New York

Mark Dion with William Schefferine

American Fine Arts

In consultation with the staff of the zoo in Belize, Mark Dion has designed a series of ten signs to serve as guides to the animals housed there. A newly reorganized, English-speaking democracy in Central America, Belize is rich with rain forests and wildlife. The zoo, as Dion explains in an accompanying statement, is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the country’s animal population, and accordingly, the signs are both instructive and cautionary. Both the Spanish and the English names are supplied for each animal and together with standard “naturalistic” line drawings, matched with a less familiar Mayan representations, they serve as surprisingly simple and effective reminders of whose culture the zoo belongs to, and how varied are the means of representing its contents. Dion’s engaging descriptions of the animals document not just their habitat and diet, but their socialization, thereby cleverly abrogating the distinction between “natural” and cultivated behavior. Finally, to the right of each plaque a small, hortatory paragraph, handwritten where the naturalist account is printed, describes the difficulties in preserving each species and the mostly simple steps that must be taken if they are to continue to flourish.

In a project that might have inspired posturing, Dion is never didactic or patronizing; the plaques are both sensible and subtle. As straightforward educational tools, they emphasize the hands-on nature of the process of building and maintaining a country and a culture without the sheen of media or money. It is as if only common labor and smarts can satisfy the demands of Belize’s new moment.

Five wheelbarrows, made in collaboration with William Schefferine, and entitled collectively Wheelbarrows of Progress, 1990, rounded out the show. Filled with various materials and arranged in a line like a work-site relay, they provide an odd yet somehow fitting context for the signs. They turn the show into an installation that is on first glance disarmingly playful, but despite their homely and makeshift look, each takes a carefully thought-out and often angry stand on the ideology of environmentalism. The Big Payback, 1990, for example, is painted black and filled with tools and printed matter. Along the inside rim of the wheelbarrow various strategies for counteracting corporate environmental destruction are suggested, including disrupting power lines, sabotaging computers, and driving metal spikes into trees to damage chain saws. Another wheelbarrow filled with stuffed animals, entitled Survival of the Cutest (Who gets on The Ark?), 1990, suggests that even efforts to preserve endangered species manifest an anthropocentric prejudice. A third wheelbarrow, containing foliating trees and a tape recorder playing soft jungle noises, mocks inadequate and contrived rainforest preserves. These wheelbarrows, then, are adversarial where the zoo signs are positive; together they suggest that good will without anger is blind, and anger without good will is empty.

James Lewis