Through September 24, the Rachel Marie will tug ten trees, a few bushes, some rocks and a path around New York. The miniature version of Manhattan is the posthumous work of the artist Robert Smithson.
Just like any other barge, only this one has bark and leaves
By Nicole Davis
Bob Henry has tugged a few odd things in his time: an inflatable rubber doll promoting a Stevie Van Zandt concert on Randalls Island; fuel rods from a decommissioned nuclear power plant. But Robert Smithsons Floating Island is by far the most beautiful barge of the tugboat captains career.
Its a very small version of Central Park, he said of the floating work of art currently circling around Manhattan. Hes not kidding. Inside the 30 x 90 foot plot of land are schist rocks borrowed from Central Park, the very ones that form the bedrock of Manhattan, and the kind the late Robert Smithson would have probably wanted on his moving earthwork. Conceived in 1970, Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island was finally realized in time for the current retrospective of Smithsons work at the Whitney Museum, and will wend its way around the city from 8 AM to 8 PM until Sunday the 24th.
For the tugboat captain, its just another load, not unlike the lumber he tugs to maritime construction firms, only this one has leaves and bark. To other observers unfamiliar with Smithsons work, like security guard Yvenson Saintil, who works the Coast Guard parking lot near Battery Park, it doesnt even resemble a living thing.
I thought it was trash, Saintil said.
If only Smithson were around to explain its intent. The artist died in a plane crash at the age of 35, but before his untimely death he helped pioneer a brave new field of artone that used the field as its canvas. Works like Michael Heizers Double Negative, a spectacular hole dug out of a Nevada mesa, and Smithsons Spiral Jetty, a coil of basalt rocks assembled in Utahs Great Salt Lake, manhandled nature in such a way that the art itself became a physical place. That these earthworks didnt stay put was just as significant to Smithson, who was fixated on the notion of entropy and the impermanence of things.
Its possible that the muse for Smithsons massive undertakings was the landscape architect behind Central Park. In an essay Smithson wrote five months before the 1973 plane crash, he calls Frederick Law Olmstead the worlds first true earth artist. A hundred years before works like Spiral Jetty created something unique and interactive from static landscapes, Olmstead eschewed the vision of Central Park as a fixed, formal garden and made it a place where people, nature, even traffic could coexist. Smithson praised Olmstead for reclaiming land jeopardized by urban growth, and turning it into a thing of beauty.
My own experience, wrote Smithson, is that the best sites for earth art are sites that have been disrupted by industry, reckless urbanization, or natures own devastation.
The earthworks artist lived very close to one such tableau. He and his widow, artist Nancy Holt, used to take walks along the Hudson River when they lived together in New York, and Holt says those strolls got Smithson thinking about his maritime opus. Curators of the exhibit and those who manage his estate believe the idea falls in line with his penchant for displacement.
Smithson had displaced nature once before by bringing it inside the white walls of a gallery, so it stands to reason this was his way of displacing nature yet again, only instead of taking the flora inside, he plucked them from their normal domain, attached it to a symbol of industry of New Yorks working harbor, and set in orbit around the city.
Smithson made one detailed sketch of this vision, but he hit a wall when it came to financing and finding permits for the project.
New York was a different world then, Holt said on September 16, the day the island made its debut at the Hudson River Parks Pier 46. Think about the Gatesit took 20 years for that to happen.
Smithsons island took 30 years, and about two million less to create. A year before his current retrospective went up at the Whitney, curator Chrissy Isles tapped a woman familiar with creating ambitious, large-scale projects, Diane Shamash of the Minetta Brook arts organization, to help her pick up where Smithson left off. Together they began walking the waterfront too, envisioning the logistics of tugging a 150-ton island around the city. They met with tugboat captains, even watched a dozen tugs race in the Tugboat Challenge off Staten Island.
Its really quite a community, said Shamash, a petite woman who keeps her short, chestnut hair cinched in a ponytail.
Ultimately, Shamash amassed a team of 20 to help translate the sketch Smithson left of his fantasy island. (Aside from a notes specifying a willow tree, the other plants were left open to interpretation so long as they were native to New York.) Jon Rubin, a filmmaker and performance artist who screens movies on a barge called Floating Cinema, was the most experienced person to handle the logistics of hiring the tugboat operator.
This was my first time acting as a project manager, said Rubin, who helped oversee the four-month, $200,000 construction of the island. Im not sure if Ill ever do something like this again. But Im proud of how it turned out.
He continued managing from behind the scenes last Friday, before the tug made its inaugural run around Manhattan on Saturday the 17th. As Holt, Shamash, and various others made their introductory remarks about the projects genesis and completion, Rubin paced in the back of the crowd, speaking in hushed tones to Bob Henry via cell phone.
Can you pull it back so that its centered? he asked the tugboat captain, as the island began to drift during Holts remarks. Smithsons widow, a white-haired woman who now lives in New Mexico, was reminiscing about the time she and Smithson spent in the city.
Bob and I used to live on West 12th and Greenwich Street, not far from here, she said wistfully. I used to look out the window
to where were standing, where this island is now floating.
Behind her, the wind and currents made the island bob and drift like a bad puppy on a leash, said Henry. Smithson, who appreciated natures tendency toward disorder, would have been pleased at how his art was behaving.