The Ghosts of New York

John Haber
in New York City

PLOT/09 and the Governors Island Art Fair

When New York opened Governors Island to art, the artists all saw ghosts. They could hardly help it, in an abandoned Navy and then Coast Guard base. Troops occupied it as long ago as the Revolutionary War. They could hardly help it, too, with views of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn's commercial waterfront, and Liberty Island. (A separate article has more summer sculpture elsewhere.)

Four summers later, the ghosts have had time to clear, but artists still see them everywhere. They see them on the horizon, from the Statue of Liberty to Manhattan's financial district. They see them in period rooms that one might otherwise never enter. Now if only they did not work so hard at dragging them into the art. "PLOT/09," subtitled "This World and Nearer Ones," calls itself the island's first quadrennial. Title aside, it sometimes seems far away. Anthony McCall's Between You and I (Creative Time, 2009)

When artists and tourists come to Governors Island, though, they may just as well wish to forget the past. A year later I check out four competing shows, including the Governors Island Art Fair. Each has a tenuous claim to the present.

New York's island vacation

"PLOT/09" more or less skips military history, aside from Krzysztof Wodiczko, with his flame of remembrance in the old fort. Even he updates the war zone, with voices from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Otherwise, the nineteen works simply respond to their surroundings. Too often, however, the sites become less and less specific the more one looks. They also rely on older artists, roughly a quarter in their sixties. That makes it all the more obvious when a new work repeats an old trick.

On paper the work sure sounds site specific. Imagine a cross and circle of light in the chapel, tents on the grass, wind chimes in the trees, a recreation of old furnishings, nothing but bare walls, or a song carried out to sea. A movie even plays in the abandoned theater. Patti Smith meditates on more ghosts accompanied by her daughter, Jesse, on piano. Visitors may snatch up her iPod, mistaking it for a guided tour. A volunteer corrects them, but they have the better of the argument.

Smith evokes lives all around her since Wall Street's latest mess. Others mostly fall back on formula. Lawrence Weiner might have used the text covering a dock pretty much anywhere. Sure, like Danh Vo in sculpture, Susan Philipsz directs her song of longing to the Statue of Liberty. But does it have to come from Godspell? Even the chapel's beautiful cone of light looks like any show by Anthony McCall, including one the same summer at his gallery.

The most site specific are also the most obscure. Guido van der Werve projects two versions of what he calls an "imagined reality." They are hard to explain or to imagine. Edgar Arceneaux uses ultrasound to focus attention on the empty rooms, but by definition one hears nothing. Nils Norman's tents stand for any and every tent city or counterculture movement.

Four years ago, art on Governors Island had a little too much reverence for the site's military history. This time they have a sterner morality. Mark Wallinger labels the two lanes of the ferry Goats and Sheep. He refers to colonial American shipping, but also to a Gospel image of salvation and damnation. Klaus Weber's wind chimes even claim to echo a medieval summons of the devil. An awful lot of back porches had better watch out.

Adam Chodzko invents a game in the basement of the Officer's Club. It involves trades with the goal of giving away the most, and it, too, takes a lot of explaining. Chodzko means it as an upending of capitalism. It could just as well represent the brutal trade-offs of a military economy or a volunteer army. AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs supply peepholes onto gaudy interiors, but did their "queer spirits" ever exist? Don't ask, don't tell.

Site-specific zombies

Others refer to New York's harbor as a site of immigration, and they mean today's immigrants. Judi Werthein asks migrant workers to sing the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner." Tercerunquinto, a Mexican collective, threw a rock through a window of McKim, Mead & White's Liggett Hall. Then they put the window back. The shattered window has to stand both for inner-city crime and high-art transgression. The restored mirror could mean an act of restitution, repression, or an apology.

These messages have a way of self-destructing. Teresa Margolles erects a bullet-marked concrete wall, spattered blood red. It has to slam the anti-immigration movement's border fences. Yet it also presents south of the border as hopelessly dysfunctional. She has a point, but it does not go well with its heavy-handed presentation. A narrative of the Mexican border lands with a thud on a New York lawn.

Governors Island still lacks a clear future. Fences surround the desolate housing on much of it. The sponsors of the Governors Island Art Fair do not make things easy either. As with Mike Nelson on Essex Street or David Byrne at the ferry last summer, Creative Time makes one sign a legal waiver to enter. They will not give out maps with directions from one work to the next—but they will sell you one in the catalog. Standing maps here and there on Governors Island have yellow circles for the art, but no numbers, labels, arrows from one to the next, or even signs that "you are here."

For all its incoherence, though, the visit is a pleasure. The island site really does have the last word—and it looks more and more a part of New York. Families have grown used to weekend picnics on the grass and miniature golf, and cyclists can now follow the water's edge all around the island. Some sculpture has settled in for the long term, including colorful metal sheds that once gave the Bohen Foundation innovative architecture near the High Line. Historical societies and an art gallery have taken over more of the classic buildings on the north end. Best of all, the ferry (from Brooklyn or lower Manhattan) is free.

