If there’s one thing that unites the East End of Long Island with the rest of the vast world, it’s the bays and creeks whose tides here wash out into the Atlantic Ocean and from there touch all the water of this world.
It’s easy to feel isolated at the end of an island, but it’s equally easy to feel connected to the rest of the world through the currents that float past our doors, picking up new ideas like flotsam eddying in the stream.
I guess that’s why the Parrish Art Museum’s new exhibition, Radical Seafaring, has been filling both my dreams and waking thoughts for the past several weeks — it’s a glimpse into the universality of our experience here in the Peconic Bathtub.
And, in no small way, it’s a meditation on what art is when it takes place far from an audience, where the story of a piece must be told through documentation, a sort of journalism of the art of the seas.
Parrish Art Museum Curator of Special Projects Andrea Grover has been working on this survey of water-based art in earnest for the past three years, but she first conceived of it about a decade ago.
She jokes that Radical Seafaring is the show she was born to curate. Her father was a cod fisherman who worked on open dories. All the work was done by hand, and at the end of a trip the boats would be so filled with fish they’d be in danger of sinking.
“The only safety they had was homing pigeons,” she remembered at a day-long symposium titled Tideland Sessions in conjunction with the exhibit on May 21.
Her father later ran a marina and built boats in Freeport, where the boat he built and used to set the record for the first outboard-driven trans-Atlantic crossing is on display on the Nautical Mile.
“I’ve had my own radical seafaring adventures,” she giggled on a recent tour of the exhibit.
Ms. Grover said human beings’ concept of the sea has always been a fluid one — at one time no one would dream of taking to the sea for pleasure, and crossings were to be dreaded, but in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, ports bustled with stevedores and longshoremen, and luxury ocean liners meant that many people were able to experience life on the high seas.
But now, with the containerization of the shipping industry and most transoceanic voyages taken by airplanes, the open water is now once again the province of industry.
“Commercial activity really dominates what happens on the water,” she said.
But for artists, this plankton rich soup between the shores has become a fertile ground — seeking adventure, metaphor, a new vision of ‘the commons,’ lack of red tape or hope for a brighter future for the world, artists have taken to the seas in the past generation like, well, like fish.
Particularly surrounding the island of Manhattan, the waters have taken on increased importance for a more common land-based reason.
“All the land in the city is occupied,” said Ms. Grover.
The exhibit is broken down into four themes — a taxonomy Ms. Grover created after she began compiling the work — Exploration, Liberation, Fieldwork and Speculation.
While this makes for a good way to classify some of the major themes at work in art on the sea, many of these projects seem to overlap boundaries, playing with art and science, media and maker culture, community and anarchy, ecology and authorship.
In the museum, I was struck most by the tale of Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who had been living in Los Angeles when he set out in 1975 on a project titled “In Search of the Miraculous” — a voyage across the Atlantic in a 13-foot sailboat titled Ocean Wave. The boat was found washed up on the Irish shore the following year with no trace of its captain.
But it wasn’t the story of his disappearance that I found most striking — it was the slideshow and the sheet music of the young choir he’d hired to sing sea shanties, including “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” in preparation for his departure. The whole spooky project seemed carefully planned, as if he might have known the outcome from the beginning.