ON VIEW: "Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions" at The Drawing Center
By Aimee Lusty
Walking into the ground floor gallery of The Drawing Center in Soho, the viewer is greeted by an installation resembling a makeshift natural history museum and immediately transported south of the equator to the various locations of the Department of Tropical Research in the early 20th century. “Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions” is the first exhibition to archive the expeditions of DTR through a collection of photographs, scientific illustrations, maps, taxidermy, objects, ephemera, and film. The exhibition highlights the department’s pioneering research that has contributed to our modern understanding of nature, ecology, evolution, and conservation.
The Department of Tropical Research was a roving field station under the direction of William Beebe and the New York Zoological Society, founded in 1916 on its first expedition to British Guiana (now Guyana). Beebe brought the laboratory to the jungle, resulting in a comprehensive understanding of the environment through immersive observations of animal and plant behavior. The DTR team was made up of scientists, artists, historians, writers, and a cinematographer, offering a diverse perspective beyond what science alone could capture. Beebe placed an emphasis on advancing the careers of women artists and scientists, promoting leading roles and independent research. The exhibition focuses on works created during these earlier expeditions in 1916 through the late 1940s, including research from field stations on Bermuda, British Guiana, the Galapagos Islands, Haiti, and Venezuela.
A large display case in the center of the gallery houses a small library, curiosity cabinet, and flat file encouraging the audience to sift through photography, letters, and ephemera from the expeditions. In a transformative installation, artist and curator Mark Dion used photographic references and an archive of objects to recreate the floating oceanographic laboratory aboard the research vessel and the tropical forest field station. Each station is composed of preserved specimens, unfinished drawings, reference libraries, collection and dissection tools, and art supplies, offering an exclusive view into the artists’ methods of collection and research. An annexed room behind the life-size dioramas previews a collection of footage from 1924 to 1930. The film includes early examples of underwater cinematography, footage from DTR’s Bermuda expedition, and animations.
The large open gallery is divided with one half focusing on offshore oceanographic studies and the opposing wall exhibiting works from the tropical forest expeditions. Drawings from the archive include scientifically detailed renderings in watercolor, graphite, and ink on paper, creating intimate portraits of collected marine invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, mammals, plants, and fungi. The drawings vary from anatomical studies of dissected specimen to holistic portraits of creatures in situ in their natural habitat. Illustrations of underwater species were either based on specimens that were dredged aboard, while some qualified artists would draw with a lead pencil on zinc tablets underwater. Bioluminescent creatures from deeper depths were painted from descriptions from Beebe’s dives. Living among the animals and insects for months at a time in the tropical forest stations allowed the artists to observe their life cycles, habitats, and symbiotic interactions more closely. Studies from the jungles of Venezuela and British Guiana depict amphibians, moths, beetles, plants, and lichens situated in their natural habitat and during different metamorphic and morphological stages.
“Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions” is organized by Mark Dion, Katherine Mcleod, and Madeleine Thompson. The exhibition will run from April 14 - July 16, 2017, with a series of weekly curator led tours throughout the month of May. For more information visit www.drawingcenter.org/.