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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Rockaway! presented by MoMA PS1

As the culmination of their contribution to the restoration of the Rockaways, MoMA PS1 has organized Rockaway!, a free public arts festival at Fort Tilden with an accompanying group exhibition at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club. Conceived of by MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach in close collaboration with musician, writer, and artist Patti Smith, both of whom own homes in the Rockaways, Rockaway! is a gift to an area that has recently experienced so much loss.

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Janet Cardiff, "The Forty Piece Motet," Fort Tilden Chapel // Patti Smith's black and white photos in the Rockaway Arts Alliance Gallery at Fort Tilden

Three trains and a bus for a total of almost two hours of travel; my art-seeking pilgrimage from my northwestern Brooklyn neighborhood brings me to the Rockaways. Away from the urban shelter of concrete buildings and Mister Softee, I find myself completely surrounded by water. Jamaica Bay to the north, the sprawling Atlantic Ocean to the south. The waves glimmer majestically on this clear, breezy day at Fort Tilden in Gateway National Recreation Area, a beautiful stretch of beachside parkland. Equal parts land and sea: a glorious wonder of the natural world.

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Interior and exterior of the abandoned military building which now houses "The Resilience of the Dreamer" 

A year and a half ago nature waged war on the Rockaways. Yet even Fort Tilden, the former U.S. Army outpost, could not fend off this aggressor. When Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012 it decimated this area. 18,950 homes were damaged, some destroyed, and almost 100,000 residents were displaced for weeks. The land was battered. Debris littered the beaches and parks as downed trees, drywall, and water-logged mattresses accumulated by the dozens. In a matter of days, nature exposed of the hubris by settling on a glorified sandbank. The mental and physical security of the people had been stripped away.

Today on this sunny, early summer afternoon, Fort Tilden stands as the resilient stronghold it once was. Its buildings and grounds restored, today it hosts thousands of people in their vast array, gathered in celebration of the renewal of the Rockaways. Not Rockaway, but Rockaway!—exclamation point. There is a new energy here, one that has been absent from the Rockaways since before the hurricane.

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Patti Smith, "The Resilience of the Dreamer"

In so much as Rockaway! is the story of the resilience of a community, it is Patti Smith who acts as storyteller. Having bought her home just months before Hurricane Sandy hit, Smith and her home experienced much of the same damage as her fellow Rockaway residents. In the wake of the storm Smith saw her neighbors sifting through the destruction in search of their belongings, many of which had been destroyed, and grasping for some sense of comfort. It is with this in mind that Smith developed her site-specific installations at Fort Tilden. Groundedness, the constant search for permanence in a changing world; all of these ideas come together in Smith's installation The Resilience of the Dreamer, a gilded four post canopy bed dressed with pristine white linens that will deteriorate over time because of exposure to the elements. Despite being in an abandoned, debris-ridden building that lacks both windows and part of its roof, the piece will remain rooted in place. Smith has said that The Resilience of the Dreamer is a metaphor for the Rockaways; that even though people are rebuilding and creating anew, we are interminably at the whim of nature. We have no choice but to yield to its power. Like the festival itself, the piece nods to the resilience and courage of those who suffer at the hand of nature.

Rockaway! is more than just a metaphor for creation and renewal, it embodies these concepts. With art as the catalyst, MoMA PS1 has reestablished the delicate equilibrium between man and nature. Rockaway! unites individuals with the natural world and individuals with one another. It is a reclamation of, and reconciliation with nature.

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James Franco and Patti Smith recite Walt Whitman poems on the opening day of Rockaway!

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