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September 17, 2005

'Time turns metaphors into things' — 32 years after his death, Robert Smithson's 'Floating Island' comes to life


The legendary sculptor, termed the "mystagogical dandy of postminimalism" by Peter Schjeldahl in a review in the September 5 New Yorker magazine, died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 35, leaving behind exactly one good sculpture: "Spiral Jetty," completed in 1970.

His notebooks and writing made him the towering figure he has become as time has passed.

35 years after Smithson sketched a proposed "Floating Island" in one of his notebooks the work (above and below) has finally been completed, having been created during the past week and put out to sea on the Hudson River today.

The work consists of "A 30-by–90-foot flat-decked barge, 10 trees, 3 huge rocks, a bunch of shrubs, rolls of sod, a whole lot of dirt and even more ingenuity," wrote Randy Kennedy in a story that appeared in yesterday's New York Times.

It will travel to various waterfront sites in New York City and New Jersey through next Sunday, September 25.

Here is a link with detailed information about where and when you can view "Floating Island."

Here is a link to a page which includes a video about the construction and realization of "Floating Island."


Here's the Times article.

    It's Not Easy Making Art That Floats

    The island of Manhattan was formed over the course of more than 500 million years, shaped by metamorphic pressure, erosion, continental drift, glacial deposits 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 30-by-90-foot 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 tomorrow 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 Mr. Smithson sketched out in a rough drawing (below)


    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.

    Mr. Smithson tried to find backers to build the project, which he called "Floating Island," during his lifetime 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 finally 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 when the project threatened to stall.

    And by the spring the planners, money in hand, 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 20- or 30-foot-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 - a flat-deck or a hopper with a depression in the middle, better to hold the dirt?

    If the hopper requires far more dirt than the budget allows, how do you keep all the dirt on a flat barge from falling off?

    What happens if it rains and the barge soaks up tons of water, like a great waterborne sponge?

    What happens if someone tries to board the island, in the name of art piracy or stunt publicity?

    What happens if the Coast Guard smiles politely and 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 Ms. Holt's memories and guidance and Mr. 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 a rough ideas about the 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 35-foot tree or something a little shorter?' " Ms. 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 wound through Central Park last winter.

    In part this is simply because of the modest scale and cost of the island project - about $200,000, compared with the $21 million said to have been paid to create "The Gates."

    It is also because, as public artworks, "The Gates" and "Floating Island" are like a split personality: "The Gates" invited public interaction and was, in effect, completed by it; the island, reflecting Smithson's intellectual and generally chilly aesthetic, floats off at a distance, inaccessible, inhabited by no one.

    But Smithson's project is just as intimately connected to Central Park, which he regarded, in all its artificial pastorality, as a conceptual artwork of its own. (He revered Frederick Law Olmsted and said that he found him more interesting than Duchamp.)

    While not nearly as monumental as Smithson's most famous work, "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot-long curlicue of basalt jutting into the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the island - which resembles a rectangular chunk of Central Park, neatly cookie-cuttered out - is a further twist on Smithson's career-long fascination with displacement.

    This generally meant taking art outdoors and bringing pieces of the land back indoors, into galleries.

    In the case of "Floating Island," the displacement is all outdoors, an exploration of land and water, urban and rural, real and recreated, center and periphery.

    As a paean to Central Park, it can be seen as a kind of artificial model of an artificial model of nature.

    On paper, it all looked great.

    But the task of building the island and making it seaworthy was another matter.

    Ms. Shamash enlisted the help of an adventurous engineer, Nat Oppenheimer, with whom she had previously worked on complex public art projects where official approvals can often be tricky.

    "There's no building code and no one office that covers any of this kind of work," he explained at one project meeting, and then smiled.

    "But at the same time, usually at the last minute, someone shows up and says, 'Uh uh, you can't do that.' "

    Diana Balmori, a landscape architect, signed on.

    Jon Rubin, a filmmaker and art world jack-of-all-trades who created another waterborne project called "Floating Cinema" in 1980, joined the team and started consulting tide tables and calling barge and tugboat companies.

    Ms. Holt, who fiercely guards Smithson's legacy, was consulted on almost every detail, down to questions about the color of paint for the railings on the tugboat (would white stand out too much?) and the choice of an all-important weeping willow tree, the only tree Smithson specified by name in his drawing.

    The logistical dance that ensued in the following weeks at times resembled a cross between a heart transplant and the mounting of a Broadway musical.

    A barge yard had to be found in a location that would allow the unearthed trees, coming from a nursery in New Jersey, to be delivered quickly, to reduce wilting and damage.

