'Drifting in Daylight' Floats Free Art and Performance into Central Park

Creative Time brings to Central Park free ice cream, Hollywood reenactments, and a Nordic boat called the 'S. S. Hangover,' all in the name of art.

Michael Barron

Michael Barron

Ragnar Kjartansson. 'S.S. Hangover' in 'Drifting in Daylight' in Central Park, New York City. Photo by Tara Rice. Courtesy of Creative Time

On Friday morning, the S. S. Hangover—a small blue Viking vessel—was moored at the Discovery Center at the Harlem Meer, the northeast corner of New York City's Central Park. Although the ship was once docked at the Venetian lagoon during the 2013 Biennale, it had been flown in a plane to America for this exhibition. For the ship's design, the artist Ragnar Kjartansson, drew upon Icelandic, Greek, and Venetian ships, then twisted that composite by pulling inspiration from the party boat in the painfully dated 1935 film Remember Last Night. The ship was due to set sail at noon, but 15 minutes before the listed start time, the S. S. Hangover was empty.

Two ship captains—Fung Lin and Duke Riley, Nordic boat specialists—emerged and entered the boat, followed by dapperly dressed brass players from the Metropolis Ensemble, a non-profit professional chamber orchestra. Like the 2013 Biennale, Kjartannson commissioned a collaborator, Kjartan Sveinsson, the former keyboardist for the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, to compose a brass arrangement that a hired horn sextet would perform on the boat throughout the day. Andrew Cyr, the conductor, walked with the musicians, but instead of boarding, he kneeled adjacent to the boat, and proceeded to spin a narrative of a ship at sea.

"There's nothing more thrilling," he said with great gesticulations "than the splashing of salt water waves upon a boat!" He motioned to the waveless fresh water pond.

Ragnar Kjartansson. 'S.S. Hangover' (2013) at the Venice Biennale.

When he was done, the S. S. Hangover hoisted anchor, turned on a motor, and dropped sail revealing a fat Pegasus, an emblem Kjartansson uses to symbolize artistic struggle. The captains steered the ship toward a small island nearby. It was just past noon and the first day of Drifting in Daylight, a month-long series of art installations and performances held mostly across northern Central Park, had begun.

Drifting in Daylight is the latest exhibition by Creative Time, the NYC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to public art. Including Kjartansson, eight contemporary artists have work on show, including Karyn Olivier, Spencer Finch, Alicia Framis, Lauri Stallings, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Nina Katchadourian, and David Levine.

Spencer Finch. 'Sunset Soft Serve' (2015) in 'Drifting in Daylight' in Central Park, New York City. Photo by the author

"Originally we were in conversation with over 20 artists," Creative Time's co-curator Cara Starke told me over the phone. "There were some great ideas, but we had to consider what the conversancy would allow." Starke related how one artist wanted deploy kites, only to encounter the park's strict kite-flying policies. Another artist had an idea to use the trees for a piece, but were told by park officials that the trees were off limits. "The artists who do have work here don't just make us happy," Starke assured, "they make the park conservancy happy."

This is Creative Time's first use of the park since 2003, when Cai Guo-Qiang was invited to shoot fireworks in a perfect circle over Cherry Hill and the North Meadow. Drifting in Daylight, shown at the height of Central Park's tourist season, is a more ambitious project, and comes hot off the heels of Creative Time's wildly lauded 2014 installation of Kara Walker's enormous and glorious Sphinx piece, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.

'Central Park is primed for viewing and being viewed. It also acts like a mnemonic device: So many of the park's locations are recognizable, that it's hard to walk through without triggering a memory.'

At the boathouse, I obtained a map of the exhibition, which provided a suggested route that begins in the northwest corner of the park, then curves down and then back up, like a smile. I left the elliptical voyage of the S. S. Hangover and wandered down to the southern point of the meer. On a bank across the water, I could see Karyn Olivier's Here and Now/Glacier, Shard, a "sculptural billboard" divided into three columns of lenticulated imagery related to Central Park's terrain and history, including a piece of porcelain bowl excavated from the ruins of Seneca Village, the first American settlement founded by freed black people. Seneca existed from 1825 through 1857, when its inhabitants were ordered to leave and their dwellings were torn down to create Central Park.

Karen Olivier. 'Here and Now/Glacier, Shard' (2015) in 'Drifting in Daylight' in Central Park, New York City. Photo by the author

Past the pond, a line in front of an orange hued ice cream truck caught my eye. This was Spencer Finch's installation: a solar powered ice-cream truck offering free ice cream made by "distilling the colors of the Central Park sunset." The result was sherbet-colored, the taste distinctly vanilla.

