Last weekend Rockaway Beach’s Fort Tilden opened its gates to a crowd of art connoisseurs, local creatives, and bronzed beach goers for a day of art and activism supporting Rockaway Beach. The Rockaway Artists Alliance and the National Parks Service hosted the hordes of art lovers who came to witness the opening of the site specific art installations (on view through September 1st), a free open-air performance by rock legend Patti Smith, and a Walt Whitman poetry reading by hipster heartthrob, James Franco.
Curated by MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach in collaboration with photographer/musician and long time Rockaway resident Patti Smith, the exhibition—appropriately titled Rockaway!—is an effort to support the victims of Hurricane Sandy and the artists who live and work in the community year-round. Smith, along with artists Janet Cardiff and Adrian Villar Rojas, installed site-specific artworks into the newly restored landscape in the most culturally sensitive and artfully impactful ways while the Rockaway Artists Alliance took the opportunity to host a day of family friendly activities and workshops.
Smith, who has been making art since the 1960s, took over two of the repurposed art galleries for a site-specific installation and an exhibition of her photography, which reaches back more than fifty years. The 107 black and white photographs, titled Resilience of the Dreamer showcases the artist's career through her travels, relationships, and inspirations. The series begins with a collection of personified portraits like the typewriter of Herman Hesse, the paint brushes of Duncan Grant, the corset of Frida Kahlo. The works seem to credit the most influential characters in her life by anthropomorphizing the most powerful tools of their physical and creative expression.
The exhibition continues in an adjacent building by way of a humble sculpture garden featuring the repurposed remnants of domestic objects displaced by Hurricane Sandy. The recycled path winds towards a dilapidated building formerly used as a locomotive repair facility that houses piles of damaged and discarded emphemera, re-contextualized graffiti, and a bed frame inserted into the middle of the exhibition’s floor plan. The gilded bed frame sits slightly raised above the ground on a white platform, painted gold and draped in soft white curtains that billow with each gust of sea breeze. According to the work’s description, the sculpture is to remain in place and decay over time, referencing the instability of time and the impact of Hurricane Sandy on both the families and homes of its victims.
The other stand out installation is Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Piece Motet, installed appropriately in the Fort Tilden Chapel. The chapel, which was severely damaged in the storm, was restored to host the exhibition of Cardiff’s forty audio speakers organized in a circle around the building’s interior. The speakers are raised on simple metal poles to stand at average human height, each one carrying the voice of one choral member. The auditory piece is a reworking of a sacred sixteenth century motet created by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis, and most commonly believed to be composed for Queen Elizabeth I’s 40th birthday in 1573. The eleven-minute piece is played on a continuous loop and is so awe inspiring that most members of the audience stood motionless for the piece’s duration with eyes closed and ears pressed against a favored speaker. With voices so rich and a sound so melodically unified, their presentation as digital audio tracks is almost forgotten as one’s ear recognizes the corporeality and weight of their choral harmony.
The final installation is Adrian Villar Rojas' homage to the Hornero, an iconic bird of Argentina known for building its nests out of found materials. The installation, entitled From the Series Brick Farm, features synthetically created birds’ nests that Rojas made by hand using mud, straw, grass, and clay—a credit to the power of perseverance and ingenuity. By incorporating the natural architecture and materials of the landscape, Rojas makes a direct connection to the power and impact of geography on the lived environment. The nests, which are scattered throughout the grounds, also serve as a reference to the former use of Fort Tilden as a military base whose ward was to provide protection against potential aerial and nautical attacks.
The day concluded with an evening as impactful as the art it supported. Actor/artist James Franco recited a selection of Walt Whitman poems with assistance from Smith, who wrapped up the evening with a free outdoor concert of her most beloved songs. The duo was introduced by a host of arts supporters and cultural program coordinators without whom the day and exhibition would not have been possible. Their speeches were remarkably humble and heartwarming, reminding us that devastation can happen at any time and when it does, we should all be so lucky to have the friends and family that a close knit community like the Rockaways can enable. With the dollars from corporate sponsors and the hearts of the 500+ volunteers that helped restore the coastline, Rockaway Beach is positioned to become an even stronger residential community and a more relevant arts district than ever before.
(All images: Courtesy of MoMA PS1)