    The trees had to be chosen very early on, because by late summer the selection at many nurseries would be slim.

    In the drawing Smithson specified that the trees should be common to the New York region, and long debates began over which types of trees were native and which weren't. (Interestingly, the weeping willow is not a New York native.)

    Ms. Holt suggested finding shrubs that would attract birds, but Ms. Balmori was not optimistic that this would work.

    "The middle of the river is not the most popular place for birds," she said.

    At times, aesthetic considerations had to bow to practical ones: guide wires were planned as extra support for the trees, despite worries that they might be visible.

    Then there was the question of the rocks.

    "We talked to a stone salesman, and he's found us a big stone," Mr. Balmori reported at one point, deadpanning.

    "We're not particularly happy with this stone." (The three rocks eventually were borrowed from Central Park, to which they will be returned; the trees will also be planted in Central Park after the island ends its run.)

    By the first week of September, Ms. Holt had arrived in New York from her home in New Mexico, and all of the pieces started coming together at a barge yard on Staten Island, in sight of the Bayonne Bridge, where Smithson, a great lover of urban decay, would have felt right at home.

    "He probably would have brought a sack with him and packed up some rocks," Ms. Holt said, looking around at the rusty maritime detritus scattered along the waterfront.

    The first arrival was the blackish dirt, almost 50 tons of it, from a composting heap in Fairfield, N.J., and 18 tons of hay bales, which would be hidden underneath the dirt to provide bulk but less weight.

    Next the trees arrived - maple, beech, birch, bur oak, sycamore - and were plunked by crane onto the barge, their truncated roots wrapped in burlap and wire cages.

    A dogwood - later referred to by everyone as "the unfortunate dogwood" - arrived looking closer to firewood than living tree and had to be replaced. The willow, unfortunately, didn't look much better.

    "Is it alive?" asked Ms. Holt, who arrived on the second day of construction, wielding a camera and a discerning eye, and began politely but firmly to demand changes.

    "Oh, it's alive," Ms. Balmori assured, nodding, as the two women stood together wearing hard hats and life jackets, their eyes fixed worriedly on the yellowing tree.

    Ms. Holt allowed that Smithson might not have worried much about yellowing trees because as fall approaches that's what trees naturally do.

    The moss on the rock he had wanted had to be abandoned for a similar reason: by now the summer heat has usually burned such growth away.

    "I just want to make sure that that's the way they really are," she explained, of the various flora arriving. "And if they are, then O.K. Maybe that's just reality." (Later, she returned resolutely to the idea of trying to attract birds to the island, suggesting scattering birdseed. "Put it on your list of things to do," she told Ms. Shamash, smiling.)

    Anthony Kerley, the crane operator and yard manager for the company that owns the barge yard, Sterling Equipment, looked on patiently during these discussions, awaiting decisions with a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lip.

    Asked what he thought of the project, he grinned slyly.

    "I think it's kind of different, you know what I mean?" he said. "It's interesting, for sure."

    By early this week, the island began to look not only shipshape but also remarkably like Smithson's drawing. Shrubs - witch hazel, chokeberry, hydrangea, blueberry, sumac - added to the strange verisimilitude.

    Four extra trees were added, at a cost of several thousand dollars.

    An ailing sycamore went the way of the dogwood.

    A damaged steel panel was replaced.

    And on a maiden test-run voyage to Manhattan on Wednesday, birds, lo and behold, began to land on the island even before the birdseed was applied.

    "The only pity about this is that Smithson isn't going to get to see it built," Ms. Shamash said.

    As confident as he was about the importance of his art, he probably did not doubt that it someday would be.


    In fact, a line in one of his more famous essays seems almost to say as much: "Time turns metaphors into things."

September 17, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bungle in the jungle — Animal and bird sounds clocks


From National Geographic's naturalists comes the Animal Sounds Clock pictured above.

Instead of numbers the clock has pictures of animals from the Geographic archives.

But wait — there's more.

Each passing hour is announced with "authentic, high–quality animal sounds recorded directly from the source."

But what happens at night?

"A built–in photosensitive light control quiets the hourly alarms after dark to avoid awakening light sleepers."

12" Diam. x 1" D.

Requires 3 AA batteries (Not included).

$29.95 here.

But perhaps mademoiselle would prefer something avian?

No problema.

How about the Audubon Singing Bird Clock below?


It was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Audubon Society.

Twelve species sound the hour:

• Summer Tanager

• Song Sparrow

• Veery

• American Goldfinch

• Brown Thrasher

• Blue Grosbeak

• Eastern Meadowlark

• Common Yellowthroat

• Wood Thrush

• Red–Winged Blackbird

• Yellow Warbler

• Eastern Bluebird

Once again, "Sensor silences when room is dark."


