A small, floating, manicured, tufted, green island, at the whim of tides and tugboat, makes its way around a much larger island.
An empty sliver of unused street, bordered by a home and an alley, sits as a forgotten island of neglected land, defined by its lack of owner and lack of purpose.
We are defined by our island culture. Four out of the five boroughs that make up New York City are islands, or parts of islands. And we are marked by their boundaries, their floating state, and their limited space. This September, two island-making and island-mapping public art projects were exhumed from 30-year-old proposals: Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island and Fake Estates.
These projects had been left unfinished due to the deaths of their creators. The artists, Robert Smithson — seminal earth artist, sculptor of monumental works from nature, in nature — and Gordon Matta-Clark — vivisector of urban structures, slicer and hole tunneler of abandoned buildings — both died at the age of 35 (Smithson in 1973, Matta-Clark in 1978).
Smithson’s Floating Island, an homage to Central Park’s grand landscaper, Frederick Law Olmsted, was left as a fantastical and apocalyptic doodle. Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates consisted of maps and deeds for 15 “micro plots” of land that he’d bought for 25 dollars each, in auction from New York City government. With Matta-Clark’s death, ownership of the tiny slices of property returned to the City.
Floating Island and Fake Estates exaggerate things that we ignore out of habit — this island is so small, these rocks so old, these boundaries so arbitrary. The recent incarnations of these projects provoke our wonder. In a city where everything has a superlative — biggest, tallest, fastest, most — it takes false islands and fake estates for us to see the impossible strangeness of it all.
The plotted wilderness of Central Park is situated at the center of one the world’s most famous cities; a city built on schist formed 450 million years ago, moved by way of Ice Age glaciers — these things are fabulously strange to comprehend. In Floating Island, the order of Manhattan Island is transposed as a segment from Manhattan’s belly gets tugged around its shores. This proposition is absurd and monumental.
For the actualization of Smithson’s Floating Island, public art organizers at Minetta Brook and staff at the Whitney, (along with landscapers, mariners, parks workers and others) built the project from the one sketch Smithson had drawn in 1970: scribbled trees and almost ridiculously literal labels, like “N.Y.C. skyline,” “tug,” “barge,” and “path.”
Interpretation was inevitable. To which “trees common to New York region” could Smithson’s looped leaves refer? The one tree specified, a weeping willow, is not native. And some deviations from the sketch were necessary. Yellow rigging bars were installed on the sides of the barge; viewed from the shore, these posts evoke city hydrants. A rubber tire is slung droopily around one of them, dragged alongside, half in the water, a remnant of urban activity. These additions were not added for their aesthetic effects. The metal bars are needed for docking the barge in its Staten Island home, the coast guard demands for them to be yellow, and the tire is used as a bumper. However, that they exist makes these practical, industrial, necessary additions part of the art project.
Rocking precariously in the water, the barge appears as a specimen, and we are able to observe its contents anew: Its composed landscape; how the trees frame the industry behind it; its dirt “path” that no one will walk. The barge is transformed into a floating microcosm — co-created by art and necessity, nature and industry.
It is friendly — a sentient being, following behind that forever anthropomorphized ship, the tugboat. It is timekeeper and warning — a carefully toted object, it is too precious, like the last green to be saved after apocalyptic fallout, or the only dry land after a tremendous hurricane. It is a mirror — a strange equilibrium of industry and nature, past and present. The “island,” like us, is resting carefully on the earth’s shell.
In Fake Estates, Matta-Clark investigated the arbitrary orderliness of property lines and vacancy of un-owned islands of urban space. His purchased “gutterspaces,” “micro plots,” and “slivers,” as various essays call them, are ridiculously small. In locating them, surveying them, and mapping them, Matta-Clark impregnated gutters with potential.
With all of Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates back in the city’s hands, the revisitors of his project, editors of Cabinet magazine, White Columns gallery and the Queens Museum, were forced to improvise. Cabinet bought the ten plots that were still in existence (some of the sidewalks have been subsumed by factories, some concealed by homes), and invited 19 artists to create any intervention in, proposal for, or interpretation of, these empty spaces. The exhibition, Open Lots, shows the results. Some projects are clogged with sentimentality (a white gallery wall cracks and opens as a rose bush grows from behind it, through it), and others strain with literal interpretation (a sculpture in the shape of a paintbrush turned housing complex). The most successful projects evoke the playful irreverence and inventive openness of Matta-Clark’s proposals.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Queens Qookies/Sweet Splits, 2005, invites us to ingest the abandoned lots. Ukeles shrinks her three micro plots, Odd Lots 3, 6 and 15, into their proportionate, bite-sized equivalents. She enlists La Flor, Yi Mei Bakery and Victory Sweet Shop, three bakeries from the surrounding, diverse Queens neighborhood to become “shape-makers.” The bakers create sheets of cookies in the shapes of their assigned Odd Lot as “an unbroken field.” Gallery goers arrive at Ukeles’ makeshift cookie stand and follow instructions on a blackboard: buy the sweet, cut what is now their own micro plot, and enjoy the results.
As we eat an empty lot turned baklava or watch a small green island circumnavigate our island, we are disoriented by our space, awed by our relative size, and moved to laugh at the absurdity. In 1966, Smithson wrote that the fourth dimension is laughter. And our task, as artists, architects, (as people?), is to find out how to translate “ha-ha” into “solid models.” We need to be reminded of our relative positions to things — time, property, other people. This is impossible to accomplish at every minute. But it is necessary to see it sometimes — and then laugh at it, speculate about it, and translate it into some other form. Our island home and our island lives depend on it.