnels have a further reflection in a construction like coral at the window's center, broken by a white pole topped by, I am guessing, a hat. In the other, New York's Chinatown and Koreatown appear only as bacteria sampled from genuine urban cultures.

Yi sets them, though, on something more directly allusive. The bacteria grow on agar, as in a lab, spread on off-white tiles that ascend as steps in front of similarly tiled walls. They could belong to a public atrium or an Asian temple. They are also the setting for more fabric, Ethernet cables, and digital clocks ticking off the invisible motion of biological and electronic networks. Beside the shared dimensions, both sides of the room riff on colonies, circuits, and cultures. They are visually alluring but slightly disgusting.

Yi pulls off a display for the senses, while keeping the insects and bacteria (I hope) behind glass. Born in South Korea, she also aligns herself with the politics of globalization, global feminism, and Asian American art. Does she have enough to say about any of them? Not really, unless you believe that ants, bacteria, and microchips are fitting metaphors for oppressed cultures and the lifestyle wars. If anything, language seems to have broken down entirely, even in the supposed service of political and critical theory. One can, though, admire the breakdown while exiting the last steel gate.

Experimenting on himself

When Eugen Gabritschevsky wrote about color and gender, he was a biologist, with a specialty in insects. (That 1926 paper was about spiders.) The son of a bacteriologist, he had grown up in the most elite and progressive circles of tsarist and revolutionary Russia, at home among scientists, diplomats, and Tolstoy. Eugen Gabritschevsky's Untitled (Galerie Chave, 1949)Fluent in English, he had just wrapped up his postdoc at Columbia University under T. H. Morgan, the leading geneticist of his age, and was settling into a post in Paris. In only five more years, he had lost it all to mental illness—but his greatest experiments were just beginning. For the American Folk Art Museum, he spent the rest of his life in a "Theater of the Imperceptible."

Insects live fast and die young. Not him. Sent to an asylum in Germany in 1931, Gabritschevsky was only slowly picking up the pieces and discovering his art. Some of it still looks like scientific illustration, including exquisite bird studies in his chosen medium, gouache on paper. Folding and blotting brings out the symmetry and segmentation of, once again, insects—if not also a Rorschach test. The show's title brings out the parallels between his lives. He was making the imperceptible visible, just as he had behind a microscope.

Increasingly, the imperceptible belongs not to the furthest reaches of the senses, but to the mind. In his madness, he can experiment only on himself. The birds morph into faces, their color and gender no longer intact. Forms multiply, with the obsessiveness of folk art—and who is to say what is glorious and what is a nightmare? Memories of Moscow before the revolution become images of crowded theaters, but of solely the audience in fancy dress and with mere dots for eyes. Gabritschevsky's subject has become the pageant not of art and nature, but of the perceiver.

He might have seen the changes coming as early as his stay in New York. A crowded skyline in charcoal has one foot in science fiction, with seemingly familiar towers rising a good five years before construction of the Chrysler building began. A man leans over his microscope in the laboratory, but in near darkness. Seen from the back, he is and is not the artist. Then, too, the move from hard science was never quite complete. Species other than people join the lost souls at the Last Judgment, and men with odd growth for heads could be suffering from a physical as well as mental disease.

Those crusty heads look right out of Jean Dubuffet, and Gabritschevsky's brother wrote for encouragement. The French painter was polite but measured. Gabritschevsky, he explained, was not turning against "l'art classique" but rather "handling" it. He had done so before in charcoal, with those skyscrapers informed by Modernism—or with a ghostly man in the woods informed by Symbolism and Edvard Munch. The Last Judgment, too, is a classical subject, rendered in lush browns. Yet its god is only a small point of light, and its tiers belong just as much to the artist's theaters of Moscow and the mind.

Maybe Gabritschevsky never had time to become an outsider or an artist, as his state of mind grew worse. Work belongs almost entirely to the 1940s, although he died only in his mid-eighties, in 1974. The museum pairs him with Carlo Zinelli, an Italian who took up art in an asylum well into his forties. Zinelli had served both in a slaughterhouse and (by devilish coincidence) in combat, he exhibited with Art Brut, and his work became more cramped, chaotic, and colorful right up to his death. Gabritschevsky, by comparison, was at least half in control of his experiments all along. They just had a way of turning on him.

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"Exploratory Works" ran at the Drawing Center through July 16, 2017, Anicka Yi at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through July 5, and Eugen Gabritschevsky and Carlo Zinelli at the American Folk Art Museum through August 20. Related articles take up the themes of art and science, natural history, and Art Brut, with Mark Dion and others.


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