Even for an artist who takes chances, Duke Riley’s Aug. 13 performance event in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, N.Y., was a risky one, involving flames, fireworks and dozens of combatants manning homemade reed boats in a mock naval battle. The artist invited chaos, and chaos certainly attended.
But there was more to come. About a month after the event, several additional actors took to the stage. While constructing the reed boats, Riley had occupied a defunct skating rink that was soon to be demolished to make way for an expansion at the Queens Museum of Art. Remains of the boats from the August battle, destined for an installation in the museum’s upcoming solo show of Riley’s work, were stored in a corner of the rink. When the demolition crew showed up a little early, they mistook the battered crafts for trash—and discarded them. Thus Riley took his place among contemporary artists whose works have fallen prey to uninitiated workmen. For example, Marc Quinn’s self-portrait sculpture in his own frozen blood is rumored to have melted in Charles Saatchi’s kitchen in 2005 when a contractor unplugged the freezer. The way things went down in Queens seemed to indicate that once disorder is folded into the mix, things truly do get disorderly.
Back to August, when hundreds of toga-clad lovers of art and spectacle converged on Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on a hot night to witness a scene of barely controlled anarchy. Costumed as warriors, combatants did battle in reed boats, with the help of an eagerly participating audience, turning a reflecting pool into a sopping bedlam of flung tomatoes, shredded vessels, loud rock music and ecstatic screams. The performance, Those About to Die Salute You, was the brainchild of the Boston-born, Brooklyn-based Riley, who presided in the guise of a Roman emperor.
In recent years, the 38-year-old artist has become known for artworks and actions, including performances and illegal parties, that take place at urban waterfronts and on the rivers of New York City. The August free-for-all was modeled after the historical spectacle called a naumachia, a mock naval battle of the sort first staged by Julius Caesar in Rome over 2,000 years ago. According to ancient sources, the inaugural naumachia involved combatants who were made to fight to the death in boats set in a basin dug near the Tiber.1 Many more naumachiae followed, of varying degrees of deadliness and set in basins and amphitheaters, including the Colosseum. Ancient gladiators fought with heavy maces and tridents; Riley’s combatants battled with plastic and cardboard swords, wearing hardhats and using garbage can lids for shields. While Rome’s conscripted combatants were often condemned criminals or prisoners of war, Riley’s voluntary competitors were staffers of several institutions identified with New York City’s boroughs—the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio—who fought together as teams in color-coded uniforms.2 In the midst of the recession, it was not hard to imagine them fighting over dwindling financial support.
Riley staged his battle near the Queens Museum and several other structures that remain from the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, whose sprawling grounds surround the site. “I had been thinking of doing this for years,” the artist told me last spring, while the naval battle was in the planning stages. “Then I was invited to do something here, and it made perfect sense when I saw all these ruins from the World’s Fairs—these old relics that looked almost like the Colosseum.”
According to Riley’s research, post-Caesar naumachiae often occurred in times of decline, and were staged to distract the populace from their troubles. “Henry II [of France] had one, Napoleon had one, and it always seemed to recur just when an empire was about to end or a society was about to collapse,” he told me, “so it seemed to make sense to do it now, and especially at the World’s Fair grounds, which are relics of American might.” But the World’s Fairs were not strictly celebrations of American might as much as international showcases for consumer products and futuristic technology. Riley’s idiosyncratic take on the subject serves as a clue to the way he uses historical material—i.e., loosely. (Henry II would reign for nine years following his naumachia, and Napoleon for seven more years after his.) Hardly aspiring to the scholarly fidelity of artists such as Matthew Buckingham, Riley makes historical claims that can’t always be verified (“I’m not much for sources,” he readily confessed to me). His work also involves the occasional fabrication, suggesting a comparison to Walid Raad or Pierre Huyghe, artists who skirt the truth—or lie outright—while exploring shifting bounds between fact and fantasy. In any event, Riley’s freewheeling interpretations of history are the basis of a lively practice, and they informed what was without doubt, for me, the standout contemporary art event of the New York summer.
I visited Riley, who holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from Pratt Institute, in May at his temporary studio in Queens. The floor of the disused 50,000-square-foot ice-skating rink was covered with sand, recalling the floor of the Colosseum, which was similarly covered to soak up blood during gladiatorial combat.
As we sat to talk, a nearby assistant was bundling together stalks of the phragmites reed, which grows in abundance in the park, to form a boat’s hull. Riley, who had studied various types of reed boats, based his design on contemporary Peruvian models. Embedded in the bundles were large chunks of Styrofoam. Riley explained, “A friend from Peru told me that all the boat builders there use Styrofoam, and they just put the reeds on the outside for the benefit of tourists.” Various materials from the rink would be repurposed too: hockey sticks as oars, ceramic tiles as armor plates. The reeds, along with other found materials, would ultimately be fashioned into four boats measuring up to 30 feet long and of several types, including a mock battleship and a catamaran. An exception was one vessel that would be featured in a September solo show of Jade Townsend at New York’s Priska C. Juschka Fine Art. A friend of Riley’s, Townsend contributed a boat to the battle in exchange for studio space at the capacious skating rink.
Riley also used paper made from the reed’s cellulose-rich leaves for the 23-by-46-inch laser engraving and drypoint Morutori te Selutant (the original Latin of the title of the performance and exhibition). It appears in the Queens Museum’s exhibition, which also includes video documentation of the battle and an installation that re-constructs its aftermath. During our conversation, he showed me a drawing in progress on which the print would be based. It depicts a naumachia under way, complete with classically garbed soldiers and a screaming mob, in the arena of the disused 1964 New York State pavilion, at whose center Riley has inserted a smaller version of the park’s trademark Unisphere. Onlookers throw bottles, along with chunks of bread.
The ink in the prints is made from ash, in recognition of one aspect of local history. “This was the site of the Corona ash dumps before they built the park,” Riley told me, where refuse from Manhattan’s coal-heated houses was deposited. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrical description endows the wasteland with life: “This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens. . . .” In Morutori te Selutant, a billboard for an optometrist (“J.T. Eckelburg, occulist”) features a pair of disembodied eyes that watch over the battle. It is a reference to an advertisement, described by Fitzgerald, that loomed over the ash field.