Near the Buffalo Bayou under a tangled knot of highways, the SweetRides! and It's a Wrap food trucks were on hand offering their wares to the crowd that had gathered. Though everyone's attention was on a white taco truck that didn't even serve tacos.
Last night, the "Buffalo Bayou Invasive Eradication Unit" -- part artwork, part workstation, part outdoor classroom -- had its debut, complete with a giddy champagne ship launch and pints of Saint Arnold.
The mobile unit is the brainchild of artist Mark Dion, who was invited by the Houston Arts Alliance and Buffalo Bayou Partnership to create a piece about the Bayou. After taking tours of its dirty waters and speaking with biologists, Dion realized the biggest issue was invasive plant species pushing out native plants, disrupting the naturally diverse habitat. So instead of an aesthetic, stagnant piece to promote ecological stewardship, he came up with the idea of a mobile unit that could travel to schools, art openings, street fairs, you name it, educating residents on identifying invasive plants, methods of removing them and how to prevent further growth.
"It's having the conversation in a different way," said Dion. "It's functional."
And the fact that it might remind Houstonians of those ubiquitous food trucks is just part of the fun.
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"There's definitely a playful relationship to that," said Dion, who's no stranger to playful public art -- one of his most-recent pieces includes "Ship in a Bottle," a permanent sculpture at the Port of Los Angeles that features an eight-foot scale model of a container ship inside a 12-foot glass bottle -- it's larger than life, as far as ships in a bottle go.
Dion's work here is pretty straightforward: The truck's white, opaque exterior is decked out with the title of the work, its very own logo -- a pitchfork, shovel and rather ominous skull -- and the names and images of more than a dozen invasive species, drawn up by artist Gabriel Martinez in a naturalistic style fit for a botany book. Making the list are giant ragweed, chinaberry tree and Japanese honeysuckle, the three most-commonly found species in the region. Inside the truck, hard hats, bright yellow vests, shovels and nets are neatly arranged -- weapons in the fight against the invasive plant species. Field guides and books also provide further knowledge on their eradication.
With its informative literature, handy tools and clear message, we can see how "Unit" serves as a mobile classroom and workstation. But art?
"There's a long tradition of temporary art -- that's where this began," offered Matthew Lennon, director of civic art and design at the Houston Arts Alliance, about the mobile unit. "And, frankly, who but an artist would come up with this?"