When nineteenth-century Americans in eastern cities like New York and Washington wanted to learn about Texas, they turned to a handful of adventurer-explorers who had traveled to the far-off region and made studies of its lands and people. The travelogues, collections, and paintings of these early visitors helped define the brand-new state to a national audience. For a twenty-first-century Yankee to make such a wide-eyed journey of discovery in today’s booming, high-tech Texas would be a bit ridiculous—but it’s a compelling, many-layered absurdity that Hudson Valley-based artist Mark Dion leans into in his new body of work, “The Perilous Texas Adventures of Mark Dion,” now on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.
Over two years, Dion embarked on four separate journeys through Texas, covering the King Ranch, the Gulf Coast, West Texas, Austin, and San Antonio. Along the way, Dion composed his own travel diaries in the style of ornithologist John James Audubon, who visited Galveston Bay just before completing his immortal Birds of America, and botanist Charles Wright, who tagged along on the United States and Mexico Boundary Survey through the Chihuahuan Desert in 1851. Dion also gathered his own large-scale collections of modern-day Texas’s natural bounty and cultural detritus, which are on display at the Carter. This exhibition is accompanied by an attractive book from Yale University Press.
Dion spoke with Texas Monthly by phone about his oddball project’s aims, risks, inspirations, and discoveries. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Texas Monthly: Does this adventure have an origin story? What made you want to set out on it?
Dion: Well, I have worked a lot with museums, often in some way mining the collection—doing a deep dive, seeing what’s interesting there, and then doing collection exhibitions. When I came to the Carter and started working with Maggie Adler, she introduced me to this work of Sarah Ann Hardinge, these watercolors, which hadn’t been seen in a very long time. I began to think, oh, that’s quite interesting that someone came to Texas, recorded it in a variety of ways, in her journals and in her paintings, and then left. Then I thought: What other Yankees had been to Texas? And is there a pattern that we could imagine from the nineteenth century?
It didn’t take long to see that within the collection we had John James Audubon. And then to start digging around realizing the place of Frederick Law Olmsted, whose book [A Journey Through Texas, 1857], for all of its many flaws, becomes a somewhat authoritative account of nineteenth-century Texas. And then Charles Wright as well, who left an extensive body of writing around his experience—and his experience was extremely trying.
These Yankees came here with their view of what things should be, and their experience was heavily prejudiced. So is it possible to imagine a somewhat corrective trip? Could I do a trip that in some way shadowed that past, but rather than having a miserable time and being extremely judgmental, I would have a great time and take a backseat to the experts that I would travel with, who would give me their point of view on Texas?
TM: Maggie Adler, the curator of this show, has written that what you’re doing is not historical reenactment. Is there a way you prefer to discuss it?
Dion: No, it’s not historical reenactment, in that I never, in my imagination, try to put myself in the place of the people and don’t even necessarily adhere strictly to their itineraries. What I like to think is that I’m kind of shadowing their experience. It’s not a precise duplication of their trip, but it has aspects of the spirit in which they traveled.
TM: In your diary you mention “arrogant disdain and a judgmental eye so often associated with Yankees abroad.” One of your nineteenth-century inspirations, Frederick Law Olmsted, who would go on to design New York’s Central Park, was famously quite disdainful of the Texans he wrote about. How do you deal with that heritage, making this exhibition as an outsider for an audience of Texans?
Dion: Well, I hope that my book also articulates the importance of relying on ambassadors at different stages of the trip, and not dealing with them the way that, say, Olmsted would deal with a guide. I come to them with, I hope, a certain degree of humility, with the sense that I’m here to learn and not to pontificate or judge.
At the same time I want to make something that is like a travelogue. I think one of America’s great contributions is travel literature, if we start with William Bartram and Lewis and Clark and we go through people like Olmsted and then to Kerouac and road movies and Easy Rider and Pee-wee Herman and all of that stuff. But what do we have like that related to sculpture? There is a popular form, which is souvenir collecting. I’m a sculptor, and my practice, my methodology is really collecting. So how can I make something that’s like a travelogue, that is in that genre, but is material, and works from the premise of collecting rather than taking an Ansel Adams photograph or painting like Frederic Church or Albert Bierstadt, or writing? This is my way of doing it.
TM: The materials you’re exhibiting here are quite varied. You’ve got a vial of Cheerios, plastic beach trash, pork ribs from a barbecue restaurant in the Hill Country, and alongside that, more traditional natural history materials like shells, seeds, and plants. How do you expect the audience to interact with all this stuff?
Dion: People know from perhaps seeing exhibitions about traveling naturalists what kinds of things they collected and what their methodologies were. And they know from anthropological collections what it means to collect material culture—things that are important to people in regards to ritual or hunting and gathering.
But they haven’t seen those things kind of mixed together, where the collecting profile includes our culture, rather than excludes our culture. I want to destabilize the viewer’s expectations about what things might be collected, to destabilize their certainty. Which I think leads the viewer to look more carefully, and to think more critically, and to have an experience that might be a little more like an actual experience of being in a place.
We don’t really go somewhere and only see the culture, or only see the nature, or only see the past, or only see the present. But the museum experience and the scientific experience and the artistic experience tends to compartmentalize, take these things away from each other and privilege one over the other. So this was an attempt to mix these things together with also, I hope, a comic sensibility that helps people to maybe drop their guard a little bit and look more carefully.
TM: I was struck by a line early in your diaries when you’re looking at an oil refinery next to a coastal marsh, and you compare it to “a bomb factory next to a kindergarten.” There’s a lot in this exhibition about nature, how it has changed in the past two centuries and how it’s still at risk. Is that something you wanted to help others see?
Dion: As an artist, I’m someone who has done a lot of work thinking about the history of the culture of nature. I arrive with very much a conservation aesthetic. My interest in going to Galveston Bay comes out of reading Audubon’s accounts of the delirious biodiversity that he encountered there and how overwhelming the experience was for him of such an incredibly rich biological community. At the same time, I also know that I’m not going to be looking at, and I’m not looking for, the kind of pristine landscape that he encountered.
I have never been really tied to a notion of nature that is synonymous with a notion of wilderness. I grew up as a child playing in forests in New England, but they were forests that had been cut three or four times. None of them are primary, none of them are pristine. I spent my time playing in the polluted New Bedford harbor and catching crabs in places that were, essentially, Superfund sites. So it’s not necessarily a contradiction.
At the same time, as someone who is a birder and an enthusiast for nature, Galveston Bay is still just jaw-droppingly beautiful in terms of its natural wild community and the disappearing coastal wetland. The coastal prairie is still a stunning landscape. So to see it side by side by this potentially really destructive industry, it still does bewilder me.
“The Perilous Texas Adventures of Mark Dion” is on view February 8–May 17 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.