$19.98 here (Requires 3 AA batteries — not included).

September 17, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Beurger King Muslim


What's this?

A typo?

I think not; rather, it's the name of a very successful halal fast food restaurant (above and below) in Clichy–sous–Bois, a suburb of Paris, France.

There are five million Muslims in France alone and a rapidly growing population throughout Europe.

Craig Smith wrote a story about this breakthrough establishment for yesterday's New York Times.

The company already has 30 would–be franchisees waiting in line.

After each transaction the cash register lights up with "Salamalekum" (Arabic for "Peace be with you").

Burger King is being rather careful in its approach to a cease–and–desist order: Beurger King Muslim says only that "We've heard from them."

Here's the Times story.

    The Market McDonald's Missed: The Muslim Burger

    Faiza Guenineche huddled with two friends in the booth of a fast-food restaurant across from her high school here on a recent day eating two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun.

    But this is not the McDonald's where she and her friends used to eat.

    This is Beurger King Muslim, a fast-food clone with an important difference: it is halal, serving hamburgers and fries that conform to Muslim dietary laws.

    "I used to go to McDonald's once a week, but all I could eat was the Filet-O-Fish sandwich," said Ms. Guenineche, a fashionable French-Algerian girl in low-slung jeans and a tight top who, despite wearing her long hair loose, eats only halal.

    "Now I come here."

    American fast-food restaurant chains have long tailored their menus to local tastes and habits around the world, but one market they have largely missed is the growing Muslim population in Europe, five million strong in France alone.

    Europe's observant Muslims have had to thread their way through a world laden with pork-filled wursts and bloody beefsteaks, taking meals outside their homes at the occasional kebab shop instead.

    Now there is Beurger King Muslim, whose name is a play on that of the famous American hamburger chain and the French slang word "beur," which means "Arab."

    The restaurant's logo is a globe with a burgundy ring around it and the Arab world covered by the letters BKM, which are also the initials of the restaurant's three founders, Morad Benhamida, Abdelmalik Khiter and Majib Mokkedem.

    It is the latest sign that France's Muslim population, largely French-born second-generation immigrants, is coming into its own.

    "En Faim!" declares the cover of the restaurant's menu, a pun that means "Hungry!" but sounds like "At Last!"

    There have been other efforts to serve up Western-style halal fast-food.

    A restaurant called MkHalal has been serving halal burgers for years outside the southern French city of Lyon, and a British man from Pakistan has opened a string of halal chicken-sandwich stands in Britain and France.

    But Beurger King Muslim has the look and feel of the big multinational chains that it wants to give a run for their money.

    "We're playing in the big leagues," said Hakim Badaoui, 37, manager of the Clichy-sous-Bois restaurant, adding that the company already has 30 would-be franchisees waiting in line, mostly in France.

    The owners are working on a second outlet that will be double the size of the first and feature a drive-through window.

    Behind the counter at what Mr. Badaoui hopes will be the flagship of a fleet, several veiled women in yellow-collared burgundy shirts with the logo on their backs shuffle fries into paper containers and pack steaming hamburgers into boxes while a movie about the life of the Prophet Muhammad plays on a flat screen television over their heads.

    "What does your religion demand of us, emir?" a bearded man asks a band of desert Arabs on the screen.

    "It demands that you believe in one God," one of them replies.

    The cash register lights up with "Salamalekum," Arabic for "Peace Be With You," after each sale.


    Sabah Kilijanski, her round face framed in a beige veil, sat down with her two children.

    She was having a Double Koull Cheeseburger (Koull, is a play on the American slang "cool," and the Arabic word "to eat").

    "I feel at ease here, because I'm wearing a veil myself," she said as her toddler, Adam, peeked into his colorful children's meal box decorated with a cartoon clown.

    The meals come with brightly colored plastic toys, just like at McDonald's.

    She said it also made her happy to see veiled women working.

    Muslim head scarves are banned in French public schools, and women working for the government are not allowed to wear them to work on the theory that such overt religious symbols are divisive.

    Many private employers also avoid hiring veiled women, making it hard for strictly observant Muslim women to find jobs.

    The restaurant has other details to make French Arabs feel at home, from the Arabic-style font on the menu to toilets fitted with hoses for people unaccustomed to using paper.

    The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., daily except Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, when it starts business at 4 in the afternoon and closes at midnight.

    Most important, the restaurant adheres strictly to Muslim dietary laws, which prohibit consumption of alcohol or blood, as well as, of course, pork.

    The bacon on the restaurant's bacon cheeseburgers is made from smoked turkey.

