View of Duke Riley’s mock naval battle Those About to Die Salute You, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park outside the Queens Museum, Aug. 13, 2009. Photo Jodie Niss.

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.

The pre-contest exclamation “morutori te selutant” was first recorded at Claudius’s naumachia, a 52 a.d. battle before which the combatants thus saluted the emperor. But, Riley told me, it has another meaning with this project. He was referring to a pair of portraits at the lower corners of the eponymous print that depict, he claims, “the first two police officers ever killed by a terrorist attack on American soil.” On July 4, 1940, NYPD bomb squad detectives Joseph Lynch and Ferdinand Socha were killed by a bomb that had been removed from the Fair’s British Pavilion. The device exploded as they examined it. Suspects at the time included the Nazis, the IRA and, according to Riley, the British themselves. The combination of deadly terrorism and conspiracy theories brought to the artist’s mind the attacks of Sept. 11 and the “never forget” mantra that followed. Despite a massive investigation, the bombers were never identified. Some 24 years later, a plaque was erected in the officers’ memory beside a quiet path some distance from the Queens Museum; when I saw it with Riley last May, it was slightly overgrown and scattered with bits of trash.

Riley is perhaps best known for building and launching a roughly 8-by-6-foot submarine, the Acorn, into the East River in 2007 in hopes of approaching the luxury liner Queen Mary 2, which had put in at a newly constructed cruise ship dock in Brooklyn’s historically blue-collar but gentrifying Red Hook neighborhood. He drew up about 200 feet from its bow, but his craft never fully submerged, and predictably, he was arrested (and garnered widespread press coverage, with the New York Post designating him a “sub moron”). The vessel was included in a 2007 gallery exhibition at New York’s Magnan Projects, “After the Battle of Brooklyn.” Accompanying the Acorn was a video showing the submarine against the backdrop of the QM2, contrasting Riley’s tiny, scrappy vessel with the massive, gleaming cruise ship, echoing the juxtaposition of old longshoremen’s haunts and new luxury cars notable in Red Hook’s upwardly mobile streets.

Also on display at Magnan were faux scrimshaw (plastic, not ivory) and mock documentary videos in which bogus experts suggest that Riley’s Acorn is the long-lost sibling of a historical submarine, the Turtle, deployed in 1776 by George Washington in a failed attempt to bomb the English flagship, moored off Governors Island, south of Manhattan. The QM2 assumed the British role in the artist’s similarly doomed quasi-reenactment. The unlikeliness of Riley’s stunt, combined with the mock historical artifacts and the improbable fact of an 18th-century submarine, created a distinct sense of unreality.

In March 2009, Riley brought his playful treatments of history to foreign shores as part of “Chelsea Visits Havana,” a show associated with the 10th Havana Bienale. After discovering in the Cuban capital a prominent street called Calle O’Reilly (named after the Dublin-born General Alexander O’Reilly, who fortified Havana in the service of Spain and married into a Cuban family), the artist learned that there is a history of Irish immigration to Cuba. To highlight this obscure fact while also testing the host country’s tight rules governing public assembly, Riley planned a rogue St. Patrick’s Day parade featuring a handful of Cuban bagpipers. After word of the parade leaked out, the number of participants swelled to about 200, including bands playing American patriotic songs, all led by Farah, described by Riley as “the legendary drag queen of O’Reilly Street.” Among the signs and banners they carried was one touting the “First Annual San Patricio Parade,” one that memorialized Latin jazz musician Chico O’Farrill and another with the face of Che Guevara between the twin slogans “Viva Irlanda” and “Viva Cuba.”

On the night of the naval battle in Queens, free beer and liberally spiked lemonade flowed for hours before the battle started (heavy drinking is something of a constant at Riley’s events), and the rock band Hell-Bent Hooker warmed up the crowd inside the museum. Around 8 p.m., everyone walked a few hundred feet to the reflecting pool, which had been filled, for the first time since 1964, with 70,000 gallons of water. A backdrop painted with a Colosseum-style arcade concealed a backstage area at one end of the pool, from which the boats emerged one by one. The brightly lit Unisphere glowed in the distance under a dramatically cloudy (but mercifully rainless) sky. There was an announcer’s booth emblazoned with the ESPN logo, and scantily clad dancers teased the crowd from a floating platform. An impressive P.A. system blasted rock songs on themes of war and combat, with several from Queen (“We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust” and, near the end, “We Are the Champions”), along with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the theme from Rocky.

