There are some places where proud New Yorkers do not lurk. The Staten Island Ferry, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, for example, seem to appear as blips on an insider’s map of the city; places to take your third cousins after their eyes start hurting from the flash of photographing Times Square. But if those token sites are tourist landmarks, then Governors’ Island is a passing thought – the forgotten isle. It is an enchanting experience, then, to visit this forgotten location and discover New York’s treasures anew. This summer, however, Governors’ Island isn’t just a historic area but is transformed, courtesy of the organization No Longer Empty, into The Sixth Borough.
The Sixth Borough is an exhibition based in the rooms of four historic houses on Colonel Row, a set of residential homes previously occupied by military officers and their families. These houses have not been properly restored or renovated; decay and water stains are clearly visible. But while only art materials now inhabit these rooms, Colonel’s Row is truly no longer empty. Instead, its filled with people’s memories and feelings – past and present- invested in creative work.
The pieces in The Sixth Borough are varied and unique. Luis Palma’s photography catches isolation and personal memory and preserves it, literally, by using gold leaf and red paper with his prints, and then dipping them in resin. Amelia Biewald’s “Mutualism” and Andrea Mastrovito’s “Island of Dr. Mastrovito” explore the nature versus civilization tension by evoking organic images that utilize the space. Teresa Diehl screens footage of a child being cared for onto glittering fishing net wire, calling upon the viewer to consider the room’s former occupants (pictured in the top photo). Natasha Johns-Messenger constructs an understated fun house of mirrors with walls painted a bright lime-green.
One of my personal favorites was “Suspended City” by Raimundo Rubio. This piece consisted of branches and computer chips all covered in crystallized salt. The intersection of natural resources and technology is frosted over with the salt crystals, creating a city of overwhelming beauty that gleams in the late afternoon golden light, hung against the water stain on the wall. Like a dystopia touched by a fairy enchantment, this work is otherworldly and very simply, breathtakingly beautiful.
While the techniques and stories behind the works displayed in Colonel Row differ, they are united by the fact that they are highly site-specific pieces. In a museum, the label ‘site specific’ might be a space-related term to consider in terms of humidity, wall angles and lighting. But especially here, the work is strongly informed by the location. Governors’ Island is the chief inspiration in The Sixth Borough, so the themes that unravel from the painter and sculptor minds are inevitably linked: technology encounters steadily encroaching nature; war draws straight parallel lines through the centuries; children disappear as they turn into adults. These subjects are remembered and reinvented in the four historical houses, given form and fantasy by contemporary artists.
Ultimately, the Big Idea behind this exhibit is to explore the alternate reality, the disorientation that one feels upon arriving at Governors’ Island. As a New Yorker, I experienced a bit of nausea, caused slightly by the ferry but mostly by my surroundings- it is strange to imagine that a whole isle of historic houses and grassy fields exists beyond the skyscrapers and busy streets. But No Longer Empty brings Governors’ Island to the foreground, transforming it into the sixth borough as an art-filled pocket of space and distorted time.