    All of the meat used in the restaurant comes from animals slaughtered according to Islamic rituals and hung upside down to drain before butchering.

    The various sauces and seasonings used by the restaurant are also scrutinized to ensure that they do not contain traces of alcohol or fat from animals not slaughtered according to Muslim rules.

    Representatives from an independent certification service visit the restaurant three times a day to make sure that all is halal.

    Mr. Badaoui, who once ran halal pizza shops, said the restaurant had hired a halal company to make a secret sauce for its signature burger, a Big Mac look-alike called a BKM.

    He said a lot of people wanted to put a political spin on the place, but added that - unlike the creator of France's Mecca Cola, who wanted to give people angry at the United States an alternative to Coke - Beurger King Muslim's owners did not have politics in mind.

    "It's business," he said. "We're here to make money."

    It seems to be working.

    So far, the restaurant is averaging 800 transactions a day.

    The only thing on the horizon that looks like it could derail the expansion is Burger King, which Mr. Badaoui said had been in touch.

    "We've heard from them, but I don't want to say more," he said. "Right now it's between the attorneys."

September 17, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Gucci gets the internet


I was gobsmacked yesterday when I went to explore Gucci's website to find out more about the new Hobo Bag (above) I saw on the fashion page in yesterday's New York Times.


Because it's a fashion website that actually works.

The obligatory Flash on the home page is only about five seconds long, mercifully short compared to the elaborate productions created by almost every other brand that lose 95% of their prospective visitors by the time the introduction finally, mercifully comes to an end and you can enter the site.

The problem, obvious at least to me, is that designers can't imagine why a visitor wouldn't want to see something beautiful instead of getting right to the nitty–gritty.

Not my problem.

Gucci clearly looked at things from the computer user's point of view in creating the look and feel of its internet outpost.

The Hobo Bag, pictured above in patent leather with a horsebit closure, is $1,095.

Lots of other possibilities (below)


should you prefer something less somber.

September 17, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

'How the Internet Killed the Phone Business'


Oh, man, not another screed in my "dead company walking" feature, I hope.


You're in luck.

It's not me this time, it's the Economist, in its latest issue which arrived in my mailbox not thirty minutes ago.

The cover (above) says it all.

As the old Italian saying goes, "Even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then."

Hey, not to worry — I've been called far worse.

September 17, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

LED Flashlight Umbrella


Shine a light on the dreariest of days.

No more stumbling around in the mud at night with this puppy.

From the website:

    Our Microbeam™ umbrella (below) keeps you dry while lighting the way.

    By pulling down on the handle, the superbright, built–in LED flashlight (above) brightens even the dreariest of days, while the Teflon®–coated canopy helps keep you dry.

    Premium LED is virtually indestructible, lasts 100,000 hours [I just did the math: that's 11 years and 4 months... but I digress] and never needs replacement.

    Vented canopy resists inversion.

    Opens and closes automatically with one button.

    Flat frame is ultra–lightweight and perfect for travel.

    Uses three button cell batteries (included).

One thing puzzles me: if the bulb is kaput in 11+ years but "never needs replacement," then how do you see in the dark from that moment on?


$40 here.

September 17, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

How do you spell "brain–dead?" I spell it HMV


The BBC reports that HMV Canada, a leading record retailer in our Northern neighbor, has pulled all its Bob Dylan music from its shelves as of right now.

The reason?

Dylan recently signed a deal with Starbucks giving the coffee purveyor exclusive rights for the next 18 months to sell his new album, "Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight 1962."

The album went on sale August 30 for $13.95 at 4,600 Starbucks outlets in the U.S. and Canada.

This is not the first time HMV has done this sort of thing: they struck back previously at Alanis Morissette, Elton John and the Rolling Stones for similar exclusivity arrangements.

The company said the Dylan ban would last for the duration of the Starbucks deal.

Hey, HMV — look in the mirror: your face looks really messed up without a nose.

So great.

How do you spell "hissy fit?"

September 17, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wooden Antenna TV


This retro look TV features a wonderful (non–functional) wooden antenna.

    From the website:

    This is a TV designed to take you to life's roots, with its country wood–like finish on the front and a clay–like texture on the rear.

    The back features charming floral patterns, while spirals on the front cleverly provide venting for the speakers.

    And yes, a wooden antenna, to show that you have a sense of humor as well.

    Day in and day out, this TV will live comfortably in your home.

It costs $549.99 at Hannspree stores in Beverly Hills and San Francisco.

Everyone else eat your heart out 'cause you can't buy one online.

Click on "Collections", then "Style" to tease yourself if you require such stimulation.



September 17, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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