The circular sandstone fort of Castle Williams has had numerous identities since it was completed on Governors Island in 1811, from New York City harbor defense to Civil War barracks to military prison. Now, for the first time on its second-level casemates, it’s hosting art as part of the ninth annual Governors Island Art Fair, which opens this weekend and continues through September.
There have been previous artistic interventions at Castle Williams, such as a boulder-shaped sound piece by Peter Fischli and David Weiss in last year’s Visitors exhibition, but this is the inaugural installation of art in the second-floor cells. Their arches, brick walls, and vistas of the New York Harbor and Manhattan skyline create an unconventional setting for work like Alisha Wessler’s floor of hand-carved honey locust thorns; a splayed, rotting banana person playfully sculpted by Charlie Cunningham; a glowing portal by Chaney Trotter; and other installations. These make up just part of the 100-artist fair organized by the nonprofit 4heads in partnership with the Trust for Governors Island and the National Park Service; more artwork sprawls throughout the historic homes on Colonels’ Row and the subterranean tunnels of Fort Jay.
“It’s always pretty unexpected what our final product is going to be,” Antony Zito, one of the founders of 4heads, told Hyperallergic at the fair preview, noting that once the group selects artists, they’re mostly free to experiment and respond to the spaces. “We present something that’s pretty organic, and we do go after the unknowns and stuff that’s often overlooked and underrepresented.”
As an organization that says it’s “run by artists for artists,” 4heads is also interested in forming a community. This means artists often attend their own rooms during the fair, and about 20% of the participants this year are returning from the last edition. “It’s a pretty scrappy bunch,” Zito added, and it’s true — you won’t find a lot of high-tech work or Oculus Rift VR experiences. The feeling is more of artists working with what they have, and that includes the peeling paint and stately architecture of the old homes on Governors Island.
While any fair with such a long artist list isn’t going to have a neat, cohesive theme, I did notice a lot of remixing and recycling. Colorful, discarded plastic that’s been collected and formed into cascades by Niki Lederer tumbles out of one house, while Aleksandr Razin is showing a colossal outdoor sculpture built from discarded auto parts. Some of the recycling is more conceptual, such as Netta Laufer’s stills and video of wildlife along the West Bank separation fence; the dogs, boars, and foxes were captured on Israeli army surveillance cameras. Kumasi J. Barnett fills a room with augmented comic books, in which Marvel volumes have been painted over with narratives like the lives and deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
It should be noted that at the preview, not all of the art was fully installed, and some of the video works had yet to be turned on. So, the images below are only a glimpse of what’s on view. Which is just as well: the enduring joy of the Governors Island Art Fair is the sense of discovery it offers the visitor, whether you’re traveling down a tunnel to a pulsing video installation by Wiley Aker or tentatively touching Olivia Taylor’s bruises, tattoos, and veins on silicone-made faux skin.
The 2016 Governors Island Art Fair continues every weekend in September in Colonels’ Row, Fort Jay, and Castle Williams on Governors Island (New York Harbor).