Governors Island sits off the southernmost tip of the island of Manhattan like the dot at the bottom of an exclamation mark. Despite the fact that it sprawls over 172 acres and sits in the middle of New York harbour, it has long been overlooked by the normally real-estate-obsessed denizens of the city. Throughout its hundreds of years of occupation it has been a military post and, until fairly recently, the home of the United States Coast Guard. In 2003 it was sold to the State of New York for US$1.
Since then its ultimate fate has been closely scrutinized. Casinos, schools and organic farms have been mooted, but the island currently resides in a kind of functional limbo, neither a part of the city nor quite apart from it. As such it seems the perfect venue for the public art organization Creative Time, which has long practiced a form of aesthetic squatting by using vacant shopfronts and neglected landmarks for their projects.
Arriving on the island, which can only be reached by a short ferry ride, you’ll find a grassy park, an Episcopal church, a cinema, a fort, ornamental cannons and rows of pristine clapboard houses. It is quaint, calm and shockingly devoid of people. In fact Governors Island seems to have been designed to be the exact opposite of the crowded megalopolis that looms over it.
The island’s curiously indeterminate state serves as the underlying theme of ‘PLOT/09: This World & Nearer Ones’, Creative Time’s inaugural public art quadrennial. The curator, Mark Beasley, stresses that the works, like the island, are, ‘in a state of becoming, caught between worlds and open to all’, and many of the works choose to attack this theme head-on by dabbling with the occult and spirit worlds.
Edgar Arceneaux fills one of the empty houses with low-frequency sound waves in an attempt to heighten the ghostly qualities of the empty building. Klaus Weber’s oversized wind chime in black aluminium hangs from a tree on the main sward, dolorously clanging the diabolus in musica tritone, a musical effect that has long been thought to summon the devil. The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s film Isle of the Dead (2009) humorously depicts a zombified art world invading the island, while Adam Chodzko’s film Echo (2009) tells, in true horror fashion, the tale of a children’s game gone horribly wrong. Earlier this summer AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs held one of their boozy invocations to ‘queer spirits’ on the island.
Despite their thematic unity, many of these pieces seemed scattershot and forcing, thrusting an aesthetic onto an island that is in itself palpably stranger than anything the artists have managed to create. For the fact remains that Governors Island has an air of situational and temporal wrongness that is most reminiscent of the Welsh village of Portmeirion, a bizarre Italianate resort that was the setting for the surreal television series The Prisoner (1967–8). It is an air which only Guido van der Werve’s weirdly romantic films, Nummer vier (2005) and Nummer zeven (2006), truly seem to understand. Created long before the show, and thus only tangentially linked to its theme, these films show the artist journeying across wide open spaces – playing a piano in the middle of a lake, or launching a rocket in a field – with results that vary between lighthearted absurdity and melancholic yearning. Van der Werve’s works abstractedly touch on the weirdness of place without pushing too hard to replicate it. In doing so they only prove the point that when you wish to see hidden worlds that stand on the edge of existence, the best view is often gained out of the corner of one’s eye.
First published in Issue 126