New York

“Art on the Beach”

Battery Park Landfill

It is hard not to be favorably predisposed to an “Art on the Beach” installation. On an urban island that is being stretched and inflated beyond judiciousness, the site is a magnificent aberration. One can stand at water’s edge in the sandy Battery Park Landfill and feel the rejuvenative force of sky meeting river on one side and the madness materialized of Manhattan’s distorted skyline on the other. Most of the eight installations here seemed to have been inspired by these rare circumstances.

The entrance to this year’s “Art on the Beach” was skillfully designed by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. Using strong materials’ and a Spartan vocabulary, they constructed a quietly festive, gutsy, elegant orientation to the site. Great care was taken that the gateway forge an identity, yet it also remained simply a membrane which generously deferred to the open sand and installation works beyond. Each of these works involved the collaboration of an architect, a visual artist, and a performing artist; many of them dealt with sociopolitical themes, many with ritual. The proximity of the primitive to Wall Street seemed to put primal forces and contemporary avarice in direct confrontation.

Dead End, by Mac Adams, Henry Smith-Miller, and Peter Gordon, worked explicitly with the materials and innuendos of the sandy landfill. An acrid-green Ford Pinto was abandoned in a trench; beyond the car a flimsy retaining wall of wooden planks held back an avalanche of sand. Insubstantial clues sketched in more details of this sinister geography: the car had “I Love NY” and “No Nukes” bumper stickers, and the backseat held chemists’ flasks, scientific instruments, and newspaper clippings about dioxin trials, bass in the Hudson River, and corruption investigations. The mountain of sand seemed precariously propped up, and one sensed that before the clues could be deciphered they would suffer a cover-up.

Erika Rothenberg, Laurie Hawkinson, and John Malpede were the collaborators on Freedom of Expression National Monument. An enormous red megaphone was raised on a platform above the sand and aimed directly at the World Trade Center. The megaphone could be reached by a steeply inclined ramp, and everybody was encouraged suggest to speak through it, forthrightly and loudIy. The Happy Hour, by Kate Ericson, Juergen Riehm, and Ellen Fisher, captured the northwest corner of the site, covering it with a brilliant green carpet—the stage for a performance something to do with pirates who disembarked to make merry. Here the artistic and architectural concept deferred to a performance dimension, but without sacrificing impact: the huge green plane was a bizarre minimal intervention, its illusion of tropical fecundity an irresistible magnet.

In the wide-open space of the landfill, “Art on the Beach” framed another vision of New York and proved the incalculable and diverse results of collective invention. In these collaborations all participants were equal; the architects did not have the upper hand so often confirmed by the scale and function of their work. The challenge for all collaborators was to agree on an idea and then to orchestrate the energies of three artists to focus rather than diffuse the concept. I have discussed just a few of the results, but all were worth seeing and thinking about.

Patricia C. Phillips