Before the first boat appeared, unruly elements had prematurely opened the numerous boxes of tomatoes supplied by the museum to serve as projectiles during the battle, and crowds on opposite sides of the pool engaged in a tomato-throwing war. Audience members jumped into the water, and the announcer’s unambiguous orders (“Get the fuck out of the pool!”) proved ineffectual. Then the microphone malfunctioned, leaving the music as sole commentator on the mounting confusion and feeding a growing sense that all was dangerously out of control.

The Queens warriors emerged first, piloting a boat with a prow shaped like the head of some toothy bird, and they were pelted with tomatoes as they traveled the length of the pool; when they arrived at a far corner, their reed mast promptly broke. A gray battleship represented the Brooklyn Museum, a model of a Staten Island Ferry boat stood for the fictitious Fresh Kills Landfill and Garbage Museum (a vast former landfill in that borough is now being made into a city park), and a catamaran with two dragonlike heads was manned by Bronx Museum staffers. A salute to Emperor Riley was to precede the combat, but without an announcer to coordinate it, it was lost in the fog of war. Two hours after the audience began arriving, the planned battle finally commenced, with cannons firing confetti, smoke grenades bursting and combatants boarding opposing boats or even taking to the water in order to capsize them. Within minutes, all was wreckage.

Then the backdrop parted, revealing a hulking wood galleon in the shape of a pig (Townsend’s contribution) and featuring a sail made of T-shirts. Its crew were staffers from Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio, and it entered the aftermath to the ominous strains of “The Imperial March: Darth Vader’s Theme” from Star Wars.After the galleon surveyed the scene and retreated, a reed-and-cardboard effigy of the Queen Mary 2 appeared and was set aflame—sweet revenge for Riley, no doubt. Next, Roman candles and other fireworks burst from the burning QM2’s top, even as local kids in soccer uniforms frolicked in the pool. Finally, the announcer, his mike working again, summoned the crowd to a Roman orgy/after-party at the museum. In a final tongue-in-cheek gesture, the P.A. played “Sailing,” Christopher Cross’s sappy paean to the open water.

As my friends and I conducted postmortem discussions on the subway ride home (Who the hell won, anyway? Is that tomato in your hair? Can you believe no one got hurt?), a fellow passenger acknowledged that the tendency toward mob mayhem is never far from the surface, adding, “I guess there’s a little more Roman in all of us than we might like to admit.” Other conclusions could be drawn. Speaking to a reporter from New York’s public radio station, Townsend pointed out that by comparison with some lavishly funded art projects of recent years, Riley’s recycled materials and modest budget ($12,000, not including Townsend’s galleon) prove that much can be accomplished with limited means. It could also be said that the project took an oddly lighthearted approach to the Romans’ cynical deployment of violence as a distraction from social ills. For my part, it brought to mind the departed federal administration, which aimed to divert Americans’ attention from rising deficits and crumbling infrastructure with two actual wars that seem as absurd and pointless as Riley’s melee—though of course far more tragic. But recalling the heat of battle, such analyses seem moot, for the produce flew, bombs burst in the air and Emperor Riley fiddled while the QM2 burned.

Currently On View “Those About to Die Salute You” at the Queens Museum of Art, Nov. 1, 2009-March 2010.

Riley’s performance Those About to Die Salute You took place Aug. 13 in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens; an exhibition of the same name, organized by associate curator Hitomi Iwasaki as part of the museum’s artist-in-residency program, is on view through February 2010 at the Queens Museum of Art. Riley’s work will be featured in the festival Philagrafika 2010: The Graphic Unconscious, in Philadelphia, January-April 2010. The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art will host a solo exhibition, September 2010-January 2011.