This interweaving of history and fantasy with the real legacies of plastic pollution creates a kind of alternate present in which plastic, that ubiquitous, problematic, and permanent substance, finds a new temporal home.
By Dylan Gauthier
December 31, 2022
Photo Credit: Dylan Gauthier
Brooklyn-based artist Duke Riley has made several visits back to Fishers since first arriving as a Lighthouse Works fellow in 2019. In his current solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash, Riley has constructed a sprawling exhibition and archive out of the materials and processes gleaned from these return visits, and from relationships forged with the Fishers community. On view through April, 2023, DEATH TO THE LIVING is an obsessive deep dive into the ubiquity of ocean plastics in an otherwise “unspoiled” place, and a meditation on the interconnectedness of maritime history, oceanic systems, colonial exploits, and disposable culture. Engaging with the prevalence of plastic on our beaches and in our waterways, Riley’s exhibition forces us to confront the overwhelming scale of the problem and the interwoven timescales of complicity. Regardless of how we act today, we are doomed to see plastic on our coasts, now and for long after the last plastic water bottle is manufactured. Riley’s exhibition inquires, in short, how we can possibly tolerate so much plastic in our oceans, waterways, and beaches, or in our bodies — and what – if anything – can be done.
A visual artist, tattooist, and creator of audacious spectacles, Riley employs video, sculpture, printmaking, engraving, illustration and craft — mosaic and scrimshaw, but also commercial wallpaper of Riley’s handmade fishing lures, figure centrally in his Brooklyn Museum show. His illustrations and public projects employ puns and wordplay as a kind of private code to flirt with fact, myth, and history. Riley has a knack for fusing meticulous detail with troves of obsessively researched maritime narratives. The end result is unlike the work of most any other artist working today.
British artist Jeremy Deller, whose large scale participatory spectacles and obsessive research, or the artist-taxonomist and creator of hyper-detailed cabinets of curiosity Mark Dion might be Riley’s closest peers, but Riley has also managed the rare feat of being more recognized outside of the art world than within it. His highly visible tattoo style is sought after by those who might know little of his fine art practice, and his illustrations have been translated to phone cases, subway mosaics, and the blockchain.
Riley is best known for his public artwork “Fly By Night,” a spectacle in which 2000 pigeons were trained to fly above the Brooklyn Navy Yards adorned with custom LED lights. The production made use of the world’s smallest aircraft carrier as its launch pad and pigeon loft and required a crew of performers to stir the pigeons – who don’t naturally fly at night – to perform. In 2007, as part of an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, Riley built a replica of the Acorn, the world’s first wartime submarine. While the original Acorn was deployed by Washington’s forces during the Battle of Brooklyn, for this occasion, Riley enacted an unprovoked raid on a cruise ship at port in Red Hook. The stunt made the national news (and the front page of the New York Post) and affirmed Riley’s reputation as an instigator and risk-taker on the margins of the traditionally safe gallery art world.
Riley frequently circumnavigates the edges of the political in his work. He has made send ups of US sanctions against Cuba, featured on several occasions in the Havana Biennial, that include one piece in which Riley trained carrier pigeons to smuggle Cuban cigars to Florida. For a 2019 exhibition at Pioneer Works, Riley created a noir style video around the exploits of a fictional political “dirty tricks” firm that stages a latter day incursion à la Watergate at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. Rather than stealing secret files, the video purports to show the introduction of bed bugs into the hotel by operatives disguised as housekeeping staff – perhaps also a word play on “bugging a room.” Staking a blurry, marginal position between history and myth is fitting for an artist who often draws on maritime lore. Sailors’ yarns and fish tales must be woven with enough reality to render them believable, but be embellished with enough fancy, bawdy and exaggeration to make them worth telling and retelling after months at sea in confined quarters. Riley’s fish tales are similarly intertwined with found bits of truth, bobs of beauty, double entendres, and flights of fancy, and it’s never entirely clear to the audience where the line between fact and fiction falls.
For DEATH TO THE LIVING, Riley has grounded his embellishments in the solid footings of the museum’s two historic houses, which are installed as part of the museum’s period rooms. Built by members of the Schenck family in the 17th and 18th centuries in what is now Brooklyn, the modified houses have been in their current place in the museum since 2006. To the period interior of these two structures, Riley has introduced his own 19th century-style craft works. These include a number of decorative wall mosaics and “scrimshaw” pieces – drawings and wax engravings on whitewashed ocean plastics – that appear anachronistic in relation to the historic houses, but not exactly from our own time.
