By IJ Idrizaj
I decided to pay a visit to the “Rockaway!” exhibit in Fort Tilden, Queens, I went without many expectations. All I had been told was that it was a PS1 MoMA exhibit that had been opened in order to bring in funds to help the area after its devastation during Hurricane Sandy. Having seen many different types of fundraisers before, I assumed it would be no different; a small area of the park dedicated to art, a bin for donations, and not much charm. As soon as I stepped into Jacob Riis Park, I knew I could not have been more wrong.
It took me about ten minutes just figuring out the exhibit’s nature, I realized that Rockaway!” is not your average art exhibition. The installation nearest to the entrance, an old chapel, sits amongst a variety of day camps, public buildings, and sports fields. The only reason I was able to identify it was because of a nondescript sign near the door. It dawned on me that “Rockaway!” is not a gimmick meant to simply bring in funds; it is art that comes from the culture and spirit of the neighbourhood. Inside the chapel is “The Forty Part Motet” which is nothing but a ring of loudspeakers playing “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui,” (1575) a Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis. Each loudspeaker plays a different voice, which all come together to form the complete piece. You can walk around the room and focus on an individual voice, or you can sit in the middle and hear the piece as a whole. Upon leaving I saw the map provided by the exhibit, and I was shocked to see that exhibits were dotted all over the map of the Fort. There was no true central location and in order to see everything; I had to be prepared for a walk.
As I continued, I spotted another building further down the road. It was here where I discovered the art of Patti Smith, a Punk Rock legend who lives in the area. Upon entering, I saw a room that was surrounded completely by her photographs, all small 4x6s black and whites encased in large frames, with the empty space filled by plain white. In the room, there was also a stage, where Patti, James Franco, and others had performed during the opening. This room was very interesting as all of the photographs were small, blurry, and unfocused. The images are recognisable but vague and undefined. To my surprise, however, they worked. All of her images convey a nice sense of place and the uniformity helps bring it all together.
Out back, behind the building, I was treated to another interesting setting. In the grassy area was art done by Adrián Villar Rojas, an Argentinian artist who had set up sculptures made of unfired clay and straw. Further back was my favorite exhibit: an abandoned factory had been turned from a heap of garbage into a work of art. The factory is beautifully derelict; trash and scrap everywhere that hasn’t been touched by human hands in decades. In the centre is an extravagant four-poster bed, all in white with gold trimmings. It was left there to be naturally worn down and by the time I had gotten there it was already showing signs of age. In a small room to the left of the entrance is a large basin filled with small white stones. These were left by Patti with the intention of each visitor taking one in order to symbolise the rebuilding of the area brick by brick, stone by stone.
As the day went on, I decided to just wander out into the openness of the Fort. My curiosity paid off when I arrived at one of the huge batteries that saw service in both World Wars as well as the Cold War where it housed Nike missiles. The battery itself is huge and abandoned, and to its right is a rickety staircase that allows visitors to climb on top of it where they are greeted by a fantastic view of the park, as well as the city behind it. The view only reconfirms the personal feel of the exhibit. The park is dense and it takes some searching to see everything. A local would have a much easier time than someone who is visiting for their first time.
After admiring the view for quite a while, I headed back down. Before I left I saw one last building that had somehow escaped my attention earlier. Patti Smith’s tribute to Walt Whitman, who once lived and worked in Queens, is a small plain building that houses various works by Whitman, as well as a constant loop of a movie done by Smith’s daughter, with Smith herself narrating it. The best part about the room, in my opinion, is the fact that there are pens and blank paper everywhere, left in order to allow people to draw whatever they want. Even more interesting is the fact that people leave their drawing on the tables. Stacks of them sit, waiting to be seen by whoever visits. I had been in a sort of hurry to start home, however, the calm narration of the movie and respite from the heat compelled me to sit down and draw. I took my nearest source of inspiration (the “Rockaway!” brochure cover) and doodled for an indeterminate amount of time until I was satisfied with my work. I decided to leave it with the rest, and after that, I finally felt ready to head home.
“Rockaway!” is not just an exhibit that has been created to give artists exposure. It is a true homage to the people and culture of the area. All of the art is done in a way that compliments the area. Unlike many art exhibits which push the art at you, in “Rockaway!” you have to look for it high and low. It is there to be an extension of the people that make the area so unique and does a fantastic job doing it.