Sunday, August 5, 2007
When does the publicity replace the art?
"Duke Riley in his submarine," Damon Winter, All rights reserved
The question arose as I read the NY Times account of Brooklyn artist Duke Riley’s recent performance/adventure in the waters off Red Hook (An Artist and His Sub Surrender in Brooklyn). Riley had built a replica of a Revolutionary War wooden submarine called the Turtle & floated it across New York Harbor “to stage an incursion against the Queen Mary II,” docked offshore. Not surprisingly, he was stopped by an NYPD patrol boat & arrested as a police helicopter hovered overhead & a city hazmat truck flashed its emergency lights on the pier.
You can't help but admire Riley’s savvy & his PR strategy & execution. Timed perfectly to make the Sunday papers, Riley's team made sure the launch was attended by Times reporter Randy Kennedy & photographer Damon Winter. The event was also professionally videotaped (see photos here & video here). And Riley himself turned in a command performance. Lean & rugged-looking in the video, bobbing shirtless in the hatch of his outlandish craft, his extensive tattoos give him the look of a pirate charmer as he sips a beer & grins. Asked how he will get back to shore, he answers, “I haven’t really thought about that yet.”
The Turtle never submerged or tipped over, but the event went swimmingly. The harbor cops played their parts calmly & no one lost their cool as the arrests proceeded. Afterward, Commissioner Kelly issued a sophisticated statement that managed to both ridicule the stunt, “…we can summarize today’s incident as marine mischief” & the submarine, “…the creative craft of three adventuresome individuals” while quietly answering the question on everybody’s mind, “It does not pose any terrorist threat.” Meanwhile, Riley’s dealers, who had cheered on his performance from the shore, promised to bail him out of jail. And, oh yes, they revealed their plans to show his now-famous sub at their gallery in Chelsea.
The way to go, of course, is to be entertained by this little farce. And I am. Why, then, do I also find myself annoyed. Maybe it has to do with Riley’s smugly PC artist’s statement: “I am interested in the struggle of marginal peoples to sustain independent spaces within all-encompassing societies, the tension between individual and collective behavior, the conflict with institutional power.” Oh please. I didn’t catch the explanation of how towing something that looks like a cartoon bomb toward a passenger ship in a city that not long ago lost thousands of citizens to terrorists is advancing the struggle of marginal peoples. Nor do I see how Riley’s cruise helped to “…profile the space where water meets the land, traditionally marking the periphery of urban society, what lies beyond rigid moral constructs, a sense of danger and possibility.” What I see is a smart, possibly talented guy & his friends & business associates crafting a story the media can’t refuse, handing it to them & then cashing in on the publicity.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Nothing I suppose. After all, self-promotion was a fixture of the art world long before Jeff Koons. I guess I’m just getting tired of it -- this perfectly planned & choreographed goofy act the public loves so much. “Oh, well, those crazy artists, you know.”
Yeah, crazy like a fox.