STONE RIDGE, N.Y. — Michael Asbill, a socially engaged installation and public artist working in the Hudson Valley, has built “RAFT,” a shanty-like shipwrecked vessel of last resort made entirely of flood debris foraged from the local banks of the Hudson River watershed. On view at the Muroff Kotler Gallery in lush Stone Ridge, it is an impractical, landlocked craft that points to the tension between ecological disaster and recreation. Get on board, and you’ll see.
“RAFT” is a constructed relic, an odd, stable and utterly make-shift, golf-cartey, yachtey site-specific structure hand built by Asbill, a Kansas-born Noah who’d not received directions, nor a CAD blue print. This is Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1818–19) come alive in flotsam: wood, tires, siding, cushions, furniture, a barstool as a captain’s chair, though when I visited the show art students at the adjoining college came aboard to draw each other in and out of drawing classes. The drama class will use “RAFT” as their stage set for their production. This is a raft as playhouse, for public use and abuse, lined and filled with river-run trash like so many nails to make and remake Theseus’ ship, to captain to nowhere.
Asbill’s practice flourishes in the nexus between sculpture, architecture and what I can only describe as investigative-reconstructive carpentry. “RAFT” is inspired by Asbill’s explorations of fishermen’s activity in popular fishing holes around the Wallkill River, a tributary of the Hudson, near the historic, post-industrial (now artsy) city of Kingston. The dam that molds the river turns up the river water, and the contaminated food that schools and systems of fish, small to large, live on. Large pollutant-contaminated fish eat smaller pollutant-contaminated fish and they gather at the same eddies where flood debris gather, fishermen gather to fish and to help the day go by they occupy themselves with building small structures.
The fishermen who gather there are not the expensive gear wearing, hip wader, catch and release leisure-class fisherman types you see in Robert Redford movies. The folks there are fishing for their meal. Many of them are fishing on the river bottom for carp and catfish and, of course, carp and catfish are some of the most toxin-laden fish out there. The New York State Department of Health has an advisory out against the local carp and cat fish. That advisory reads loud and clear: DON’T EAT. (The fish contain PCBs.)
Recent reporting shows high levels of fecal matter in the Wallkill in Ulster County, New Paltz to Kingston: “The Environmental Protection Agency asks beach managers to declare an official beach closure when a test shows 60 units of Enterococci per 100 milliliters. Riverkeeper’s two tests in 2013 found that the Wallkill had at least 40 times that level of pollution.” This fish isn’t suitable for human touch much less human appetites. But that’s the world out there for far too many people in the blue and green Hudson Valley.
Now, in conversation, Asbill hesitated to narrate too much of all this. He prefers that “RAFT” not be laden with the heavy social-environmental politics at work here. This piece can be easily written off as about inequality; about those who have little and those who have a bit more and those who get to play around in certain places with art about all that. But what inspired Asbill isn’t so much that people just getting by are eating contaminated fish, or that the state’s role now seems to only require that it print advisories only available online; available that is, only to those for whom the advisory might not be particularly important. Rather, Asbill is interested in the ways fishermen construct spaces for leisure in the midst of hard activity.
I’ve seen those makeshift campsites by the river. They serve to protect; they’re fish-cleaning sites, beering sites, put up from whatever debris was available. These camps go up and come apart with spectacular frequency, rebuilt, and replenished after each storm, when the fish are plentiful and so is the debris.
No, Asbill isn’t interested in preaching. If he were, “RAFT” would float. What good would it do to take it out to the river, but to demonstrate the somewhat obnoxious fact that flotsam taken together doesn’t float? No, he wants you to come out to play in your own sunken pirate ship.
Still, Asbill told me that he recently found washed up on the Wallkill’s shoreline a five-gallon bucket of something that sheened and slicked like transmission fluid. The bucket was cracked and had been leaking into the water. Right next to it, he found the artifacts of a day’s fishing.
Michael Asbill’s “RAFT” is on display at the Muroff Kotler Visual Arts Gallery at SUNY Ulster (491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge, New York) through September 27.
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