Tue Greenfort shows off the island's continued strangeness. The artist labels a building "Project for the New American Century," after the neocon think-tank chaired by William Kristol. A placard nearby quotes its Web site, demanding "military strength, diplomatic energy, and commitment to moral principle." It takes effort to plough through the lecture. It takes even more effort to link standard-issue military housing with militarism overseas. Still, standing ankle deep in weeds, one can feel the end of America's bad dream.

As for that island movie theater, the Bruce High Quality Foundation summons up the art world as a zombie film. By its end the zombies sit transfixed in a theater, too, chanting in unison "Summer of '69." They may be the liveliest bunch on the island. What does it all say about artists or summer in the city? No matter. As a vision of the art scene, a movie within a movie about movies in a shuttered movie house is hard to resist.

The Battle of Brooklyn

In the early morning darkness of August 30, 1776, so soon after the Declaration of Independence, the American army survived a crushing defeat on Brooklyn Heights by fleeing to Manhattan, men and matériel intact. The very weekend of the anniversary, just one year after "PLOT/09," I needed General Washington. It had taken ninety minutes and three ferries to accommodate us all—stretched out for five blocks south of Wall Street, waiting for a late-summer Sunday on Governors Island. Coming back, the line for the ferry to Brooklyn, scheduled to leave every twenty minutes, was going nowhere at all. The guard guessed that the pilot had gone for a nap. If General Howe were to sail up the harbor once again, we were doomed.

Malcolm Brown's Untitled (Malcolm Brown Photography, 2010)New Yorkers can turn anything into a tourist attraction. They did it this year with the High Line, and they have done it again. Just five years before, the art in "Set and Drift" shared its elegiac tone with the entire island. The Manhattan ferry terminal still has Weiner's text from 2009, when he like Byrne before him chose a conceptual spareness to match largely undeveloped territory. Now those long waterfront lines translate into cyclists and strollers, out for sunshine, music, theater, a food festival, miniature golf, and maybe even some art. History is a thing of the past.

"PLOT/09" still very much turned on history. Artists as established as McCall and Wodiczko—or as hot as the Bruces—scrutinized the island's military history, as a fort and former Coast Guard base. The 2010 Governors Island Arts Fair takes over a large barracks on the Brooklyn side, but the ghosts have long since departed, and only the pleasure-seekers remain. The organizers, calling themselves the 4heads Collective, consider it an artist-run event. (Well, four heads are better than none.) One might have stumbled into another open-studio weekend in Bushwick, only with a very long wait for the ferry.

More than a hundred artists get or share a room, but few indeed are site specific. Each of the five stairwells holds a sculpture, such as Lucia Warck-Meister's Waterfall of plastic tubes. The attics have video, sound, and an occasional evocative hint of abandonment or infestation, like Stephen Woods's circle of books and stuffed black creatures. Jeremy Slater and Sylvain Flanagan bring an empty room to life with just a slowly dawning light, while Thea Lanzisero wraps kitchen furnishings with her own knitting and sewing, like a feminist Christo. Caitlin Rueter and Suzanne Stroebe take their Tea Party Project to a kitchen, but with the same mix of casual talk and flouncy dresses as ever. Mostly, though, these are traditional media, most often in that increasingly familiar space between realism, Surrealism, Philip Guston, and CGI.

I might mention Elisa Jensen's weighty silhouettes, Florine Demosthene's "subconscious mind of black heroines" in ink on plastic, Malcolm Brown's staged and Photoshopped comic nightmares, or Jon Lewis's shadowy white faces on black paper, but others will have their own favorites. Artist collectives are themselves a growing presence, and one can see why. Art's popularity has produced more and more artists, but art's commercial success has bred competition and exclusions. The DIY movement is conservative all the same. Where dealers and curators too often reach for trends, it tends instead toward the tried and true. The very goal of larger, more open exhibitions mirrors the numbing reach of perpetual art fairs, biennials, summer group shows, and hyped displays of emerging artists.

Just this summer, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council took a building near the Manhattan-bound terminal for even duller open studios, while the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition used the island's opposite edge for its 2010 summer sculpture (returning to Brooklyn for 2012 summer sculpture). As if groping after the loss of parkland under the Brooklyn Bridge, temporarily under construction, it retreated to early modernist forms and a few familiar names, including its organizers. The LMCC staffers had no clue that the Brooklynites were even there. Still more elegant but conservative work, from the Sculptors Guild, ran between them, like a peace offering. To whom does the island belong, including the first New York Electronic Arts Fair still to come next year? Increasingly, to a broader public, but art is still fighting the Battle of Brooklyn.

BACK to John's arts home page

"PLOT/09: This World and Nearer Ones" ran through September 20, 2009, on Governors Island, sponsored by Creative Time. The next year's Governors Island Art Fair ran through September 26, 2010. A separate article has more 2009 summer sculpture and a 2009 summer visit to the World's Fair grounds in Queens.


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