The Spanish artist Alicia Framis's Cartas al Cielo (Letters to the Sky) piece wasn't far away. Framis is known for creating provocative work for social interactions, such as a clear plastic confession booth and a Guantanamo Bay museum. As I wheeled my bike up a large hill, I imagined a priest or a prisoner waiting at the top. Instead I found a Magritte-like silver orb, with a rack of postcards and a box of pencils nearby. A woman was inserting a card into the orb, which acted like a mailbox. Her husband walked over to the orb.

"What happens if this thing rolls down the hill?" he inquired, somewhat nervously.

"It's screwed into the earth," replied the volunteer. "It isn't going anywhere."

Alicia Framis. 'Cartas al Cielo' ('Letters to the Sky,' 2015) in 'Drifting in Daylight' in Central Park, New York City. Photo by Tara Rice. Courtesy of Creative Time

From here the exhibition changed. The works became less playful and more performative: glo, a dance company formed by choreographer Lauri Stallings, led its audience through the North Woods, splintering off into the various trail rivulets within. On a hilltop beyond the forest, a spoken-word theater troupe, directed by the playwright and activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, delivered a song and dance slam-poetry performance that played on the theme of "black joy."

Installed on lampposts along the West Drive, the Armenian-American conceptual artist Nina Katchadourian, whose work is included in this year's Venice Biennale, had constructed bird nests for an imaginary bird—"a cross between a Sociable Weaver and the tropical Oropendola," Katchadourian had written in her artist statement—birds that use human materials in the construction of their nests.

"We couldn't let living birds move in," said Starke, "because the installation is temporary. We'd end up making a lot of birds homeless, and we just couldn't have that."

None of the pieces in Drifting have received more press than the OBIE award-winning videographer and performance artist David Levine's Private Moment, which stages eight reenactments of scenes from eight films, including Marathon Man, Cruel Intentions, The Out-of-Towners, and Six Degrees of Separation. To accurately assess which scenes would be best, the Creative Time team helped Levine assemble what Starke claims may be the most comprehensive archive of films that incorporate Central Park as a setting—just over 160—with Levine viewing each one. His team then assembled a chart mapping out where scenes take place, noting the overlaps and inconsistencies.

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I had encountered the first of these in the Conservatory Garden, for a scene from Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen's 1994 mob comedy. A woman dressed in wedding attire, flanked by two dapper-looking males, rehearsed a musical number.

"Give me a cue!" she shouted.

The director, standing to my left, sung a couple of lines and clapped his hands.

"Can you click off? I need more clicking."

She was referring to the clapping the director was giving her. He brought his hands together in bigger bursts.

"How's that? Too clicky?"

The actress shook her head.

"No, that's good," she responded. "Click away."

Performers playing Royal and Ethel Tenanbaum in David Levine's 'Private Moments' (2015) in Central Park, New York City. Photo by Tara Rice. Courtesy of Creative Time

An hour later, I was walking alongside two actors playing Royal and Ethel from The Royal Tenenbaums as they enacted the scene, Royal now aided by a cane, not pushing an IV bag as he does in the film.

"I want to thank you for raising our children," started Royal, continuing the scene until he said, "How's your love life?" and Ethel replied, "None of your business." There was a pause. The actors looked briefly away from each other. And then, once again, "I want to thank you for raising our children."

I scouted out the other Levine performances, which turned into an arduous treasure hunt. Some of the performances seemed to have either taken five, or I wasn't looking in the right spot, and I practically stumbled upon Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.

Performed on a crowded oak bridge, the scene from the iconic meta-meta-film (actors are filmed by a crew who are in turn filmed by another crew) was an unexpected thrill, and a great homage to its director, William Greaves, who died last year. In the reenactment, there was no crew, only two people, a man and a woman, acting out a couple's quarrel. The man, at first barely audible, pulsated with anger, finally erupting at his lover: "I'm not crazy!" An elderly couple who had been watching rushed away, muttering. "They could use some therapy," remarked the woman.

"Central Park is like a big screen," explained Starke. "It's primed for viewing and being viewed. It also acts like a mnemonic device: So many of the park's locations are recognizable, that it's hard to walk through without triggering a memory. And it's fun to add to that by bringing work that people will remember."

Though it was now out of my way, I returned to the meer. The idea of looping back to a beginning had become thematic enough throughout the day that it felt appropriate to return to the S. S. Hangover before I embarked for home. It was now 3:30 PM; I could still hear music emanating from Kjartansson's boat as its passengers perpetually circled the tiny island. The horns now performed Sveinsson's arrangement at a more leisurely pace. And what was the rush? They had all day.

Creative Time's Drifting in Daylight is free and open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, 12 to 6 PM, through June 20 in Central Park in New York City.

Michael Barron is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.