Just about two years ago, in August 2011, Will Corwin initiated a remarkable sculptural adventure in his studio at the Clocktower Gallery in lower Manhattan, where he was artist-in-residence. After constructing upright wooden shelving units, for one month he obsessively devised and cast a great host of small, plaster sculptures, which he installed each day on the shelves in different configurations. These cast objects were an assortment of miniature slabs, tablets, geometric blocks, polygons, and irregular shards, and Corwin arranged them into freestanding stacks and towers which sometimes lasted intact, but just as often toppled and shattered, with the resulting debris then becoming part of the mix. Corwin's in process, ever-changing installation constituted an intense exploration of sculptural forms and relations, while it also fused regeneration and decay, order and entropy, elegance and unruliness, plan and accident. His myriad cast objects—and this is also apparent with his cast sculptures in the St. George Ferry Terminal—were also marvelously suggestive, connoting alluring consumer items on display in a store, rudimentary building materials like drywall, architecture under construction (or being demolished), archaeological artifacts in a museum, monuments, talismans, and urban rubble, along with occasional art historical references, for instance to Constantin Brancusi's famous Endless Column (1938) and Donald Judd's Minimalist containers. Rather than presenting stable sculptures made in that way and no other, Corwin's protean installation expanded and collapsed (in parts), shifted and fissured, and always embraced fresh possibilities. At the end came a whopping surprise. Corwin fashioned some of his materials into an eccentric, giant-size chess set and board, with the chess figures (some as big 20 inches) basically resembling rickety towers made of snippets and pieces. Tethered to the high ceiling by billowing ribbons, these figures were moved about in an actual chess match by two experts, Robert Hess, a nineteen-year-old Grandmaster and twenty-six-year-old International Master Irina Krush, in a game narrated to the rapt audience by International Grandmaster (and noted ESPN commentator) Maurice Ashley. Suddenly, a very old game with its meticulous protocol was approached in very new and startling way, while its rules, strategy, maneuvering, and frank aggression were deflected from their usual context and ushered into art. As the contestants played, it was as if Corwin's whole, sprawling installation, and perhaps parts of the weathered building as well, had sprung to life in the form of mobile, changeable sculptures conceived by the artist but activated by others.
At exactly the same time, and unbeknownst to Corwin, Detroit-based Neil Greenberg was hard at work on his own eccentric, visionary projects, which are, in fact, ongoing. One is Fake Omaha, an elaborate, sprawling, hand-drawn mapping system that responds to, but completely recasts, the actual Omaha, Nebraska. In Greenberg's "fake" version depicted on large maps that closely approximate the contours and dimensions of the actual Omaha, all of the streets have new names, supplied by Greenberg, who also invented new areas and uses. As the fake and real Omahas merge in your mind, you are inspired to imagine and question just how cities come to be as they are, and to understand that they are not simply a given, but instead a confluence of chance, history, economic issues, environmental matters, and governmental decisions pertaining to the development and allocation of urban space. Greenberg, whose day job is as a scheduler for the beleaguered Detroit public bus system, is also the initiator of Freshwater Transit, a radical, DIY, and surprisingly sophisticated alternative plan for workable public transportation in Greater Detroit. Based on his own considerable knowledge and experience, Greenberg understands that politicians and bureaucrats very often don't make the best decisions (and sometimes make the very worst, anti-human decisions) when it comes to something so essential as mass transit. Therefore, he and his colleagues have imagined a totally revamped bus and rail system that could, in theory, meet the people's needs far more thoroughly than the current system. Moreover, Greenberg's snappy, very professional ads, posters, and maps for this transit system convinced many Greater Detroit residents that a wonderful and viable transit system had miraculously appeared against all odds, seemingly overnight, and during an economic crisis. With both Fake Omaha and Freshwater Transit, Greenberg, a visionary urbanist with a direction action streak, bypasses officialdom as he advances his astute proposals for and investigations of the allocation and function of shared urban space.
Now, at the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island, Corwin and Greenberg have collaborated on an unprecedented game/installation that combines their respective interests and talents, and responds at all points to Staten Island per se. As part of their research, Corwin and Greenberg visited the borough many times, delved deeply into its history, and paid careful attention to its layout, neighborhoods, population, idiosyncrasies, and defining characteristics. A shelving system supports dozens of Corwin's fascinating sculptural concoctions, once again cast objects made from plaster, wood, and paint. Revisiting the quasi-assembly line (but actually decisively personal and hands-on) methodology of his Clocktower installation, Corwin created eight originals, separated into color groups corresponding to different areas of interest: Housing, Retail, Civic, History/Culture, Everyday Lifestyle, the Island Ideal, Infrastructure and Connectivity. He then used these originals to cast all of the other "pieces". These sculptures contain eclectic Staten Island references, including local Catholic shrines commonly called bathtub Madonnas; busts of noted Transcendentalist (and author of Walden) Henry David Thoreau, who visited Staten Island many times; architectural quotes; old-time wagons, potatoes (a staple of Staten Island farms), ducks, masonry and a Buddha, referring to the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art on Lighthouse Hill, among many others. Each compact sculpture (and they are curiously mobile in time—a cross between bright, new works and crusty, unearthed relics) in the Ferry Terminal contains expansive references to the surrounding borough.
With their lush, monochromatic colors and compelling shapes, Corwin's sculptures invite visitors to not only view them, but also to handle and move them, and to participate in a freewheeling game that has few rules to speak of, and also no winners or losers: a collective enterprise recreated each day by those who choose to participate as they arrive in or depart from Staten Island. Participants are instructed to move two pieces onto any of four color-coded tables representing what Staten Island could become: Agrarian, Suburban, Urban, and Mixed, while four of Greenberg's large, hand-drawn and written maps reveal strikingly different versions of a future Staten Island, as Rural, Suburban, Urban or Shared. As viewers/participants handle the pieces and move them onto the tables, acknowledging and responding to other people's decisions and consulting the maps, they are encouraged to imagine Staten Island as they might want it to be: more "green" or more developed, more populated or less, a place with more parks or more housing developments, a borough more rural or more like Manhattan. Individual preferences are paramount; each participant offers her or his preferences, while the visual record of those preferences coheres into a collective, durational investigation of hypothetical public space. The project is playful, humorous, entertaining, and welcoming, while it also offers an exuberant rift in the routine (for many) of either departing or returning to Staten Island on the ferry. Yet at the same time it is a serious and potent examination of urban space and life, and it empowers citizens to have significant input into how their urban environment is shaped, rather than to simply accept decisions from on high.
The St. George Ferry Terminal is the perfect place for this game/changeable installation. Here is where Staten Island physically interfaces with the rest of New York, the exact site where a vast human tide constantly surges out and in. Corwin and Greenberg's work responds to that tide, and shifts about according to the movements and decisions of people passing through the Ferry Terminal as a matter of course. This is an installation, at once visually compelling and chock full of diverse ideas, that embraces chaos and change, and inspires thoughtfulness, curiosity, and sheer delight. As it does so, it offers both Staten Island residents and visitors the public opportunity to explore and investigate this island borough: what it is right now, how it is developing, and how it might best function in the future.