Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Desert Island Fantasy With a Tent and a Cause
By RANDY KENNEDY
It sounds like the ultimate urban childhood fantasy, hatched while staring out a window at a brick wall: take over a deserted island for a day, camp out in a grassy field, make crazy tents and dress up in crazy costumes, and then invite people to get on a boat and come see the results.
On Saturday, with the help of the Public Art Fund, the artist Allison Smith and more than 100 other artists achieved this fantasy, within the shadows of Manhattan's skyscrapers, commandeering Governors Island to create a kind of conceptual art version of day camp. Or maybe a Dadaist's dream of a craft fair. Or else a mini-Woodstock in which music was replaced by artists taking the stage in mock-military style to declare that they were fighting for causes like "sequined religious figures," "the right to sing sentimental songs in full," "the right to be scared" or more straightforward causes like financial support for AIDS research and ending overfishing of the oceans.
The setting for the event - which Ms. Smith called "The Muster," using the theme of Civil War re-enactment as a loose aesthetic organizing principle - was almost as surreal as the encampment of artists itself. Nearly deserted since the Coast Guard closed its base there in 1996, Governors Island feels ghostly, even on a sunny weekend day - its hotel, beauty salon, bowling alley, movie theater, nine-hole golf course, Burger King restaurant and Georgian-style mansions all sitting empty, awaiting a decision by state and city officials about what the 172-acre island will become.
Tom Eccles, director of the Public Art Fund, said he and Ms. Smith, who had created a smaller version of "The Muster" last year on a farm in Pennsylvania, saw the island as the perfect place for the event, both practically and metaphorically. "This is almost like a free zone right now," Mr. Eccles said. "It doesn't really come under the kind of constraints you have in other parts of the city. It would be very difficult to do this kind of project in, say, Central Park or even Prospect Park."
At times on Saturday, the gathering had the feel of any normal, impromptu cookout in a park. Shaggy teenagers played Hacky Sack. Little girls had ribbons braided in their hair. Fried chicken and pasta salad were served on tables with red-checkered tablecloths. But in line to be served there was a woman with oversized female genitalia sewn onto her leotard. And out in the field, there were tents like the all-pink one by William Bryan Purcell, who said his cause was "the just representation of female intentions."
"I'm offering nail painting, hair brushing, intimate conversation, makeovers - basically anything you need to get yourself fixed up," said Mr. Purcell, an artist, who was also smoking a large cigar. ("I didn't want to come across as too pink," he explained.)
Ms. Smith said that by the end of the day, about 1,500 people had made the trip by ferry. One of them, Michele Siegel, who wandered by Mr. Purcell's tent with a friend, Margie Weinstein, said the whole event felt like "Burning Man for lazy people," referring to the annual counterculture event staged in Nevada, in one of the country's most remote places. (Governors Island is only 800 yards from the tip of Manhattan.)
Civil War re-enactment was the guiding idea in large part because Ms. Smith grew up in Manassas, Va., and has always been fascinated by the obsessive dedication to authenticity of Civil War re-enactors. But many of the 40 or so tents, shacks and teepees scattered across a field near an old fort where the event took place ignored the theme altogether. One looked like a ship, and out front sat a man in a striped prison uniform playing a guitar and singing the blues song "Caldonia." In another, a large trampoline served as the floor, and a third looked like a Day-Glo maypole.
Others did toy with the military idea, mostly in a nonpolitical way. Gary Graham, a fashion designer, made ghostly military uniforms and enlisted his friends Charles Beyer and Brianna Espitalier to dress in them with gory makeup. A woman sat inside the tent with votive candles, reading "On Being Ill" by Virginia Woolf. While some of the tents and costumes seemed like leftovers from a school play, Mr. Graham's were serious.
"Hair and makeup people came over on the first ferry this morning at 7:30 - we had a bugle call to get up," said Mr. Beyer, who, like many of the artists, slept in their tents on Friday night.
Across the way, students from the Rhode Island School of Design, under the direction of Liz Collins, a professor, put up a tent filled with knitting machines, where they cranked out a huge abstract red-white-and-blue cotton banner during the afternoon. Julia Bryan-Wilson, another professor, said that earlier in the day, the knitters were approached by a man who had come to the island thinking there was going to be a real Civil War re-enactment. "He was just really confused," she said. "When I said that we were fighting for a sovereign nation of knitters, he didn't like that at all."
If he did not like that, then he probably hated the tent run by the artists Nicole Eisenman and A. L. Steiner. It included a bench where passersby were summoned to kneel, confess their sins through a megaphone and be whipped with a leather belt. "We're the negative energy vortex here," Ms. Eisenman said. "We give a home to everyone's yang. It has to go someplace, so it comes here."