Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Letter from Queens

Last Thursday the Philagrafika crew boarded a rented vessel and set sail towards the Corona Park in Queens, where Duke Riley’s
Those About to Die Salute You, was going to take place. Riley’s performance extravaganza was fashioned after a Naumachia or Roman live naval battle, which in this case was set as a battle between education staff from museums of the five boroughs of New York who built the ships and manned (womanned) them.

The setting was quite impressive; the grounds of the 1964 World fair and its modernist ruins were more than appropriate for Duke Riley’s festive anachronism. Duke flooded one of the reflecting pools, which had remained dry since the fair happened more than four decades ago, and built inside it a theatrical set that reminded of a Roman Colysseum, which was used as a backdrop for the action. The Unisphere, a hollow steel world globe that could be seen in the background added to a sense of fabricated grandeur.

Rebecca, Caitlin and fellow conspirator Annabelle show off their Roman sandals over the etched granite floor right by the

Toga attire was strictly enforced, and we obliged, sandals and all. When we arrived people were already revved up. Copious free beer and a live band were not unimportant in setting just the right mood. On the sides of the pool and on the bleachers there were boxes with a seal that said “By Royal Decree of the Emperor Do Not Break This Seal Until Instructed by Judas Priest”. They contained ripe tomatoes that, it seems, an intern had spent the whole afternoon microwaving so as to achieve the perfect consistency for throwing at the boats and their crews. But people were impatient, and when the first tomato was hurled there was no holding back and mayhem ensued.

Cases of ammunition...

The Queens crew enters the battleground.

The Queens boat sailed into the scene and was bombarded from all sides; it was a miracle that the boat did not capsize at that intense moment of collective release. Somehow it survived (and went on to ultimately winning the battle!). The other boats soon came in, one by one, engaging in all-against-all chaotic warfare. Crews tore at each other and tried boarding maneuvers, but the public seemed not to take sides and just attacked whoever was closer to them. Many viewers tried out in the flesh what art theoricists (which have probably never eaten an artist-prepared Thai meal) term Relational Esthetics, and waded frantically in the knee-deep pool, taking active part in the battle. Rock music blasted from speakers on one corner of the pool and a live narrator tried without much success to make sense of what was having place, let alone be heard. The last ship to enter the battle was a “Trojan Pig” created by the Museo del Barrio, which sported a water hose that was used as a cannon against the other boats and the public. It seems that -in a reversal of the metaphor- a rival crew entered through the pig’s nose and attacked them from within, because the pig quickly withdrew and hid behind the protection of the backdrop.

Duke Riley is no stranger to naval warfare. In one of his best known projects, After The Battle of Brooklyn (2007), he built a fiberglass and wood mini-submarine which ventured too close to the USS Queen Mary II and was detained by the NYC Coast Guard, who confiscated it.

Libertas Aut Mori (2007). Composite tiles and cast acrylic on wood panel with custom steel frame, 96 x 96"

Duke Riley navigating the Acorn in the Hudson river

After venturing too close to The Queen Mary II, Duke gets busted!

His way to get back to them in retrospect was to build a scale model of the QMII, which was set on fire at the end of the Queens battle. The blazing ship in the middle of the debris-strewn pool was quite a sight, both beautiful and menacing. It turns out it was loaded with fireworks, which started exploding as an appropriate climactic ending moment. But the ship was already capsizing, so the Roman candles were shooting their loads haphazardly in every direction. The crowd ducked as the colored lights blazed right above their heads. Luckily nobody was hurt despite the ardor of the fighting, the tomato-pelting and the fireworks. Everyone wondered how Duke Riley had gotten away with such a complex project, since in America everything happens or does not happen because of liability issues and the fear of getting sued. As critic Jerry Saltz put it, the Queens Museum “either got every type of permit in the book or violated every city code imaginable.” I recently asked Duke, who has said that his work is about “the space where water meets the land, traditionally marking the periphery of urban society, what lies beyond rigid moral constructs, a sense of danger and possibility” how would he further characterize his practice, to which he answered: “Um…, breaking the law?” His demeanor and work prove that his interest in pirates is more than skin-deep, and that this freedom is a result of a genuine way to embrace life, not a pose. The project he is preparing for Philagrafika is no less complex and thorny than the Naumachia and also ridden with pirates, islands, plots and subterfuges, but we do not want to give it away so you will have to stay tuned to the Philagrafika blog and website to find more about it.

The Philagrafika crew.

P.s. check the videos for some live action!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post on a great event! Note: the pig boat was created by artist Jade Townsend and will be shown at Priska C Juschka starting Sept 10. If you can, upload your videos/photos to Flickr and tag them 'dukeriley.'