Two of these mixed-media mosaics are emblazoned with the words “TODAY IS HISTORY” and “TOMORROW IS A MYSTERY,” while the scrimshaw pieces are all numbered works forming a part of a series titled “The Poly S. Tyrene Memorial Maritime Museum.” This interweaving of history and fantasy with the real legacies of plastic pollution creates a kind of alternate present in which plastic, that ubiquitous, problematic, and permanent substance, finds a new temporal home. Riley’s plastic scrimshaw works, carved or drawn on whitewashed detritus from Fishers Island and sites around Brooklyn, become a surface for a post-apocalyptic narrative that also disturbingly resembles our present moment. They haunt the 17th and 18th century period rooms with the threat of a future loss.
While this is not a mid-career retrospective, as all of the works were made recently and most with the exhibition in mind, with a few hundred unique works on display, it feels encyclopedic, as well as meandering at points.
In the last room of the exhibition, we encounter a video portrait of Fishers Island resident Michele Klimczak (MICHELE, 2022). In the video, Klimczak, Coastal Debris Coordinator for the Fishers Island Conservancy – and performing as muse or perhaps an alter ego for the absent artist – is seen on a winter day as a light snow falls, picking up plastic and other scrap from one of Fishers’s rugged beaches and placing them carefully in her mesh shoulder bag. The soundtrack is ambient and tense, the film seemingly slowed down to accentuate every falling snowflake, each scrap of waste. The weather informs us that neither rain, sleet, nor snow will slow the flow of the plastic tide to Fishers Island – and those who labor to clean it up and to keep the island’s “unspoiled beaches” consciously conserved must work in all seasons.
As noted in the exhibition text, Klimczak, who works with the FI Conservancy, removes almost 25,000 pounds of plastic from FI beaches each year. This Sisyphean task is a daily routine, a vocation, and an obsession for Klimczak – and for Riley. About half of the plastic used by Riley in the exhibition was collected by Klimczak, sorted by Riley, and transformed into art through the application of his iconic illustration style. If the original Schenck families were farmers and fisher people living on Brooklyn’s marshy edges and subsisting on the sea as their way of life, Klimczak (or her character in Riley’s exhibition at least) is a kind of newly imagined environmental subsistence farmer, one for whom the strange harvest of plastic provides a novel way of life.
As I leave the exhibition on my second visit, I am thinking about the environmental messaging of this work, and what it means to know so much about plastic, and yet be helpless to rid ourselves of it. I find it surprisingly moving to introduce plastic into these 17th and 18th century houses.
In one of the most surprising works in the show, because it is so subtle, a small diorama depicts what the houses might have looked like in their original site, prior to becoming museum pieces. Here, a subtle modification by the artist adds a curbside recycling bin alongside the scale model of the house. In spite of our best intentions, only 5% of our plastic gets recycled in the U.S. The persistence of plastic here stretches backwards and forwards in time, and this seems to me to not be untrue. After all, the intertwined histories of oil and of modern plastic find their beginnings in whaling, which became an industrialized practice at almost the same time as the U.S. was developing as a nation. The earliest synthetic plastics were actually marketed as a means to prevent further destruction of whale populations whose baleen, bones, and blubber were used in beauty products and such 19th century fashions as the corset. Derived from the byproducts of petroleum, which are literally the remains of prehistoric animals, plastic is “kin” to us, as researcher Max Liboiron has written. It is one of the enabling factors of what we call “modern life,” but it is also a kind of death. In Irish and Norse myth, a “revenant” is someone who is believed to have risen from the grave and who now terrorizes the living. The word comes from the French for “returned.” Discarded plastic is the ghost of the past 100 years, of the great extinctions hundreds of millions of years ago, and of our present moment. Microplastics have now been found in pristine streams in the Rockies, and in our bodies. The plastic that washes up on Fishers Island, or on any beach, is plastic that keeps coming back no matter how many times it is thrown away – it is the revenant that haunts us and which we cannot be rid of, and which will also outlast us.
Toward the end of watching MICHELE, as Klimczak stalks the rocky beach awash with plastic jetsam, my four-year-old son turns to me and asks, “Daddy, is this going to turn out OK?” A woman who has been silently viewing the film with us pipes up and answers: “Isn’t that the question?” The future is a mystery but the past tells us more than we may sometimes wish to know.
Lighthouse Works will organize a field trip to meet with Duke Riley and Michele Klimczak at the Brooklyn Museum for a walkthrough of Riley’s exhibition in March, date TBC, departing from the New London Ferry Terminal. All who are interested in joining should reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Dylan Gauthier is an artist and curator, and the Program Director for Lighthouse Works.