Two of my favorite things came together this weekend: Dutch design and Governors Island. As part of a series of events celebrating Henry Hudson’s “discovery” of his namesake river in 1609, the island played host to Pioneers of Change, a two-week exhibition of Dutch design, architecture, fashion and high-concept no-category installations (the doilies, truth be told, were a little twee). A row of identical yellow clapboard houses in Nolan Park were opened up, emptied out and turned into exhibition spaces.
Their seriality suggested that Governors Island might be the solution to the problems of the Dia Foundation, now exiled from Manhattan. I couldn’t help but imagine Nolan Park as a sort of Marfa NE, with Dan Flavins propped in the stair hall, Ann Hamilton’s horsehair installation filling the first floor of the captain’s house, a Sol LeWitt taking over a long plaster wall. Even Warhol’s Shadows could be domesticated and related to the real shadows falling across the line of porches. That the scale and the architecture of these houses is much smaller and much more feminine than the industrial structures Judd took over in Texas (or that the Dia currently occupies in Beacon) would be a 21st-century twist. Some of the best design coming out of the Netherlands has appropriated the housewifely textile arts and reimagined them for industrial production and at urban scale: Hella Jongerius’s embroidered ceramics, Petra Blaisse’s carpets and curtains (a word that sounds too mumsy), Claudy Jongstra’s fuzz. House 18 was screening video profiles of several of these designers, which visitors were free to take home as a nifty rubber bracelet/flash drive. The audience could occupy a set of motley chairs, which I assume had been scavenged from across the island, Dutched up with coats of bright blue and green paint. I hope someone is taking them home.
As for the Pioneers, while my favorite art moment was Maarten Bas’s RealTime clock, in which a pile of dirt is painstakingly swept from minute to minute (a teenager walked in and asked “Is that animated?” I really hope someone explained), I thought the most successful exhibits were those that engaged with the problem of Governors Island itself. In House 7A, MVRDV and WORKac showed videos about urban farming, a definite possibility. But in House 6A, Platform21 applied the idea of reusing and recycling to the house itself. In different rooms, visitors were invited to repair old sweaters, cracked china and the peeling paint on the walls. The back parlor had a cabinet with tape in primary colors and volunteers had started to recreate Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie as a way of holding the room together. In the front hall, press-on versions of historic Dutch wallpaper were in a rack for the taking and two or three people were industriously rubbing pink leaves and velvety urns over areas that had cracked and peeled.
To me the activity suggested another way to bring Governors Island back to life and up to code: harness all that Etsy energy and make preservation into a citywide craft project. Great bones are there, in the houses as well as those chairs; the rise of urban compost and knitting circles suggest many of us are seeking a way to get our hands dirty; maybe GIPEC needs to let artists and their followers, take over the island for more than just two weekends.