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Everything looks different from the water — even an art fair. Sitting in Marie Lorenz’s rowboat yesterday evening, gliding along the edge of Randall’s Island, the curving white tent that houses Frieze New York seemed distant and innocuous. No trace of the labor disputes that have plagued the fair or the overpriced food and art on offer inside. The elegant white structure could have been housing a wedding. As it was, visitors trekking up and down the path that leads from the fair to the Frieze ferry dock were waving cheerfully at us as we paddled by.
Since 2005, artist Marie Lorenz has been running a Tide and Current Taxi for a few weeks every summer. The taxi is a small, shallow, and smooth brown rowboat that Lorenz built herself out of fiberglass over a plywood frame; she describes it — her fourth in a line of handmade taxi boats — as “a little tippier than the last one” but well-suited for bobbing on the waves frequently unleashed by larger passing vessels. Powered by her arms and oars (and your help), Lorenz will take you for a ride in pretty much any water around New York City that you might want to visit. She has rowed in the Bronx and Harlem Rivers; around almost the entire circumference of Barren Island, a small land mass in Jamaica Bay; and in the Gowanus Canal after three days of heavy rain, which meant paddling over the bodies of dead rats and cockroaches.
Currently, Lorenz is “obsessed” with the waterways between New Jersey and and Staten Island, she told me. When I asked if there’s anywhere she hasn’t yet gone in New York City, she thought for a minute before offering the southern tip of Staten Island.
“I want to go everywhere,” she said, “not just in New York.”
For the next three and a half days, however, she will be confined to the water around Randall’s Island, as she parks her Tide and Current Taxi at Frieze New York, part of the Frieze Projects program. On the island, she’s set up a simple wooden dispatcher’s stand (which she also built herself) just outside the northern entrance to Frieze. There, visitors can watch a livestream of the rides in progress, look at a tide map of the surrounding area, and sign up for a ride of their own, which lasts anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes.
Wearing a life vest and comically oversized galoshes provided by Lorenz, I set off for the boat with another passenger, artist Daniel Rich. The craft is parked innocuously along the western edge of the island, banked on a mini-beach bordered by rocks. We settled in quickly — Rich had been out in the taxi once before, during Lorenz’s first summer — and pushed off without effort, making our way north along the island’s edge.
With the two of them rowing and myself planted in the middle seat, I was free to take pictures and marvel at my new relationship to my surroundings. It wasn’t just that we were floating on the East River, which in and of itself is rare if you’re not a frequent user of the East River Ferry; it was also that we were floating in a boat so small, with barely a barrier between us and the water. We were tiny figures in a vast industrial landscape.
Asked about her connection to the water, Lorenz spoke about her father, who sailed, canoed, and kayaked all through her childhood, as well as her time in school in Providence, Rhode Island, when the city’s downtown district was being renovated. “I started building boats to navigate into these underground tunnels,” she said. “I’m interested in places where city and water mix together. It tells you a lot about a city, especially in places where people aren’t used to being in small boats.”
We weren’t the only small creatures around; as we neared the northern tip of Randall’s Island, the calls of birds replaced the roar of the FDR drive. The landscape was hardly a paradise — ugly fencing ran along the coastline to our right, breaking for a kind of NYPD boat parking lot, and on our left we passed large apartment buildings and rows of rusting shipping containers. But there was something undeniably peaceful about the ride; after hours in a crucible of attention-seeking art, the indifference of the smoky gray sky, swampy green river, and scrappy flora was a relief.
I know that stretch of river relatively well, having lived in East Harlem for four years and spent hours riding the East River bike path. But I had never experienced it that way — from within, dependent on the water’s whims. Lorenz’s Tide and Current Taxi shifted my perspective, and if there’s anything you need after a day at an art fair, it’s that.
Marie Lorenz’s Tide and Current Taxi continues through May 12 as part of Frieze New York 2014 on Randall’s Island.