WILL CORWIN & NEIL GREENBERG at the Staten Island Arts Culture Lounge
STATEN ISLAND ARTS CULTURE LOUNGE | SEPTEMBER 25 – NOVEMBER 30, 2014
Collaborators Will Corwin (a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail) and Neil Greenberg have put together an interactive project called The Great Richmond. Installed in the lounge of Staten Island Arts at the Staten Island ferry termi, the installation re-envisions Staten Island through sculptures by Corwin and schematic maps by Greenberg. Their shared goal is to call forth a changed perception of the borough, which today is still semi-suburban but also very city-like in parts. A major concern was to make the work accessible to local commuters as well as to art world audiences.
The game, also titled “The Great Richmond,” presents a suite of eight different sculptures, each one cast in Hydrocal and painted a solid color. The names of the sculptures refer, somewhat obliquely, to aspects of Staten Island. For example, “Bathtub Madonna” (2013) is based on the Staten Island practice of placing Christian figures as decoration on the lawn, protected from the elements by a small bathtub rising up from the ground. It is a squarish work of art, painted blue, about a foot high, with a small copy of the Madonna, underneath half of a bathtub, inlaid into one of its sides. “Ouroboros” (2014), an ancient image of a dragon eating its own tail, is cast in black and refers to the Staten Island Zoo’s reptile house, the largest in the Northeast. At the same time, the form of the sculpture functions as a rough rendering of a dock cleat, an emblem of the Island’s maritime history. A bright red horizontal sculpture called “The Polar Sea” (2013) consists of flattened planks that frame an open space in the middle; they are joined by a miniature version of the ferry visitors and tourists taken from Manhattan to Staten Island. The other five sculptures are similarly treated, each embodying a unique aspect of Staten Island’s agrarian history, infrastructure, housing, commercial architecture, and government. Because of the precision of the mold cast, the sculptures are unusually detailed.
The idea of the game is to take two unused sculptures, neatly positioned on a wooden stand of shelves, and place them on one of four tables, each of which embodies a separate vision of Staten Island: the green table is an agricultural island, referring to the borough’s early days; the brown is a suburban island, with freeways, malls, and subdivisions of single-family homes; the blue table constitutes an urban island, with rapid transit and greater numbers of people requiring both residential and commercial development. Finally, the red table imagines the island if it seceded from the rest of New York City, demanding all the governmental institutions and services that go with independence. After placing two sculptures on any of the four tables, you are allowed to take one sculpture that has already been played and move it from one island to another. One can see which table received the most interest; people tended to ignore the island as an agricultural setting and preferred the pleasures of an urban site.
Greenberg, who formerly worked scheduling buses in Detroit, but now specializes in map design of transit systems, contributed four wall maps that portray Staten Island as it might have developed—or not developed—according to the rules of the game. The clearly drawn, attractive schematics of each map correspond to the particular Staten Island that is shown: the “Suburban ‘What If’ Map”(2013) presents an island dominated by freeways; the “Agrarian ‘What If’ Map” (2013), rendered mostly in green, red, and yellow crayon and pencil, portrays a rural world, complete with cultivated fields; the “Urban ‘What If’ Map” (2014) offers different rail lines stopping at various towns throughout the island; and the “Secede! ‘What If’ Map”, done with pencil and ink, pictures an entire infrastructure for the independent government—an embassy, a harbor fleet, a mall, a supreme court.
The Great Richmond is successful in engaging viewers beyond the contemporary art audience. First of all, it is accessible; anyone who wants to can come in and play. Indeed, footage from the space’s security camera captured one player who built symmetric patterns with the sculptures and even fashioned a bridge between two tables (it lasted a few minutes before falling), establishing his own infrastructure joining two different versions of Staten Island. Corwin and Greenberg are often on site to explain and encourage the players, some of whom had misgivings about actually touching the art.
The sculptural pieces got nicked and a bit beaten up over time, but Corwin is evidently calm about breakage resulting from visitor use. For the collector, he is offering a complete set of the eight sculptures, newly cast and free of flaws. In regard to Greenberg, many visitors are intrigued by the poster maps and would like to take home a copy. (Greenberg is currently looking into doing an edition of the maps.) In summary, The Great Richmond playfully imagines the hypothetical restructuring of Staten Island, resulting in unwitting performance art by random passers-by, who make use of the sculptures and maps in very imaginative ways.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.