Despite the name and the season, Duke Riley’s exhibit at 21c Museum Hotel, “See You at the Finish Line,” isn’t about horse racing. The show, which opened this week, includes documentation of and artifacts from two maritime art projects created and executed by the New York-based artist.
Riley says much of his work deals with issues facing waterfront communities and port cities, in the places where water meets land.
“I’m interested in how a lot of those places have been rapidly changing over the past two decades, and how they’re threatened by everything from rising sea levels and environmental pollution to gentrification,” says Riley.
“And typically they were less-desirable places because of their fragility, and also they were places where there were a lot of different people coming and going, so they were associated with disease, bad smells,” he adds. “So they tended to be less governed, more lawless places on the outskirts of cities.”
In one of his projects, Riley traveled to Zhujiajiao, a river town near Shanghai, China, and staged a re-match of the legendary animal race that determined the order of the Chinese Zodiac. In the original race, the rat won, so Year of the Rat comes first in the cycle.
“According to the legend, the rat cheated in the race,” says Riley. “So my project that I proposed is we re-did the race because it wasn’t fair. Yeah. Some five-thousand years later.”
Each boat was piloted by a local resident and carried a live animal representing a year in the zodiac cycle and opera singers who performed original songs they wrote from each animal’s perspective. Most of the boat pilots used to be fishermen, but the fishing industry has dried up.
“It’s become a daytime tourist town for people to come out from Shanghai for the day, and they pretty much shuttle tourists from the city around,” says Riley. “I wanted to create an event that was just for the people in the town, since so much of the time their town is taken over by other people who use it as their playground. I think sometimes it’s hard when you live somewhere like that.”
The exhibit includes handmade animal masks worn by the singers as well as film of the race. The re-match was won by the horse, an upset nobody (including most of the locals gambling on the race) saw coming.
“Not that many people bet on the horse. It and the cow seemed like they’d be the heaviest and would take the longest to row,” says Riley. “People who bet on the horse cleaned up.”
In “Trading with the Enemy,” Riley raised homing pigeons, and sent them to Cuba to fly back to Key West, a journey they made undetected by surveillance. Twenty-five of his pigeons carried contraband Cuban cigars in handmade harnesses, and 25 were outfitted with video cameras to film the journey home. Footage of their journey is on display, as well as some of the pigeons themselves, living in a handmade loft created with materials found around Key West.
“What I didn’t expect is that [the pigeons] were going to take breaks on the way [back from Cuba],” says Riley. “When we looked at the footage, we saw some of the pigeons stopped on a party boat somewhere in the Florida straits. Of course a lot of the people on the boat were a little freaked out when they saw this bird with something strapped to it. They thought it might have a bomb.”
Riley is remaining mum on how the birds got into Cuba to begin their journey. While the Shanghai project was coordinated with Chinese cultural officials, the pigeons’ journey was not sanctioned.
“I think at the time I was under the impression that I might have been banned from going to Cuba due to a project I had done there before,” he says.
How does an artist get kicked out of Cuba? By staging a St. Patrick’s Day parade in the streets of Havana.
“See You at the Finish Line” is on display at 21c until August in the ground floor gallery.