New York

Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe

A repository of vague memories and unrelated activities, the still majestic Battery Maritime Building not only provides offices for several New York City agencies, housing for stray cats, and a berth for the Governor’s Island Ferry, it serves as the site for Martha Fleming and Lyne LaPointe’s month-long installation entitled The Wilds and the Deep.

The anxious process of describing and categorizing the past is the central theme of the installation; in response to the active but deteriorated building and the nautical and social history of the harbor location, the artists explore the complex and seldom disinterested practices of classification, and the alterability of the relic.

Fleming and LaPointe’s interventions were modest, fleeting, almost ethereal; they chose to quietly exploit events rather than aggressively dominate the space. They did not battle the building with art of size and scale, instead Fleming and LaPointe scattered miscellanea collected over the years—paintings, drawings, plantings, inscriptions, small cabinets, and screens—around the site. They also incorporated relics found on the site; an old chair from the Ellis Island immigration center figured prominently in various vignettes on the second level of the building. A wrinkled, petrified rat was suspended in a halo of air framed by a cut in a green sail fastened to a wall.

The artists embraced both the building’s uncompromised structural system and its infirmities caused by age and exposure. The green metal elevations facing the water are discolored and misshapen, and the artists speckled the building’s surfaces with paintings, sundry objects, and a small mosaic. On the tops of rotting ferry slip pilings that extend into the harbor, they planted small gardens on one side and placed welded steel crowns and headdresses on the other. On a crumbling peninsula of pilework and boardwalk, they constructed a wooden dinosaur skeleton virtually camouflaged by the craggy surroundings. A corner cabinet on the second level of the building, was filled with natural curios—skulls, petrified brains, fossils, coral, teeth, and bone fragments. Across from the cabinets a candle-lit chandelier was suspended in front of a tall wall of branches and “leaves” from issues of Le Petit Journal, a Paris publication dedicated to France and Belgium’s colonization of Africa. The installation functioned as an exposure of the site, a disclosure of old secrets.

The past is a presence, but getting to it is a rough voyage. Curios, relics, and specimens are the devices with which people keep memories fresh in their minds, but the act of possession inevitably deforms the vision. The delicate preciousness of the installation suggested the fragile, manipulable quality of pastness, as well as the hard fact that what is desired is often gained through oppressive force and foul pretext.

In a final, aggressive gesture, Fleming and LaPointe placed an enormous drawing of the below-deck plan of a 19th-century slave ship on the roof of the Battery Maritime Building. The simple, familiar contours of the vessel entombed a human booty—a freight of men, women, and children acquired and distributed like any other collection. The bold image was most clearly seen from adjacent corporate towers, helicopters, and low-flying planes. If we choose to show off the past—and clearly we do—then the display must include inglorious opportunism as well as fabulous relics.

Patricia C. Phillips