The Rockaway Peninsula, often called simply the Rockaways, is a remarkable part of New York. This narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay features dense urban neighborhoods, expansive beaches, a fragile coastal ecosystem and, of course, the magnificent ocean. Throngs flock there in the summertime, although I am also a big fan of comparatively empty autumn and early spring visits.
At Jacob Riis Park, quite a summer scene has developed, with a locavore food pavilion, taco truck, good pizza, cold beer, and beachfront music. People from all walks of life enjoy these beaches: families, hipsters, frolicking kids, seniors, LGBTQ couples, of every race, nationality, and economic status. Right here is the inclusive, welcoming, democratic crowd that Walt Whitman envisioned when he ecstatically wrote, in “Song of Myself,” “I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of democracy.”
On one of my visits last year, dolphins in a sizable pod were cavorting beyond the breakers where surfers and boogie boarders congregate. A few weeks ago, a big section of the beach was off limits. Piping plover chicks had hatched and they needed to be protected. In the Rockaways, you can have an immersive and enthralling nature experience smack dab in (or rather at the outermost fringe of) one of the most congested cities in the world.
This area was also devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and despite extensive recovery and preservation efforts it will no doubt be subject to extreme weather in the future, generated by global warming. Like many coastal areas throughout the world, the Rockaways are on the front lines of climate change, and are gravely affected by climate change denial, the blithe and idiotic policy of the Trump administration.
My most recent visit to the Rockaways was to experience Yayoi Kusama’s magnificent Narcissus Garden (1966-present) in a still intact if ramshackle former train repair facility, dating to the time when Fort Tilden, now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, was still an active military installation. Kusama, now 89 years old and one of the most in-demand artists anywhere (although this was hardly the case for years and years), has installed 1,500 mirrored stainless steel spheres on the floor of this vulnerable building, one of many structures in the area walloped by Hurricane Sandy. They gleam, and glint, mesmerizing and even magical. Reflective to the extreme, they show your image but also everything else, including other visitors, the vicissitudes of daylight, the surrounding architecture, and bits of the sky, which is visible through holes in the roof.
These spheres were installed with precision, but they also feel playful, as if a child had scattered giant-size marbles throughout the space. This is a spectacular, but also quiescent and meditative, installation. You can walk gingerly, even reverentially, among the spheres, or you can gaze at them, entranced, from afar. The combination of a sprawling, yet also delicate and subtle, art installation; a historic yet now largely ruined building; and the powerful ocean is altogether compelling.
Kusama’s installation is a revamped version of a guerrilla action she undertook in 1966, likewise titled Narcissus Garden. Without invitation or permission, she installed silver, highly reflective plastic spheres outside the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and stood among them throughout the exhibition’s opening period, barefoot and dressed in a gold kimono, while offering individual spheres for sale to viewers at the price of 1200 lira (about $2).
As frequent visitors to the Venice Biennale well know, there are always uninvited artists vying for attention during the opening days, dressed in attention-grabbing clothing, performing, and mounting various DIY exhibitions. Kusama, who is again one of the most lauded artists of this era, was one of those more or less anonymous artists in 1966. While she was beginning to make a name for herself in New York, where she lived at the time, most visitors in Venice would have known nothing of her.
With yard signs announcing “Narcissus Garden, Kusama” her work was on one level an act of brazen self-promotion, but on another, with an additional sign reading “Your Narcissism for Sale,” it was also a raid on the commodification of art and the dandification of the art world, although it went much further than that. It would be a very safe bet to assume that the 1966 Venice Biennale was overwhelmingly male, and that not many Asian artists were exhibited. Kusama, ostentatiously female and Japanese, demanded attention and refused to accept the biases and power structures that precluded artists like her.
This unauthorized and courageous art action was also hugely cathartic for Kusama, paving the way for other unauthorized and at times controversial events that she would subsequently stage, including the anti-Vietnam War Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street (1968), featuring naked female and male participants outside the New York Stock Exchange, and Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead (1969), in which she painted polka dots on participants’ naked bodies in the sculpture garden at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Kusama’s new work, which will be on view until September 3, is the flagship project of the third version of Rockaway!, billed as a “free public art festival” on the press release, but that word “festival” doesn’t really fit. This isn’t quite a festival but instead an intermittent exhibition held in way-off-the-beaten-path locations. Since 2014, select artworks by renowned, big-name artists have been exhibited in conjunction with works by local artists, and the Rockaways has a scrappy and flourishing art scene (the Rockaways Artists Alliance is one of the partner organizations for Rockaway!). Part-time Rockaways resident Klaus Biesenbach, who is also Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at MoMA, conceived this exhibition as a way of focusing attention on the Rockaways, celebrating the community’s ongoing efforts to emerge from a disaster, and also underscoring how imperative it is to address global warming and its dire effects.
The first exhibition included an installation by Patti Smith (who is also a Rockaways resident). In the same building that now houses Kusama’s installation, Smith exhibited a gilded bed with arching and ethereal white linens which called haunting attention to the cherished possessions lost by residents during the storm (Resilience of the Dreamer, 2014). Exhibited as well were Canadian Janet Cardiff’s equally haunting “The Forty Part Motet” (2001), in which 40 high-fidelity loudspeakers emit the separately recorded voices of a choir performing English composer Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century motet “Spem in Alium.” Sculptures by Argentine Adrián Villar Rojas based on the unusual nests of the Hornero, a tiny South American bird, were also on display. The second iteration (Rockaway!, 2016), featured German Katharina Grosse’s vibrant red, bright white, and magenta spray-painted installation on and around a former aquatics building at Fort Tilden, which was largely ruined by the hurricane and slated for demolition. Now Kusama has come to the Rockaways, and her installation really should not be missed.
This new incarnation of Narcissus Garden has decidedly different implications than the original, and not just because plastic spheres have been replaced by stainless steel ones. Kusama’s installation connects with a broad reach of Rockaways history, as well as with the impact of climate change on the area. Her spheres seem a bit like machine parts, and maybe also, more ominously, like armaments, pointing to Fort Tilden’s military past. The sheer wow factor of this installation — its status as a thrilling beachside attraction — connects with the resort and entertainment culture that flourished in the Rockaways for decades, including the once renowned amusement park Rockaways’ Playland, which opened in 1901 and drew gazillions of visitors before it closed in 1985 and was torn down to be replaced by condominiums.
Most importantly, in this airy and rickety building at the edge of the ocean where outside and inside converge, Kusama’s installation is based on a confluence of humans and nature. While you are enthralled by her artwork, you are also aware of the context: you hear the surging ocean outside and see sunlight pouring in, while bearing witness to the direct evidence of a hurricane’s destructive force. The experience is in part harrowing, and also frankly sublime. Kusama’s bold transformation of this precarious site also connects with the resilience of Rockaways residents and supporters, alongside National Parks employees, who are striving to preserve and maintain their communities and environment.
Narcissus Garden, presented by MoMA PS1, continues at Gateway National Recreation Area, Fort Tilden, New York, through September 3.