The United States spends billions of dollars on a balloon surveillance system on the Florida Straits waters as part of its Trading with the Enemy Act against Cuba, the only country currently under the restriction. Yet as Brooklyn-based artist Duke Riley states in his video for a recent project: “As it turns out, homing pigeons cannot be identified by surveillance balloons nor can they be prosecuted for smuggling cigars.”
With this knowledge in mind, Riley spent four years researching and then eight months training 50 pigeons for missions to travel from Cuba and bring back cigars, or film their journey. Of the 23 that set out for the 90-mile trip across the ocean to their Key West coop, only 11 returned. Their journey is relayed through art, videos, artifacts, and even the “pigeon loft” itself with its feathery residents in Riley’s solo show See You at the Finish Line at Magnan Metz Gallery in Chelsea.
The exhibition opened last month and was heralded by wheat-paste posters you might have spied around the city that show a small flock of pigeons trailing banners to announce the show, tears streaking out of their eyes. Perhaps it is for their lost comrades in the quixotic, seemingly impossible journey. But a lot of Riley’s work deals with the impossible. Despite the fact the “artist-patriot” — as his website proclaims — maybe has the widest reach with his tattoo work, it’s really his projects like the naval battle in the World’s Fair reflecting pool at the Queens Museum or his Revolution-era “Turtle” submarine that accosted the Queen Mary 2 in the New York harbor that are the most enduring, permanence of ink on skin aside.
Earlier this year I visited his temporary speakeasy in Greenpoint and a pigeon was fluttering around among the curios lodged around the ceiling. At the time I thought it was someone’s eccentric pet, but perhaps it was something more.
Some of the successful pigeon smugglers from Riley’s Trading With the Enemy project are also on display at the Magnan Metz exhibition, surrounded by their accoutrements like the little colorful harnesses that held cigars or cameras that captured shaky views of their journeys, flight footage videos playing on the walls, the cigars themselves now encased in resin (a bit of a waste, some might say), and portraits of each of the birds.
The exhibition unfortunately is light on the details in the installation itself and you have to read the accompanying text to find out what all the objects mean for the project, which is too bad as the initial impression of the shell-mosaic portraits of pigeons with their colorful coop can seem a little precious without the impressive back story. The back gallery of the exhibition is devoted to a separate 2012 project — The Rematch — where Riley staged a “rematch” of the Chinese Zodiac animals via gondolas to give some fairness to the race that the rat, as the story goes, cheated at. The masks on view as well as Riley’s sprawling illustrations are impressive, but I couldn’t help but feeling like the pigeon project had an emotion behind it that could have commanded the whole gallery and given it more space to spread its wings.
The camera-carrying pigeons were named for film directors who have had their trouble with the law — Mel Gibson, for example, a pigeon who sadly “died of disease” and Cannibal Holocaust-creator Ruggero Deodato, the named pigeon having woefully nose-dived into the Havana Harbor — and smugglers from history — such as opium smuggler John Jacob Astor, the pigeon version of whom was lost in a storm, and pirate Jean Lafitte, whose pigeon namesake was killed by a hawk. It wasn’t all loss for the birds, but it does show how harrowing the life of a homing pigeon can be.
One of my favorite stories of World War I is the pigeon Cher Ami who battled through being shot down, taking a bullet in the chest, with another nearly blowing off her leg, and yet she still made it across to the American battalion to deliver the message that some of their own soldiers were being attacked by a friendly-fire artillery barrage. The little wounded bird was celebrated as a hero and honored with medals and is now preserved in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. There’s something deeply admirable and brave about the pigeons, even if they are just doing what they were trained to do, the beauty of which gets lost in memory as pigeons are now seen as more of a pest. There’s been a long history of pigeon-relayed messages between Havana and Key West, as Riley notes in the exhibition, bringing both messages of disaster and news, and through his project some of that avian pride is resurrected.
Duke Riley’s See You at the Finish Line is at Magnan Metz Gallery (521 West 26th Street, Chelsea) through January 11, 2014.