By Dawn Watson
Looking like a modern-day interpretation of the 1940’s “We Can Do It!” wartime propaganda image, Swoon stands aboard “Old Hickory,” a boat made of trash that she and her crew are reconstructing in the middle of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.
The work is part of a trio of floating rafts that the street artist, whose name is Caledonia “Callie” Curry, and a group of 30 activist and artist friends used to crash the Venice Biennale in 2009. Standing roughly 20 feet tall, wide and high, the mixed media installation, the third in the “Swimming Cities of Serenissima,” comprises scavenged materials from the streets of Slovenia. The vessel and its counterparts—symbols of freedom and radical self-reliance meant to affect change—made quite a splash as they traveled the 60 miles across the Adriatic Sea from Slovenia into Venice, especially as they were not invited to the international art festival.
“Through action, you can move the perception,” Swoon has said of her reasons for creating the flotilla made of found materials and sailing it into one the world’s best known and oldest arts fairs. As such, her massive installation of “Old Hickory” at the Parrish is the perfect representation of the thought behind the far-reaching “Radical Seafaring” exhibit at the museum, which also includes works by: Bas Jan Ader, Ant Farm, Atelier Van Lieshout, Scott Bluedorn, George Brecht, Bruce High Quality Foundation, Chris Burden, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Steve Badgett and Chris Taylor, Michael Combs, Mark Dion, R. Buckminster Fuller, Cesar Harada, Constance Hockaday, Courtney M. Leonard, Mare Liberum, Marie Lorenz, Mary Mattingly, Vik Muniz, Dennis Oppenheim, The PLAY, Pedro Reyes, Duke Riley, Robert Smithson and Simon Starling.
Curated by Andrea Grover, the collection of water-based projects—including journeys, actions, experiments and performances—features artists who have created “offshore art” on the themes of Exploration, Liberation, Fieldwork and Speculation. Whether it be the quest for new experiences, self-reliance, methodological intelligence gathering or as tabula rasa on which other realities can be built, each work in the show is representative in some ways of waterborne exploration.
The wide-ranging exhibit—which took 10 years of thought and three of planning, reports Ms. Grover—makes use of three of the museum’s galleries and space on the museum’s center spine, and explores an almost incomprehensible variety and impressive scale of artwork, including sculptures, photographs, drawings, models, videos, audio recordings, artifacts and installations. “Radical Seafaring” includes works on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the LBJ Presidential Library.
Significant works on view include: images from Mattingly’s ecological installations, including her houseboat, “WetLand,” which will be docked offsite at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor for a few weeks in May; Dion’s “Cabinet of Marine Debris;” Jan Ader’s installation, “In Search of the Miraculous;” Starling’s large format projection, “Autoxylopyrocycloboros;” Fuller’s “Triton City Model;” Reyes’ “Floating Pyramid;” and Harada’s “Protei 010.9 Mini Cargo.” Other pieces of interest include a recreation of “Raft of the Medusa” by the Bruce High Quality Foundation; photo and video from Smithson’s posthumous performance, “Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island;” and work from three East End artists.
Mr. Bluedorn, who lives in East Hampton, has four pieces in the show, all ballpoint on paper—“Gardiner’s Island,” “North Brother Island,” “Plum Island” and “The Ruins.” The water has always been a great influencer in his art, he says.
“Growing up on the East End of Long Island and being surrounded by water on virtually all sides has had an indelible impact on my life and art making,” he says. “It is a continual source of inspiration.”
Mr. Combs’ sculpture, “Daisy Chain,” is also on view. The Greenport-based artist, a son of a bayman and environmental advocate since his Boy Scout days, made the 7½-foot-tall carved cedar and linden wood piece, which resembles horseshoe crabs linked together, as a site-specific work and statement about the condition of local waters.
“The nitrogen levels, you can literally see them increase by Tuesday or Wednesday after Memorial Day,” he says. “If I have the opportunity to use my voice and work as a vehicle for change, I will. I know that we’re not going to be able to fix things but we have an opportunity to at least make an impact.”
Ms. Leonard, a member of the Shinnecock Nation and former resident on the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship who has chronicled her life as a “contemporary whaler,” also addresses the environment in her art. Her “Breach,” glazed ceramic on wood pallet, is representative of the significance of marine life to indigenous peoples.
“Breach is a word with multiple definitions,” she says. “Breach of contract, breaching the surface … I got the idea for it when a whale washed up close to Calvin Klein’s property in 2005 and we were not allowed access to it. It made me wonder, ‘‘can a culture sustain itself when it no longer has access to the environment that fashions that culture?’”
The magnificent scope of the show, and the sheer volume of work included, is not just staggering, it’s actually representative of the increasing number of works being created on and about the water, says Ms. Grover, who is the Century Arts Foundation Curator of Special Projects at the Parrish. And at the end of the day, the ambitious exhibit aims not just to entertain, but also to inform and impact as well.
“The ‘offshore art’ projects in “Radical Seafaring” represent a new form of expression that is especially powerful and timely as climatologists anticipate the effects of rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, and the impact on coastal zones—especially when one considers that half the world’s population live within 200 miles of a sea coast,” she says. “It’s a major event for me. I hope it’s well received.”