The island of Manhattan in the US was formed over the course of more than 500 million years, shaped by metamorphic pressure, continental drift, glacial deposits, erosion, and rampant real estate development.
The island of Robert Smithson was formed over about a week, in a ragged-looking barge yard on Staten Island, shaped by a public art group, a landscape architect, a contractor, an engineer, a project manager and various other dedicated conceptual art workers using a 9m to 27m flat-decked barge, 10 trees, 3 huge rocks, a bunch of shrubs, rolls of sod, a whole lot of dirt and even more ingenuity.
The result, which will begin daily travels today along Manhattan's shores, is much more than just a week's work. It is the culmination of more than 30 years of sporadic efforts to build the ambitious floating artwork that Smithson sketched out in a rough drawing three years before he died in a plane crash in 1973, an image that showed a tiny, forested, man-made island being towed by tugboat with the city's skyline in the distance.
Smithson tried to find backers to build the project, which he called "Floating Island," but had no luck. In the years after his death, other admirers and artists also tried unsuccessfully to get the project going.
But last fall, as the Whitney Museum of American Art was preparing for the arrival of a traveling Smithson retrospective, the museum, along with the public arts organization Minetta Brook and Smithson's estate, began serious discussions about making the island a reality. The artist Nancy Holt, Smithson's widow, became involved. The James Cohan Gallery, which represents the estate, contributed money and helped round up donors. And by spring the planners set to work to try to answer the question the project had always asked implicitly: How do you build an island from scratch?
How, for example, do you ensure that 6m or 9m-tall trees, unearthed and with no root systems to speak of, stand up straight and do not topple in a stiff wind? What kind of barge should be used? If it is a flat barge, how do you keep the dirt from falling off? What happens if it rains and the barge soaks up tonnes of water? What happens if someone tries to board the island, in the name of art piracy or stunt publicity? What happens if the Coast Guard says no to the whole thing?
Diane Shamash, the director of Minetta Brook, which has created several other technically challenging artworks around the Hudson River over the last several years, said the Smithson project was the most complex one the group had ever taken on. It was made more difficult because there was no real blueprint to follow except Holt's memories and Smithson's rudimentary sketch, which was very specific in some areas (pointing out, for example, that there should be moss growing on one boulder), yet vague in others (no exact dimensions; no color scheme; only rough ideas about topography and placement of bushes and trees that Smithson might have wanted).
"He's not alive and so you can't ask him, `Were you thinking of a 10.5m tree or something a little shorter?"' Shamash said. "We just had to do our best to try to realize it according to the image he gave us."
She and others describe Floating Island as a kind of anti-Gates,
referring to the saffron-colored extravaganza by Christo and Jeanne-Claude that blanketed Central Park last winter.