"Floating Island" on a test run this week on the Hudson at Battery Park City. Photo: Robert Caplin/The New York Times
It's Not Easy Making Art That Floats
By RANDY KENNEDY - Published: September 16, 2005 (nytimes.com)
The island of Manhattan was formed over the course of more than 500 million years, shaped by metamorphic pressure, erosion, continental drift, glacial deposits and rampant real estate development.
The island of Robert Smithson was formed over about a week, in a ragged-looking barge yard on Staten Island, shaped by a public art group, a landscape architect, a contractor, an engineer, a project manager and various other dedicated conceptual art workers using a 30-by-90-foot flat-decked barge, 10 trees, 3 huge rocks, a bunch of shrubs, rolls of sod, a whole lot of dirt and even more ingenuity.
The result, which will begin daily travels tomorrow along Manhattan's shores, is much more than just a week's work. It is the culmination of more than 30 years of sporadic efforts to build the ambitious floating artwork that Mr. Smithson sketched out in a rough drawing three years before he died in a plane crash in 1973, an image that showed a tiny, forested, man-made island being towed by tugboat with the city's skyline in the distance.
Mr. Smithson tried to find backers to build the project, which he called "Floating Island," during his lifetime but had no luck. In the years after his death, other admirers and artists also tried unsuccessfully to get the project going.
Nancy Holt, widow of the artist, who died in 1973, came from New Mexico to help oversee construction of the project, which is to begin traveling along the shores of Manhattan this weekend.
But last fall, as the Whitney Museum of American Art was preparing for the arrival of a traveling Smithson retrospective, the museum, along with the public arts organization Minetta Brook and Smithson's estate, began serious discussions about finally making the island a reality. The artist Nancy Holt, Smithson's widow, became involved. The James Cohan Gallery, which represents the estate, contributed money and helped round up donors when the project threatened to stall. And by the spring the planners, money in hand, set to work to try to answer the question the project had always asked implicitly: How do you build an island from scratch?
How, for example, do you ensure that 20- or 30-foot-tall trees, unearthed and with no root systems to speak of, stand up straight and do not topple in a stiff wind? What kind of barge should be used - a flat-deck or a hopper with a depression in the middle, better to hold the dirt? If the hopper requires far more dirt than the budget allows, how do you keep all the dirt on a flat barge from falling off? What happens if it rains and the barge soaks up tons of water, like a great waterborne sponge? What happens if someone tries to board the island, in the name of art piracy or stunt publicity? What happens if the Coast Guard smiles politely and says no to the whole thing?
Diane Shamash, the director of Minetta Brook, which has created several other technically challenging artworks around the Hudson River over the last several years, said the Smithson project was the most complex one the group had ever taken on. It was made more difficult because there was no real blueprint to follow except Ms. Holt's memories and guidance and Mr. Smithson's rudimentary sketch - which was very specific in some areas (pointing out, for example, that there should be moss growing on one boulder,) yet vague in others (no exact dimensions; no color scheme; only a rough ideas about the topography and placement of bushes and trees that Smithson might have wanted).
"He's not alive and so you can't ask him, 'Were you thinking of a 35-foot tree or something a little shorter?' " Ms. Shamash said. "We just had to do our best to try to realize it according to the image he gave us."
She and others describe "Floating Island" as a kind of "anti-'Gates,' " referring to the saffron-colored extravaganza by Christo and Jeanne-Claude that wound through Central Park last winter.
In part this is simply because of the modest scale and cost of the island project - about $200,000, compared with the $21 million said to have been paid to create "The Gates." It is also because, as public artworks, "The Gates" and "Floating Island" are like a split personality: "The Gates" invited public interaction and was, in effect, completed by it; the island, reflecting Smithson's intellectual and generally chilly aesthetic, floats off at a distance, inaccessible, inhabited by no one.
But Smithson's project is just as intimately connected to Central Park, which he regarded, in all its artificial pastorality, as a conceptual artwork of its own. (He revered Frederick Law Olmsted and said that he found him more interesting than Duchamp.) While not nearly as monumental as Smithson's most famous work, "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot-long curlicue of basalt jutting into the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the island - which resembles a rectangular chunk of Central Park, neatly cookie-cuttered out - is a further twist on Smithson's career-long fascination with displacement. This generally meant taking art outdoors and bringing pieces of the land back indoors, into galleries. In the case of "Floating Island," the displacement is all outdoors, an exploration of land and water, urban and rural, real and recreated, center and periphery. As a paean to Central Park, it can be seen as a kind of artificial model of an artificial model of nature.
On paper, it all looked great. But the task of building the island and making it seaworthy was another matter. Ms. Shamash enlisted the help of an adventurous engineer, Nat Oppenheimer, with whom she had previously worked on complex public art projects where official approvals can often be tricky.
"There's no building code and no one office that covers any of this kind of work," he explained at one project meeting, and then smiled. "But at the same time, usually at the last minute, someone shows up and says, 'Uh uh, you can't do that.' "
Diana Balmori, a landscape architect, signed on. Jon Rubin, a filmmaker and art world jack-of-all-trades who created another waterborne project called "Floating Cinema" in 1980, joined the team and started consulting tide tables and calling barge and tugboat companies. Ms. Holt, who fiercely guards Smithson's legacy, was consulted on almost every detail, down to questions about the color of paint for the railings on the tugboat (would white stand out too much?) and the choice of an all-important weeping willow tree, the only tree Smithson specified by name in his drawing.
The logistical dance that ensued in the following weeks at times resembled a cross between a heart transplant and the mounting of a Broadway musical. A barge yard had to be found in a location that would allow the unearthed trees, coming from a nursery in New Jersey, to be delivered quickly, to reduce wilting and damage. The trees had to be chosen very early on, because by late summer the selection at many nurseries would be slim. In the drawing Smithson specified that the trees should be common to the New York region, and long debates began over which types of trees were native and which weren't. (Interestingly, the weeping willow is not a New York native.)
Ms. Holt suggested finding shrubs that would attract birds, but Ms. Balmori was not optimistic that this would work. "The middle of the river is not the most popular place for birds," she said. At times, aesthetic considerations had to bow to practical ones: guide wires were planned as extra support for the trees, despite worries that they might be visible.
Then there was the question of the rocks. "We talked to a stone salesman, and he's found us a big stone," Mr. Balmori reported at one point, deadpanning. "We're not particularly happy with this stone." (The three rocks eventually were borrowed from Central Park, to which they will be returned; the trees will also be planted in Central Park after the island ends its run.)
By the first week of September, Ms. Holt had arrived in New York from her home in New Mexico, and all of the pieces started coming together at a barge yard on Staten Island, in sight of the Bayonne Bridge, where Smithson, a great lover of urban decay, would have felt right at home.
"He probably would have brought a sack with him and packed up some rocks," Ms. Holt said, looking around at the rusty maritime detritus scattered along the waterfront.
The first arrival was the blackish dirt, almost 50 tons of it, from a composting heap in Fairfield, N.J., and 18 tons of hay bales, which would be hidden underneath the dirt to provide bulk but less weight. Next the trees arrived - maple, beech, birch, bur oak, sycamore - and were plunked by crane onto the barge, their truncated roots wrapped in burlap and wire cages. A dogwood - later referred to by everyone as "the unfortunate dogwood" - arrived looking closer to firewood than living tree and had to be replaced. The willow, unfortunately, didn't look much better.
"Is it alive?" asked Ms. Holt, who arrived on the second day of construction, wielding a camera and a discerning eye, and began politely but firmly to demand changes.