WATER MILL, NY — On the same day the Apollo 11 Lunar Module touched down on the Moon, an art collective in Japan was rowing on a giant white arrow down the rivers between Kyoto and Osaka. The PLAY’s July 20, 1969, action was both an act of absurdist performance that followed the group’s failed 1968 attempt to float a fiberglass egg to the United States, and a comment on territorial expansion, something which continues to be a point of contention on our waterways. Yet our oceans, lakes, and rivers are also often less regulated and more free for expression than the land, which has made them an important venue for art over the past 50 years.
Radical Seafaring at the Parrish Art Museum is the first museum survey devoted to boat-based art, stretching from the 1960s to contemporary expeditions like Swoon’s Swimming Cities rafts that arrived as uninvited guests at the 2009 Venice Biennale. One of those three vessels, called “Hickory,” is the monumental centerpiece of Radical Seafaring, with its 20-foot-tall colorful assemblage of found wood. It acts as a tactile anchor to an exhibition that includes around 50 works, both realized and conceptual.
Curator Andrea Grover of the Parrish Art Museum states in the exhibition catalogue that over the past half-century, our connection to the water has experienced a “radical metamorphosis.” The water is no longer an everyday part of our transportation, and even in places surrounded by it like New York City, urban life has turned away from the shores. However, climate change, pollution, and increased development make an acknowledgment of the water vital. Grover writes:
The phenomenological works in Radical Seafaring represent a new form of expression that is particularly powerful and timely as climatologists anticipate changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels, and impacts on coastal zones — especially when one considers that half the world’s population lives within two hundred miles of a seacoast. The artists featured here figure prominently at the center of a universal yet contemporary question: How do we live in a natural world from which we are detached not only physically but also emotionally and intellectually? These artists apply direct-engagement strategies that remove this distance and reignite a sensual, heuristic, and watchful understanding of the water
The exhibition occupies one large gallery with an adjoining hallway and smaller spaces for videos, the nautical-themed work harmonizing with the ship-like ceiling beams of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed museum. Mary Mattingly’s “WetLand” watercraft, designed to be a sustainable environment with gardens and solar panels, was docked in conjunction with the exhibition in Sag Harbor until recently (Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon paid it a visit).
The vessel, with its shambly exterior of rough wood, was mostly neighbored by Long Island yachts. But just up the street a whaling museum — its entrance framed by whale bones — and a weather-worn cemetery populated with departed whaling captains are reminders that this area was once economically dependent on the ocean. At the Parrish, a wooden pallet is heaped with iridescent sperm whale teeth formed from clay by Courtney M. Leonard. A member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation — which has long been based on Long Island — Leonard offers another perspective on the history of whaling, underlining how quickly it took its toll on the whale populations, reducing the huge animals to scraps of bone and fuel.
While the environment isn’t central to all the work, it is a necessary collaborator, as that timeless ripple and wave of the water’s surface is a fixture in each piece. As is its danger. The metallic front of the catalogue has artist Bas Jan Ader in silhouette, as captured in the last photographs taken at the beginning of his 1975 attempt to sail from Cape Cod across the North Atlantic. He was never seen again, his sailboat later found empty off the coast of Ireland. Sea shanties recorded before his departure play in the gallery alongside eerie relics from his trip, while in the next room is a more deliberate catastrophe with Simon Starling’s 2006 “Autoxylopyrocycloboros.” Relayed through 38 slides, the four-hour performance had the artist breaking and sawing his steamboat into pieces for the firebox, until it sinks into the dark surface of the Loch Long in Scotland.
Overall, though, there’s a feeling of optimism for the possibilities of the water, such as Pedro Reyes’s “The Floating Pyramid” (2004), which offered a gathering spot reached by swimming in Puerto Rico, and Buckminster Fuller’s unrealized “Triton City” from 1968, a floating community initially designed for Tokyo Bay, complete with a tiny Isamu Noguchi playscape and Alexander Calder sculpture embedded in its modular spaces. There’s also an emphasis on the water as a place for renegades to slip between overdeveloped urban landscapes, like Marie Lorenz’s “Tide and Current Taxi,” which has been traveling since 2005 on overlooked New York City waterways, or Duke Riley’s imaginative 2007 reconstruction of an American Revolution-era submarine that he sailed within 200 feet of the enormous Queen Mary 2 cruise ship in Red Hook.
Between Lorenz’s upcoming trip down the Erie Canal with the Everson Museum, this month’s DIY boatbuilding-based Battle for Mau Mau Island in New York, and Mattingly’s floating community food forest launching later this summer, 2016 has often felt like like the year of the art boat. If you don’t have a vessel to join in, the Mare Liberum collective has open source designs for punts to print and build on your own. Radical Seafaring casts a broad net in examining artists’ recent explorations of bodies of water of all sorts and sizes, but it emphasizes how these maritime ventures are opportunities for community, intervention, and optimistic proposals for a watery future.