By MELENA RYZIK JUNE 26, 2014
PATTI SMITH has been visiting the Rockaways in Queens since the 1970s, when she would venture around the secluded Fort Tilden, the national park and beach, with Robert Mapplethorpe.
“It had the most beautiful dunes,” she said wistfully.
Ms. Smith, the musician, artist and writer, became a Rockaway resident in 2012, renovating a home across from the beach just before Hurricane Sandy hit.
Her place suffered damage, but nothing compared with neighbors’ houses, which were destroyed by flood and fire. “We went around after the storm, and it was heartbreaking,” she said, mentioning “people’s broken dishes and melted dolls.”
Mattresses, appliances and other household wreckage were piled around Jacob Riis Park, and debris littered Fort Tilden, a grim restricted site for months afterward. Ms. Smith and her friend Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1, whose bayside home is a few blocks from hers, were part of the relief effort. Mr. Biesenbach, especially, emerged as a force able to pull together celebrity friends and disparate groups active in the recovery to help. Now Ms. Smith and Mr. Biesenbach are responding not just as citizens but also as artistic torchbearers, creating a site-specific festival to celebrate their adopted community and the reopening of Fort Tilden.
Put together in just a few months, Rockaway! (the exclamation point is theirs) begins on Sunday and runs through Sept. 1, with a full schedule that includes installations and photography by Ms. Smith, an immersive sound piece by Janet Cardiff and sculpture by the Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas in and around Fort Tilden, and a satellite exhibition of art at Rockaway Beach Surf Club. It represents an unusually nimble partnership between the transplants, Ms. Smith and Mr. Biesenbach, and the local occupants: the long-running Rockaway Artists
Alliance, the National Park Service and the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. On a tight-knit peninsula that has recently undergone not only a natural disaster but also sometimes tense demographic, economic and social shifts, the organizers are hoping the festival will appeal to everyone.
“The work has to be lofty; the work has to stand alone,” Mr. Biesenbach said in his German-accented English. “But it also has to serve the people, presented in a way that’s memorable and seductive to the people. Also safe.” The festival is free and open to the public. But transforming the site, parts of which have never been used for events on this scale and some of which remain damaged by the storm, proved daunting.
The challenge served as inspiration, Ms. Smith said recently, as she picked through the rubble in a former automotive warehouse she is using for her main installation, deciding what should go and what should stay.
“Our friends and neighbors are making the same decisions in their homes,” she said. Debris encroaches on a four-poster bed covered in a cascading sheer white fabric, which she rinsed to soften. Titled “The Resilience of the Dreamer,” her piece is inspired by the domestic lives exposed by the storm — the destroyed mattresses piled by the beach, for example — and by the emotional significance of the bedroom. (She writes in bed a lot, she said.) Exposed to the elements, the bed will be transformed over time, even as it remains rooted in the crumbling, graffiticovered
building. “It’s a metaphor for the area,” she said. “Everyone’s dreaming of redoing their house. But we can’t take nature out of the equation, because we live by the sea.”
The Rockaways are dotted with improvements made post-Sandy: new stretches of boardwalk and modern beach buildings. But it is still in recovery mode. “We were crippled,” said Brandon d’Leo, an owner of Rockaway Beach Surf Club, a bohemian hangout a few blocks offshore. Mr. d’Leo didn’t reopen until mid-August last year, he said. He hopes that hosting an exhibition for the festival — including work from the Bruce High Quality Foundation, Olaf Breuning, Tom Sachs (who has a home nearby) and Elizabeth Peyton — will attract a new crowd and send a message about the Rockaways.
“It’s not just a beach place; it’s a place where you could get world-class culture,” he said.
For Jackie Snyder, executive director of the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, a newly created public private partnership, the festival was a smooth fit. “It made sense to work together,” she said, adding, “I don’t think anyone can say no to Klaus.”
Mr. Biesenbach, an avid gardener whose yard is filled with exotic plants, seems at home here. He traverses the neighborhood on a rusty bicycle, stopping often to take nature-scene photos, like birds nesting on the beach. As personally engaged as if assembling a museum retrospective, he conceptualized Rockaway! with Ms. Smith and presided over regular planning meetings. He even took the cover photo for the festival’s brochure, an image of an abandoned building on a wind-swept Rockaway beach.
“There’s something magical about this area,” he said, as he and Ms. Smith tooled around.
It fell to Jennifer T. Nersesian, superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes Fort Tilden, to make certain that the landscape will not be damaged by the sprawling event. She went to a meeting of black-clad curatorial assistants at PS1 in her federal parks department uniform.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said of the attention and resources needed for the festival. “But this helps connect people to the place and opens the door for them to form their own attachment.” Before the storm, she added, “Tilden had sort of just been discovered; visitorship was on a sharp increase.” It’s rebounding, though the Army Corps of Engineers is still restoring the dunes and sand to 1970s levels, which requires an unsightly pipe on the beach.
To entice explorers, Ms. Smith had blocks of granite inscribed with Walt Whitman poetry placed along the waterfront path. “It all explains the connection between man and nature, a natural fit for someplace like a national park,” Ms.
Nersesian said. Ms. Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet,” a ghostly choral installation that emanates from 40 speakers, is set in a former military chapel whose walls and paint had to be replaced for the show.
“Everything is sturdy and humble,” Ms. Smith said, as she and Mr. Biesenbach walked around the rehabbed buildings in Fort Tilden, which Rockaway Artists Alliance has long used as a gallery space. (Photographs by Ms. Smith will hang
there.) “I like that. That’s why I like it around here.”
“This is the transformative power of art,” she said. “We’re making the space better than we found it, not just philosophically or poetically or spiritually better, but practically better.”
That sense of renewal is what the alliance and festival organizers sought, building on the budding art scene. This month Topless Gallery — the name is a wink to the nudity on Fort Tilden’s beach — opened to crowds in a former law library, steps from Rockaway Taco, the epicenter of the area’s cool weekender revival. The gallery’s artist-founders, Brent Birnbaum, 36, and Jenni Crain, 23, expect to show mostly work from outside the peninsula.
“Someone has yelled ‘hipster!’ at me,” said Mr. Birnbaum, who has piercings and a man-bun and moved to the Rockaways last year from Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
But he added that he had found the neighbors welcoming and that the economics were such that he didn’t need to sell much art to survive. With its 62-inch watermark from Sandy still visible, the pop-up gallery will be open on weekends. Patrick Clark, 60, a stained-glass artist who has lived in the Rockaways for 28 years, said he was energized by the influx of young creators, though he acknowledges what it may foretell. “I’ll be gentrified out of here in a couple of years, ” he said. “But I’d rather see the neighborhood come to life, even if it means I’ll have to go.”
Jogging on the new boardwalk with her children, LaToya Shaw, 28, who works in child care, cheered the festival. “It’s bringing people together, it’s attracting the right elements,” showing, she said, that for her community, Sandy “was a setback, but it didn’t break us.”
By MELENA RYZIK JUNE 26, 2014